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The Convoluted Story Behind Batman Vs. Superman, The Team-Up Movie That Almost Happened 11 Years Ago

It’s July of 2013 and Warner Bros. just announced that they will be teaming up Batman and Superman in a live-action film to be released in 2015.  However, 11 years ago Warner Bros. announced the same dang thing in July of 2002: they were making a team-up movie to be filmed the following year (2003) and released a year after that (2004). Then they canceled it barely more than a month after announcing it. What the hell happened? What follows is the strange, convoluted story of Batman vs. Superman.

Let’s start in 1997.

Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin was released to scathing reviews and horrendous world-of-mouth.  It lost money for the studio at the box office since a $238 million worldwide gross on a $125 million budget equates to a loss of $6 million since the studio has to give 50% of the gross to the theaters meaning their share of the gross was only $119 million.  It is rumored to have more than made up for it with toy sales in the $150 million range.  The critical and fan response was negative enough, though, that a planned sequel featuring the Scarecrow as the villain was scrapped. It was time for a new direction.

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Some things once seen can never be un-seen.

Joel Schumacher desperately wanted to atone for his camptastic sins and follow Batman & Robin up with a gritty version of Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: Year One (spoiler: that’s basically what Christopher Nolan did years later with Batman Begins). Warner Bros. liked the idea, just not the person proposing it.  They gave Darren Aronofsky, hot off of his film debut Pi, a shot to work with Frank Miller on adapting Year One into a screenplay.  The two, well, they went a little crazy.  What they wrote had the basic Year One plot, but departed in significant ways and mostly seemed concerned with making Bruce Wayne a Dirty Harry/Taxi Driver-esque lunatic. Aronofsky approached Christian Bale to play Batman.

While Aronofsky and Miller were off laughing “They’re totally never going to actually make this movie, but let’s keep writing until they tell us to stop,” Warner Bros. was exploring alternate options.  What about having the Wachowski Bros., fresh off of The Matrix, do it with Keanu Reeves as Batman?  Nah.  What about adapting the animated show Batman Beyond, focusing on an older, retired Bruce Wayne tutoring a new teenaged Batman?  Well, they actually went a little further with that idea.  There was a script (from Paul Dini and Alan Burnett) and even an attached director (Boaz Yakin).  However, they shut it down pretty quickly.

Then in late 2001…

Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en, Sleepy Hollow) walked in the door and pitched something that seemed like it would solve all of their problems: Batman vs. Superman.  At that point, Warner Bros. had been trying to bring Batman back since 1997 and Superman back since 1993, at which point producer Jon Peters (the 1989 Batman) had been hired to revive the franchise.  Most famously, Tim Burton was supposed to direct Superman Lives with Nicholas Cage in the title role.  However, even though $30 million had been spent in pre-production Burton quit in 1998 because he basically hated Jon Peters (and the budget was spiraling out of control).  The Superman Lives script, which was a loose adaptation of the famous “Death of Superman” storyline in the comics, was trashed.  Instead, they were thinking that maybe a new origin story would be the way to go, and an up and comer named J.J. Abrams was hired to write a screenplay and McG to direct it.

NicolasCageasSupermanLivesColouredIn
Nicholas Cage as Superman.

Teaming up Superman and Batman just made so much sense.  Walker’s script, which was re-written by Akiva Goldsman (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin), had the best parts of what they’d already been talking about, combining the grittiness of the Aronofsky/Miller Year One with the retired-hero of Batman Beyond.

Here’s what the Batman Vs. Superman storyline was going to be:

Bruce Wayne would begin the film 5 years into his post-Batman retirement, having never fully recovered after Dick “Robin” Grayson died in the line of duty and Commissioner Gordon died in the interim. Because he can’t stay miserable all the time Bruce falls in love and gets married.  Over in Metropolis, Clark Kent, on the other hand, has been dumped by Lois Lane, and is now courting his old childhood flame Lana Lang.

Bruce’s life quickly reverts to its default setting of misery when the Joker shows up and kills his wife (and on their honeymoon, the rat-bastard).  In a fit of rage, Bruce nearly beats the Joker to death before Superman shows up to stop him.  Grief-stricken, Bruce becomes Batman again mostly just to go around beating the living hell out of people.  Superman pulls him aside for your standard, “Maybe you should tone it down a little, y’know?”  Batman responds with a dramatic, “I’ll kill you!” and an insane fight scene ensues.  I am, of course, simplifying that exchange just a tad bit.

superman_vs_batman

As it turns out, the whole thing has been part of a master plan by Lex Luthor to have Metropolis and Gotham City’s great defenders kill each other. When Batman and Superman find that out they team up to layeth the smacketh downeth upon Luthor and the Joker.

Then they announced it and almost instantly canceled it…

Enough people at the studio liked the script that it was greenlit and announced exclusively in Variety July of 2002.  At the time, they said the project would begin filming in 2003 for a Summer 2004 release.  Wolfgang Peterson (Das Boot, The Perfect Storm) was going to direct, and Josh Hartnett (remember him?) and Christian Bale were among the rumored front-runners to play Superman and Batman respectively. Barely over 1 month later Peterson quit to direct Troy.

Zack-Snyder-Talks-Man-of-Steel-Dark-Knight-Comparisons

Why did they cancel it?

What happened?  J.J. Abrams, Spider-Man, and a whole lot of studio intrigue, that’s what.  Separate from Batman vs. Superman, Abrams’ new origins story script for a solo Superman movie arrived on July 5, 2002.  Entitled Superman: Flyby (or Superman I), Abrams’ script almost purposefully flashed a giant middle finger to established Superman canon.  In his version, baby Kal-El is sent to Earth as a result of a political uprising his father is losing as opposed to the traditional planetary destruction.  Four Kryptonians (one of whom is actually Kal-El’s cousin) show up on Earth years later and kill Superman rather easily, but after going to Kryptonian heaven and having a nice chat with the ghost of his father, Jor-El,  Superman is resurrected.  Upon returning, he lays the damn smack down on his killers who had proceeded to terrorize Earth in his absence. At film’s end, he departs for Krypton, setting up two intended sequels which could partially take place on Krypton.  Oh, and Lex Luthor is a government spy on Earth tasked with monitoring extraterrestrial threats, but in the film’s big twist it turns out Luthor is secretly a Kryptonian himself.

So, WB had just announced Batman Vs. Superman when suddenly they fell in love with Abrams’ lighter, more hopeful script which the marketing people said had superior long-term prospects for toy, home video, and ancillary market sales.  Crucially, this was at a time when Warner Bros. was watching 20th Century Fox break box office records with their remarkably light Spider-Man.  It seemed as if the market had changed, and Abrams’ script-crazy as it was-recognized the post-Spider-Man world whereas the one for Batman Vs. Superman did not.

Please tell me someone at Warner Bros. resigned in protest of the death of Batman vs. Superman…

Executive Video President for Worldwide Motion Pictures Lorenzo di Bonaventura still believed in Batman Vs. Superman, but Senior Vice President of Production Bob Brassel and producer Jon peters believed in Abrams’ script.  That left the studio president, Alan Horn, as the deciding vote.  He heard the arguments from both sides, and sought the input from 10 high level marketing execs at the studio.  Consensus opinion?  Batman Vs. Superman had the better script, but the Abrams one was the best fit for the market.  So, Horn decided to ditch Batman Vs. Superman, causing Bonaventura to resign in response mere days after Horn’s decision.

479px-Lorenzo_di_Bonaventura_by_Gage_Skidmore
Lorenzo di Bonaventura. It didn’t actually happen, but if it helps imagine him showing up to Warner Bros. on his last day wearing a Batman costume just so the reason for his resignation would not be in doubt.

The team-up movie simply had too many downsides. They would be cannibalizing their own business by putting the two characters together rather than having them anchor their own films. Plus, if the film failed it would put both franchises in even worse shape than they had been before. Horn later explained he believed they should revive Batman and Superman.  

So, what became of that J.J. Abrams Superman film?  And how did we get to the Dark Knight Trilogy?

Batman vs. Superman was dead.  The J.J. Abrams Superman script moved forward, although the process had dragged on for so long that the original director of the Abrams script, McG, had already left to direct another movie (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle) and become available again. The job ultimately went to Bryan Singer in 2004, who completely ignored the Abrams script and crafted a new one with his X2 screenwriters. That’s how 2006’s Superman Returns happened.

SR VII

Batman was left in limbo for a while until Christopher Nolan was hired in early 2003.  Rather than use and/or adapt one of the existing screenplays, Nolan created his own with screenwriter and lifelong Batman fan David S. Goyer, who initially only agreed to help as a consultant since he was busy directing Blade: Trinity at the time.  They basically took Frank Miller’s Year One, not his screenplay with Aronofsky but the original graphic novel, and married it to Dennis O’Neal’s 1989 Batman origin story “The Man Who Falls.”  Christian Bale, previously a candidate for both Batman: Year One and Batman vs. Superman, became Christopher Nolan’s Batman. That’s how 2005’s Batman Begins happened.

Batman-Begins-Poster

Alan Horn’s plan for Batman and Superman clearly didn’t work out as hoped.  Christopher Nolan managed to revive Batman but Bryan Singer failed quite spectacularly to do so with Superman.  Horn left WB to become Chairman of Walt Disney Studios early 2012.

So, what do you think?  Do you actually think the J.J. Abrams Superman would have been awesome?  Curious to see that Frank Miller-Darren Aronofsky script?  Hope that someday they’ll get around to finally doing a Batman Beyond film?  Let us know in the comments.

Sources:

Glen Weldon’s Superman: An Unauthorized Biography.  Amazon.com

David Hughes’ Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made?.  Amazon.com

Check Out Our Other Batman-Related Content on the Site:

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