With Interstellar hitting theaters, Christopher Nolan is again in the headlines, be it the adorable factoid about him always keeping a flask of Earle Grey tea on him, or a misquote about his views on post-credits sequences. Plus, it seems like HBO is running Nolan’s Batman Begins 24/7 these days. Similarly, last week we heard that director Joel Schumacher is working on a comic book series which will present his original vision for not just the two Batman movies he did actually make but also the third one he never got the chance to. Schumacher is the guy who killed Batman with Batman & Robin in 1997, and Christopher Nolan is the one who saved him, beginning in 2003 when he started developing Batman Begins. So, what was happening with Batman after Schumacher, but before Nolan? Well, it’s not like Warner Bros. was just purposefully taking a break from Batman that whole time. They were just stuck in a dreaded realm known as development hell.
1. Batman Triumphant –
Before we’d all suffered the misfortunate of actually seeing Batman & Robin there was no eason to doubt that it would get a sequel. So, it wasn’t all that surprising when just two weeks after wrapping Batman & Robin Joel Schumacher announced they were already working on a sequel. Akiva Goldsman was out as writer, moving on to producing and writing Lost in Space. I Am Legend scribe Mark Protosevich was hired as his replacement. George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell were set to return, and Schumacher would again bring his neon glory to directing. Of course, the true stars of the Burton/Schumacher films were the villains, and Batman Triumphant was going to feature Scarecrow and Harley Quinn, the latter being re-conceived as the Joker’s vengeful daughter instead of psychotic lover, as in Batman: The Animated Series. The option was even on the table for Jack Nicholson to come back as the Joker as a hallucination Batman experiences when exposed to Scarecrow’s fear toxin. All of that went out the window once Batman & Robin came out, though, and turned into one of those Spider-Man 3/Amazing Spider-Man 2-esque franchise killers that make money but kill any interest in a sequel. A repentant Schumacher vowed to make another one, but only after waiting a while beforehand and coming back with a far darker approach, positioning Batman & Robin as the one for the kids, and Batman 5 as the one for the adults. By 1999, rumors swirled that Clooney was being replaced with either Kurt Russell or Keanu Reeves, a rumor Reeves appeared to confirm in interviews at the time, causing Warner Bros. to officially deny that Batman 5 was in production.
2. Batman: DarKnight –
Warner Bros. wanted to stay in the Batman business without taking on nearly as much financial risk as they had been. So, we’d get our sequel, but it would gritty and low-budget, based upon a pitch from writing partners Lee Shapiro (The Tick) and Stephen Wise. They wanted to call it Batman: DarKnight because, you know, he’s called “The Dark Knight.” In a slightly meta-reference to the crapfest of Batman & Robin, the plot would begin with a Bruce Wayne already retired as Batman, reasoning that no one had any reason to take Batman seriously anymore and thus did not fear him. Dick Grayson would be off at college, similarly abandoning his past life as Robin. They would both be pulled back into action by the two villains, Scarecrow (to potentially be played by Jeff Goldblum, among other rumored candidates) and Man-Bat (leading candidate=Terrence Stamp), the latter being a sympathetic scientist-turned-victim-of-his-own-experiment type. Scarecrow, conducting fear experiments at Arkham Asylum, would unwittingly help bring about Dr. Kirk Langstrom’s transformation into Man-Bat, whose animalistic, nightly killing sprees would be mistaken for the actions of a returning Batman forcing Bruce to suit up again to clear Batman’s name. Somewhere along the long Dick Grayson would be locked up in Arkham Asylum and experimented upon by Scarecrow. Joel Schumacher was attached to direct before dropping out mere weeks after the first script had been completed. He was replaced by Andrew Davis, i.e., the guy who had just directed a series of Batman-themed On Star commercials. The project was not officially canceled until sometime in late 2000, by which point three more Batman projects had come along.
3. Batman Beyond –
The animated series Batman Beyond began as a spur-of-the-moment pitch from Paul Dini and Alan Burnett (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm) when a WB Kids Network executive asked them to do something new with Batman that might attract a slightly older audience than departing shows Superman: The Animated Series or The New Adventures of Batman & Robin. Their idea was to explore what happens to “Batman” after Bruce Wayne retires, and thus we got Terry McGinnis, a high schooler in a futuristic Gotham. He becomes the new Batman after evil corporate types kill his father, and he went on to fight mostly unique-to-the-show villains with an elderly Bruce Wayne acting as his Gal Friday (or should it be Guy Friday?) from the batcave. It was all stuff which had never been done before with Batman, anywhere, and it enjoyed a popular 3 season, 52 episode run from 1999-2001. Dini and Burnett pitched a live-action version to Warner Bros, who commissioned a script from them. Fan of the show, Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) hopped aboard to direct, but once things started steering more towards R-rated territory WB lost interest. An R-rated Batman movie? Are they crazy! Actually, that describes what happened with the next project as well.
4. Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One
Joel Schumacher pitched the idea of adapting Frank Miller’s graphic novel Batman: Year One as a gritty, low-budget franchise re-boot. Warner Bros. liked the idea; they just no longer really liked Schumacher. They had two alternatives, Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects), who desperately wanted the job, and Darren Aronofsky, who ultimately got the gig even though he didn’t want it. More on that in a minute. Aronofsky worked with Frank Miller on the script because who better to adapt Year One than the man who actually wrote it? Their job was to craft a screenplay about the parallel ascents of Jim Gordon and Bruce Wayne in Gotham, Gordon freshly arrived into a wholly corrupt justice system and a 25-year-old Wayne returning to Gotham after spending 12 years abroad. On a very, very basic level, they did that, but they changed all the details and seemed more interested in turning Batman into Punisher. They greatly deviated from Year One as often as they wanted, and didn’t give a damn about long-standing Batman canon. Here’s a breakdown of the differences from the graphic novel and their script: It wasn’t necessarily bad; it just wasn’t Batman, more like Sin City/Punisher mixed with Taxi Driver (Bruce was presented as a grade-A, delusional psychopath). Warner Bros. was understandably displeased with the anarchic craziness coming from Aronofsky and Miller, and the project never made it past the storyboard stage.
Here’s the part where Aronofsky comes clean about how he never wanted to make a Batman movie at all, from an interview with CinemaBlend (as quoted in the book Billion Dollar Batman):
“It was a kind of bait and switch strategy. I was working on Requiem for a Dream, and I got a phone call that Warner Bros. wanted to talk about Batman. At the time I had this idea for a film called The Fountain, which I knew was gonna be this big movie and I was thinking, ‘Is Warners really gonna give me $80 million to make a film about love and death after I come off a heroin movie?’ So my theory was if I can write this Batman film and they could perceive me as a writer for it, then maybe they’d let me go ahead, which worked out great until Brad Pitt quit.”
Aronofsky eventually got The Fountain made at Warner Bros. with Hugh Jackman as the star. It bombed in 2006 to the tune of $15.9 million worldwide against a $35 million production budget.
5. Bruce Wayne – The TV Series
Around the time that Aronofsky was hired but before he’d completed his insane script with Miller, the WB Network was taking meetings with TV producers who had the idea to do a Bruce Wayne origin story as a TV series. The WB Network loved the idea, keen to find a replacement for the departing Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They commissioned a pilot script, which centered around whether or not Bruce Wayne would sign a legal document authorizing the WayneCorp trustees to continue running the company in his absence. He was about to turn 18, having spent the past 12 years traveling the world. Upon his return to Gotham, he would reconnect with old pal Harvey Dent, become acquainted with Detective Gordon and his 13-year-old daughter Barbara, and meet potential love interests Susan Dent (Harvey’s sister, a creation of the show) and Selina Kyle. In the show’s 5-year plan, by the end of the first season, Bruce would discover the underground cavern beneath Wayne Manor that we all know would become the Batcave, and by the end of the fifth season he would finally don the infamous cape and cowl. Along the way, he’d study criminals at Arkham Asylum, briefly attend an FBI academy, and battle to regain complete control of WayneCorp. His love interests would grow to include Vicky Vale and Harleen Quinzel, as a young psychology student. However, it was all killed by Darren Aronofsky and X-Men. They were forced to hit the pause button while Warner Bros. decided which project would get first priority, Aronofsky’s film or the WB’s TV series. That pause became permanent once the first X-Men movie came out to bigger-than-expected box office totals the summer of 2000. Bruce Wayne was dead, ultimately morphing into Smallville, and Batman Beyond and Batman: DarKnight were each canceled in favor of Aronofsky’s Year One.
6. The Wachowski’s Year One –
And then WB saw Aronofsky and Miller’s insane script. They weren’t soured on the Year One concept; they just realized they’d hired the wrong guys to do it. For a brief moment, Larry and Andy Wachowski seemed like the right team for the job. Fresh off The Matrix, the Wachowskis were huge comic book fans, and submitted a very faithful proposal for how they would adapt Year One. Their version would begin directly with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents after seeing The Mark of Zorro before jumping 20 years to a 28-year-old Bruce Wayne returning to Gotham after many years abroad. His first act of vigilantism, featuring him wearing black clothes and a hockey mask, would end with him wounded and fleeing into an abandoned building. There, he would be frightened by a bat, thus signaling the beginning of the opening credits. The plot would then roughly follow that of the graphic novel, although Selina Kyle would be an animal activist, not a prostitute, Gordon would be far more sympathetic toward Batman, and the violence would be greatly sanitized. Plus, the ending would make Batman’s promise to look into the Joker far more explicity by having him actually arrive to intervene as the Joker cruises around in a speedboat, about to poison the city’s water reservoir. This was all abandoned once the Wachowskis left to make the two Matrix sequels.
7. Batman vs. Superman –
As discussed at extensive length elsewhere on the site, the solution to all of Warner Bros.’ problems seemed to be a Batman/Superman team-up movie. They’d hit a wall on the Batman side of things, and hadn’t been able to get anything going with Superman after killing Tim Burton’s Superman film in the early 90s. So, when a writer came in and pitched the idea of Batman Vs. Superman they did one of those, “Oh, duh. Why hadn’t we thought of that already?” reactions. The plot would see Lex Luthor and The Joker teaming up to kill Bruce Wayne’s new wife on their honeymoon, forcing him into a knee-jerk “kill all bad guys” Batman mode and thus into direct confrontation with Superman, who would have fallen on a bit of his own hard luck with an increasingly annoyed Lois Lane. True to the title, Batman and Superman would fight before realizing they’d been played, thus uniting to take down Lex and Joker. Christian Bale was approached to play Batman, but Aronofsky’s Year One was still in development as well. Bale wanted the part, but in the Aronofsky film, not this one. Either way, Batman Vs. Superman was officially announced in Variety, with Wolfgang Peterson attached to direct. It was canceled just one month later. It couldn’t withstand the twin forces of the extreme success of Sony’s first Spider-Man movie and the emergence of J.J. Abrams’ script for a new Superman movie more in line with the tone of Spider-Man than the dour Batman vs. Superman script they had. The man in charge at Warner Bros. had 10 assorted executives evaluate both scripts, and the consensus opinion was that while Batman vs. Superman’s script was better J.J. Abrams’ Superman was more marketable. Of course, neither film got made. Although the executives favored J. J. Abrams Superman project, Bryan Singer tossed it in the trash and started from scratch once he came on as director a couple of years down the road.
8. Joss Whedon’s Year One Proposal
Eh. This one’s not a movie that ever came close to actually getting made, but I include it anyway because who doesn’t like a good Joss Whedon story? During the ginormous success of The Dark Knight in 2008, geek god Whedon revealed to MTV that once upon a time he’d actually pitched his idea for a Batman movie to Warner Bros., shortly before they hired Christopher Nolan. The tone of his approach was in keeping with Nolan’s, but he described it as “a bit less epic” and “more in Gotham City” (as quoted in the book Improving The Foundations: Batman Begins From Comics to Screen) suggesting no trips to the other side of the world for this Bruce Wayne. Whedon’s story would have featured an entirely new villain, described as a Hannibal Lector-type Bruce Wayne would first train with while studying the criminal mind at Arkham Asylum and later fight. Of course, that first-act-mentor-becomes-the-third-act-villain story structure is exactly what Christopher Nolan and David Goyer used in Batman Begins.
So, there you have it – various tales of the Batman films that almost were. Perhaps the most interesting part of all this, though, is that Christopher Nolan claims to have never read any of these prior scripts and plot proposals when he was hired to make Batman Begins. They were all made available to him, but he opted to instead peruse the Batman comics DC gave him for inspiration. We can even trust that he’s telling the truth about that because he said, “I was aware of the fact that Aronofsky and Frank Miller had collaborate on a script, and I gather it was a pretty faithful adaptation.” Anyone who’d read Aronofsky and Miller’s actual script would know it was in no way a faithful adaptation. Warner Bros. had been trying to make a Year One movie for years, and it turns out not even Frank Miller himself could do it. Instead, it took a tea-loving British man who actually grew up in Chicago to come along and combine Year One with a bunch of other comics to get Batman Begins.
Which one of the aborted projects intrigues you the most? I personally kind of like the idea of DarKnight, Batman retiring because who could take him seriously after bat nipples? Plus, Jeff Goldblum as The Scarecrow! Are you a huge fan of Aronofsky’s approach even though it turns out he never actually wanted it to get produced? Let me know in the comments.
Sources: Julian Darius’ Improving The Foundations: Batman Begins From Comics to Screen; Bruce Scivally’s Billion Dollar Batman
If you like this, check out our other “Batman 75” articles:
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- Batman 75: How Robin Williams Almost Played the Joker & The Riddler
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- Batman 75: How We Almost Got a Bruce Wayne Origin Series Instead of Smallville
- Batman 75: The Sad Fates of Batman Actors of the Past Translates to a Very Promising Black Comedy: Michael Keaton’s Birdman
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