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About That One Time Joss Whedon Almost Made a Batman Movie

Pepsi vs. Coke. Mac vs. PC. Nike vs. Adidas. Marvel vs. DC.

These are a few of the great corporate fights of our time, with each combatant’s multi-million dollar advertising campaigns striving to convince us that this is an either/or proposition. You can’t like both Mac and PC! Those are totally different operating systems. You don’t get to be John Hodgeman AND Justin Long. This seeps into the way we view the people actually working on either side of the competing brands. For example, all those people making Marvel Studios movies must have totally hated the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice trailer, right?

It’s that logic that has resulted in multiple Avengers: Age of Ultron press junket journalists attempting to goad Joss Whedon into badmouthing Warner Bros.’ approach to its comic book movies. He’s not really taking the bait, responding to an IGN question about the chances of him directing a DC movie for Warner Bros.:

“I’d be like ‘I have all these joke ideas.’ And they’d be like ‘No, we don’t do that here.’ I desperately wanted to do a Batman film – who doesn’t? And I wanted to do Wonder Woman. I was a Marvel kid growing up, but I was always DC-curious. And I see myself on the spectrum in between.”

Thanks to Joss Whedon’s Avengers notoriety (and general geek god status) it has likely become widespread knowledge that he had separate opportunities to make solo films for Batman and Wonder Woman.  If you don’t know the story, I previously discussed his Wonder Woman adventures elsewhere on the site.  He was officially hired to write a screenplay in 2005, but after spending several years struggling with it his time with the project was cut off by the producers since they’d never quite been on the same page as him.  He left that experience feeling dejected and deeply disappointed.  It was not the first time Warner Bros. had broken his heart like that.

Batman’s Period of Development Hell 

Batman_rejected_triumphantTo paraphrase Star Trek: Enterprise’s theme song, it was a long road getting from Batman & Robin to Batman Begins. The former was released in 1997, and the latter officially went into development in 2003. In the space in-between, Batman was stuck in development hell, going from a Joel Schumacher-directed sequel called Batman Triumphant to an “old, retired Bruce Wayne” project called Batman: DarKnight to a potential live action Batman Beyond to Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller’s insane adaptation of Year One to a more faithful Year One from the Wachowskis to Batman Vs. Superman.

As discussed in far more detail elsewhere on the site, Warner Bros. was especially excited about Batman Vs. Superman, announcing it in the pages of Variety in July 2002. Wolfgang Peterson was attached to direct an original script by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en, Sleepy Hollow) which was being rewritten by Akiva Goldsman (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, A Beautiful Mind). A month later the project was canceled. Why? The massive worldwide success of the first Spider-Man movie completely changed the playing field, standing in stark contrast to the gritty tone they’d been going for in their Batman Vs. Superman script. Luckily for them, J.J. Abrams had just delivered a script for a solo Superman movie that seemed closer in tone to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. So, they waved goodbye to the brood and mood of Batman Vs. Superman.

Whedon to Batman’s Rescue?

Young-Bruce-Wayne-in-Batman-BeginsThat left Batman in a bit of limbo.  It was at this point that Joss Whedon became involved. It was the fall of 2002, and he was already killing himself trying to run three different TV shows, one brand new (Firefly), another in a fourth season plagued by behind the scenes drama (Angel) and another in what turned out to be its final season (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).  He’d told his agent he wanted to concentrate on original work, but if Batman comes around any good agent is going to at least bring it up, right?  So, his agent casually mentioned that Warner Bros. was listening to pitches for a solo Batman movie.  Even after that, Whedon still persisted in his commitment to his shows and future of creating his own content.  His wife stepped up to prove why she’s the perfect spouse for him by simply exclaiming, “Are you kidding? It’s Batman!”

And then Joss made the mistake of falling in love not just with the idea of making a Batman movie but also with getting to tweak the origin story. As discussed in Joss Whedon: The Biography, he wanted to focus not just on the emotional trauma of Bruce Wayne losing his parents but also the moment his trauma transformed into action. This would have been highlighted by a sequence in which a 13-year-old Bruce fights off a group of kids who ambushed him on the way to a newsstand. Bruce winning that fight would be the “key to the whole movie.” As he later explained, “Where [Bruce] goes from being ‘I’m just morbidly obsessed with death’ to ‘I can work the problem; I can actually do something about it.”

Gotham Bruce WayneThis wouldn’t have simply been Gotham: The Teenage Years, though. The majority of the film would have been more of a Year One-esque look at Batman’s earliest days fighting crime, with Whedon making the bold choice to create his own villain for the story, “In my version, there was actually a new villain, it wasn’t one of the classics. It was more of a Hannibal Lecter type – he was somebody already in Arkham Asylum that Bruce went and sort of studies with. It was a whole thing –I get very emotional about it, I still love the story.”  Obviously, this villain would eventually escape and fight Batman.

Batman Begins -Ras Scarecrow
The first-act-mentor-becomes-the-third-act-villain story structure is also what Batman Begins did, albeit minus any Hannibal Lecter mimicry.

For as much as Whedon still loves his unproduced Batman story, he has rather graciously praised Nolan’s Batman Batman and The Dark Knight as being movies he would have never come up with.  But why exactly did WB pass on Whedon’s Batman? Mostly for the same reason his Wonder Woman film never worked out. As he said, “I was clearly not on the same wavelength [as them].”

The Cherry On Top Of The Shit Sundae

Here’s where it gets worse.  The day Whedon learned he wouldn’t be making a Batman movie was also, well, I’ll let him tell it:

“So I got back into my car and headed back to the office and I literally said to myself, ‘How many more times do I need to be told that the machine doesn’t care. The machine is not aware of what is in your heart as a storyteller.’ I got back to the office and they cancelled Firefly. So I was like, ‘Oh! So, uh, just once more. OK!’ That was not a happy day.”

And then he lived happily ever after. Actually, it was nearly a decade before he got The Avengers gig, but, still, happily ever after.

The lesson from all of this?  Everything probably ultimately worked out for the best.  Plus, Joss Whedon is currently burnt out, claiming he wants to get back to creating his own universes to play in.  He was telling his agent the same thing in 2002, and then Batman came along and he eventually jumped.  That’s not to say history will repeat itself because the situation is far more complicated now, and from the looks of that Batman v Superman trailer he’d be the totally wrong guy to make a Ben Affleck Batman movie.  However, it is a reminder that we have no real idea what Whedon might do next, now that Age of Ultron has brought his formal time with Marvel Studios to an end.

Source: Joss Whedon: The Biography


  1. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the people working on either side of the “universes” have some sort of exclusive clause in their contracts which prevents them from doing both by now. I doubt that Whedon is one of them, because he has too much pull, but it would leave a bad impression if he jumped ship now.

    One thing for sure: Warner Bros seems to look for “serious movie makers” for their projects. Marvel seems to look for geeks first and foremost.

    1. “One thing for sure: Warner Bros seems to look for “serious movie makers” for their projects. Marvel seems to look for geeks first and foremost.”

      That got me thinking. So I kind of looked into it a little more. Right now, WB seems like it most wants to keep things in house and hire people they’ve worked with before, like Suicide Squad’s David Ayer with Training Day in 2001, Batman v Superman’s screenwriters David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio on The Dark Knight trilogy and Argo respectively, and Man of Steel/Batman v Superman/Justice League’s Zack Snyder on pretty much every single film he’s ever made (his only non-WB film is his first, Dawn of the Dead). Green Lantern’s director Martin Campbell had just come off of the Mel Gibson movie Edge of Darkness for WB, and its four credited screenwriters all had ties to the studio, Michael Goldenberg with Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix, and Marc Guggenheim, Greg Berlanti and Michael Green had all written for DC comics with Green also writing for Smallville. Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins is their first real big hire who had no prior experience with them. Overall, they seem to approach like this any old Hollywood studio might.

      Since the industry reports are that Marvel is mostly operated as an independent entity under the Disney umbrella, they are far more capable and willing to think completely outside the box and target those geeky people who can be had for cheap but will most likely have a huge passion for the project. As it turns out, even someone like Kenneth Brannagh liked Thor. It seemed like there was a bidding war over The Russo Brothers over the past year, but prior to Winter Soldier no film studio other than Marvel was coming after them. Those were just the guys who made really good Arrested Development and Community episodes and, for some reason, had made the movie You, Me & Dupree. Yet at the same time, Marvel kicks it completely Old School Hollywood in other ways, tying all of its people to insane-sounding contracts and maintaining its own cadre of writers in a workshop banging out potential scripts, most of which go unproduced but serve as idea generators.

      1. I think a huge part of the issue is control. Disney’s hands-off approach allows Marvel to have their hand on every aspect of the MCU. They might exercise less control when it comes to the TV series, but even there I doubt that anything happens without at least talking to Marvel first and adjusting the project if they have reasonable concerns. With DC on the other hand it is not really DC who makes the movies, it’s warner bros. Similar with the TV-shows. The Arrow/Flash/Atom vs is CWs work and who knows who actually masterminded Gotham or the upcoming Supergirl series. Point is, even though DC technically still owns all of their properties, I get the impression that they have way less control over the adaptations than Marvel has over the ones they still own (plus Spider-man….I don’t care what they claim, Marvel has way more say into what happens to him now than they had beforehand).

        And Warner Bros naturally acts like a Movie studio and goes with what they know. Patty Jenkins was picked because they wanted a female director, otherwise they would have gone with a well-known name, too.

        I can’t blame Marvel for their contracts, not really. They have to think long-time and history shows that if an actor really wants to get out of his contract, it’s possible. And having a cadre of writers is pretty smart, too.

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