The mid-’90s to early ‘00s was perhaps the most prolific and eclectic period in the entire history of Batman and Superman film-making. The only downside was that none of those films actually got made. Between the end of the Christopher Reeve Superman series, and the utter and unbridled collapse of Batman under Joel Schumacher, a concerted, decade-long push was made to restart the cinematic fortunes of both characters, going through a stack of directors, tens of writers, and a raft of wildly different directions, ideas, and tones.
Some of them were exciting, some of them downright weird, but all of them came very close to becoming real, actual films that we paid money to see. So read on, and I’ll explain the whole, desperately strange history. For all the rapid changes and swerves along the way, you might well notice one or two ideas that survived long enough to finally become real quite recently. But on the other hand, there are also the giant spiders.
What happened? The saga starts in the mid-‘90s, with a planned fifth outing for Christopher Reeve’s still unbettered Superman. Following the financial collapse of movie studio Cannon Films (who had sniped the Superman rights on the cheap in order to make the fourth movie in 1987), original father and son producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind got the property back, intending to pick up where they left off. Slightly pre-dating Supes’ comic book death, the movie was to see its hero visiting the miniaturised Kryptonian city of Kandor, only to die and resurrect.
Unfortunately, the coincidental timing was too good; the comics’ high profile treatment of similar story themes prompted Warner Bros. to buy the Superman rights from the Salkinds in 1993, replacing them with producer Jon Peters. And here’s where it starts to get messy.
If it had been released: Reeve might have got the super send-off he truly deserved. Damn, Christopher Reeve was good.
What happened? Pushing ahead with its new version of the ‘Death of Superman’ idea in the early ‘90s, Warner’s first attempt at the film was intended to be a face-off between Superman and Doomsday. Beaten and dying, Supes was to confess his love to Lois, resulting in his soul being passed into her body, creating a son (unclear if this is standard Kryptonian sex practice), who would rapidly grow into adulthood before becoming the new Superman. Told you it got messy. Peters approved some weird Superman ideas over his tenure.
A 1995 rewrite added Brainiac, who created Doomsday out of Kryptonian blood (contrasting the character’s comic book origin as a genetically manipulated beast from Kryptonian prehistory, but perhaps laying the foundations for the version eventually seen in 2016’s Batman v Superman). Superman still died and was resurrected, but was reborn initially powerless, using power-armour to simulate his old abilities until he could regain them properly.
If it had been released: Either version could have turned out to be bonkers, but the latter had a greater chance of working. That said, having performed another rewrite in 1996, Kevin Smith later (negatively) compared the previous version to the 1966 Batman TV series. But speaking of Kevin Smith, that rapidly brings us onto…
What happened? The most famous unmade Superman film, the doggedly weird-sounding Superman Lives is what happened when Kevin Smith was brought on to rewrite Superman Reborn, under the strict narrative instruction of Jon Peters. Peters wanted a black suit for Superman, without a cape. He didn’t want Superman to fly, thinking it looked stupid. He wanted Supes to fight a giant robot spider, because apparently the producer had a big thing for giant robot spiders (he eventually squeezed one into the Wild Wild West movie). He wanted Lex Luthor to have an alien space-dog, in order to sell toys of alien space-dogs. He wanted Brainiac to fight a polar bear. Yeah.
After Robert Rodriguez turned the film down due to scheduling problems, Warner Bros. brought in Tim Burton, very probably as a result of his Batman movies making nonsensical amounts of money and kickstarting modern comic book movies in the first place. Burton cast Nicolas Cage as Superman, planning an existential ‘outsider’ story (because Tim Burton), and Michael Keaton was in place to make some sort of cameo. But after a year and several more rewrites, Burton walked away to make Sleepy Hollow instead, strongly hinting at creative differences. Warner took a brief look at a new script called Superman: Man of Steel, by Alex Ford, before offering the Superman Lives directing and writing jobs to a few more people, but all of it came to nothing. The project eventually died around 2000.
If it had been released: With Keaton appearing, the cinematic DC Extended Universe could have kicked off a decade early, and been entirely, splendidly bizarre with it. If Peters’ creative guidance had remained in place, we’ve probably have had Wonder Woman in a mech made of crystallised children’s wishes by now. Fighting Dracula. Also, we might not have had Sleepy Hollow, which is the best reason in the world for this not to have happened.
What happened? Whenever anyone talks about the state of the world today, remind them that there was once a time when a third Joel Schumacher Batman film was in production. Warner Bros. actually liked what it was seeing during filming of Batman & Robin (christ knows what Schumacher was actually showing the execs) and commissioned a sequel, scheduled for a 1999 release date. But then 1997 rolled around, Batman & Robin was released, everyone hated it, and Unchained was chained to a rock and thrown into the sea.
As for what the film was to contain, The Scarecrow was to be the villain, and would use the old magic hallucination gas to ‘bring back’ the Joker, Warner Bros. keen to rehire Jack Nicholson for the part. Harley Quinn would also have appeared, this time as the Joker’s daughter, on a mission to avenge her father’s death, which would have created a nice ‘dead parents’ parallel, but been a bit weird to those who know the actual comic background. The one obvious saving grace? Nicolas Cage was in talks to play the Scarecrow.
If it had been released: Given the combination of B&R’s legendary good-bad status and Cage’s ability to make any bad film great by pressing the big, red ‘Unhinged’ button on his emotional control panel, it could have been the greatest terrible film ever made.
Untitled Robin spin-off
What happened? Exactly as the name suggests, plans were also afoot for a standalone Robin movie after Batman & Robin, but the idea was pole-axed as fast as Batman Unchained, for exactly the same reason. Around the same time, Chris O’ Donnell turned down the offer of what would eventually become Will Smith’s role in Men in Black. His franchise-based decision making was not the strongest in the late ‘90s.
If it had been released: It would have represented Warner Bros. steaming ahead with expanding an increasingly disliked version of the DC superhero universe, shaped by the vision of a director who had repeatedly delivered profitable-but-dumb, tonally off-kilter misfires. And Warner Bros. would never do such a thing.
Batman Beyond and Batman: Year One
What happened? Two reboot projects were explored in parallel after Warner Bros. decided that continuing with the Schumacher batverse was a case of throwing good money after really, really, really, really bad. The Beyond project was a live-action adaptation of the futuristic animated series, co-written by show writer (and creator of Harley Quinn) Paul Dini. Year One was a live-action version of Frank Miller’s ‘early days of Batman’ comic, which would later form part of the inspiration for Batman Begins. Schumacher initially wanted to direct the latter, in order to make amends by delivering a proper, grown-up, dark Batman film. That didn’t happen.
Eventually passed on to Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and The Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky after the Beyond project was dropped, Year One was intended to be a radical reinvention of the source material, with Aranofsky at one point pushing for an R-rating. If all of this is sounding increasingly similar to where things went with Christopher Nolan’s eventual Dark Knight trilogy, then welcome to the cyclical, endlessly recycled nature of Hollywood projects. Christian Bale was even in line to play Batman. Alas, it all fell apart, when script rewrites by both Joss Whedon and a post-Matrix Wachowskis didn’t impress Warner. (though to be fair, ‘post-Matrix Wachowskis’ and ‘impressive’ have rarely gone together).
If it had been released: Warner Bros. might have delivered a dark, serious, entirely smarter Batman five years earlier than it did, kickstarting the whole comic book movie boom half a decade sooner, and putting us right in the middle of Marvel: Phase Seven by now. Instead, the studio pushed on with…
Batman vs. Superman
What happened? Remember what I said about the cyclical nature of Hollywood projects? The Batman vs. Superman idea has been kicking around since 2002, only back then it had the extra ‘s’, and a much higher chance of being good. Telling the story of a post-retirement Bruce Wayne and a post-divorce Clark Kent (who are already friends), the original Bats/Supes cross-over had Superman attempting to console his caped compatriot after the murder of his fiancé by the Joker. Eventually they’d fight, after Bruce started holding Clark responsible, and eventually they’d fight together, after it turned out Lex Luthor was manipulating the whole thing. All of which makes a great deal more sense than what we actually got. Not least of all because the entire thing doesn’t hinge on a contrived bit of incidental dialogue and a coincidence involving Batman’s mum.
Christian Bale was again in line, but in a shock twist, this time as Superman. Josh Hartnett was also in consideration for the role, with Neverending Story, Outbreak, and Troy director Wolfgang Petersen cracking the whip.
If it had been released: Zack Snyder might never have got near DC movies, and thus we might now have at least two Legend of the Guardians: Owls of Ga’Hoole sequels. But the project was indeed canned when, in another case of ‘Early 2000s Warner Bros. was opposite-world’, the studio decided that standalone superhero movies were a better reboot idea than immediately pushing characters together. Which led to the near-production of…
What happened? Previously in development before Batman vs. Superman, Superman: Flyby was picked up again after the crossover project was canned. Written by JJ Abrams, Flyby was a reworked origin story, with an infant Superman sent away from from his home planet after a Kryptonian civil war. On Earth, Supes was going to battle the son of his (now imprisoned) father’s arch-enemy, before being killed and eventually resurrected. Again. X-Men: The Last Stand director Brett Ratner was onboard, initially intending to cast an unknown as Kal-El, but eventually also looking at the likes of David Boreanaz, Ashton Kutcher, Josh Hartnett (again), Jude Law, Paul Walker, and Brendan Fraser. And the wider cast was looking strong indeed, with Ratner eyeing Zack Snyder’s eventual Lois Lane, Amy Adams, for the same role, alongside Christopher Walken as Perry White, Anthony Hopkins as Jor-El, and Ralph Feinnes as Lex Luthor.
But with casting dragging on, Ratner dropped out in 2003, replaced by a returning McG (who had himself earlier dropped out to make Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle; more great work decisions here). His version favoured Scarlett Johansson as Lois and Johnny Depp (and later Robert Downey Jr.) as Lex. Among others, eventual Superman Henry Cavill shot test footage for the lead role. But this version also ultimately fell apart, following directorial disputes over Warner’s plan to film in Australia rather than the US and Canada (partly because of authenticity fears, partly due to the director’s fear of flying), and despite Abrams’ own bid to direct, the film was dropped in favour of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Which isn’t perfect but did actually get made.
If it had been released: A pre-Lost Abrams might have become a top-line Hollywood star director quicker than he did, and proved his franchise reboot chops long before Star Trek and Star Wars gave him a chance to. Though where that would have left Star Wars is anyone’s guess. Wishing for this one is very much the double-edged lightsaber.