The big crossover movies that never happened

Feature Terence Bowman 19 Oct 2012 - 07:57

The Avengers may have been a hit, but what about the crossover movies that never happened? Terence uncovers a few startling near-misses…

There has never been a crossover movie quite like The Avengers. The blockbuster features, of course, adaptations of classic Marvel Comics characters established in their own original movies, made with the express intention of later putting them all together in one big film.

Movie crossovers are certainly nothing new: Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, King Kong Vs Godzilla, Alien Vs Predator – the list goes on. Granted, putting Frankenstein and the Wolf Man in the same movie was as an afterthought and not the reason why they made a Frankenstein and a Wolf Man movie in the first place, but it still serves to illustrate the point that, basically, it has, more or less, been done before

But what about those crossover movies – some potential dreams comes true, some potential nightmares come true – that never quite made it into movies theatres?

The Beatles in The Lord Of The Rings as directed by Stanley Kubrick

Back when Beatlemania was all the rage, The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein signed a three picture deal for the Fab Four with United Artists. A Hard Day's Night and Help! were the first two films from this deal. 

By 1966, things had changed since the band’s first two cinematic mop top romps were filmed. The Beatles had performed their last live show, they were reportedly among the first people in the UK to drop acid, and lyrics like "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah. She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah" were being replaced with lyrics like "No one I think is in my tree, I mean it must be high or low". The Era of Beatlemania had officially bitten the dust in the emerging age of psychedelia.

The boys themselves, now Zuckebergesque millionaires in their mid-20s, had the power to do pretty much whatever the hell they wanted. If the lads had to make a film, they were doing it their way. As anyone who has sat through the Star Wars prequels can tell you, that kind of creative control in not necessarily a good thing. 

After kicking around other ideas, The Beatles decided they wanted to do a film adaptation of JRR Tolkien’s classic fantasy trilogy, The Lord Of The Rings. Back in the 60s, Rings was celebrated as a mind-blowing, trippy-hippie kind of book. The Fab Four were serious enough about the idea to approach the director of the SF classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, none other than Stanley Kubrick. This made perfect sense because, aside from Kubrick being an accomplished A-list director at the time, 2001 was a movie that was very popular with the hippie crowd in 1968.

The Beatles. Tolkien. Kubrick. 1968. Did we mention the part about being some of the first people in the UK to drop acid? Stanley Kubrick's Lord Of The Rings, Beatles-style, had already been cast, too: George Harrison as Gandalf, Paul McCartney as Frodo Baggins, Ringo Starr as Samwise Gamgee and John Lennon as Gollum. 

According to most reliable Kubrick biographies, the legendary director did actually consider taking the job. Kubrick finally passed on the project, though, on the grounds that he felt that the books, even with his 2001 visual effects team on the case, were unfilmable. In the pre-CGI era, Kubrick was probably right.

While a Kubrick LOTR would have been fascinating, God knows how much of Tolkien would have actually made it to the final cut. Just ask Anthony Burgess, Stephen King and Vladimir Nabokov how Kubrick film adaptations worked out for them. 

Not to mention that The Beatles were not actors. They would have been plugging their own personalities into pre-established Tolkien characters. So the movie would have ended up with a Maharishi-like Gandalf, an over-the-top cutesy Frodo, an angry anti-authoritarian Gollum and a goofily downbeat Sam.

According to Peter Jackson, it was Tolkien himself who, by virtue of the fact that he was still alive at the time, put the ultimate kibosh on the whole bizarre mash-up of a project.

The Beatles finally ended up getting their long desired hippy dippy adventure movie and got to honour their United Artists contract at the same time. The solution to both problems was the animated film, Yellow Submarine. The animated movie demanded very little of The Beatles, outside of writing a couple of new songs and appearing in a short live action epilogue at the end of the film.

Zeppelins, Dinosaurs, Vikings and Nazis 

While none of the above elements were established movie franchises per se, they are elements that, even by themselves in just one film, can make for awesome movies.

Hot on the heels of the success of the original 1933 King Kong, producers and directors Ernest B Schoedsack and Merian C Cooper were approached by MGM Studios to make a fantasy adventure movie so big that it would make Kong look like a spider monkey. The movie in question was to have been titled War Eagles.

The basic elements of the movie would have gone something like this: explorers discover a lost valley. In this remote valley, descendants of lost Vikings continue to thrive. They were not alone; also continuing to thrive in this valley: dinosaurs. Vikings and dinosaurs: de rigeur for any great adventure epic, really. Yet it does not stop there.

In addition to dinosaurs, there are also giant prehistoric eagles (a fictional creation, as far as science knows today). Naturally, the Vikings ride these giant eagles majestically through the skies. Somewhere along the way, it being the eve of World War II and all, the Nazis attempt to invade the US of A. Their attack fleet is made up, naturally, of Zeppelins. Oh, yes, indeed, the climactic battle of War Eagles would have featured Vikings riding a top giant prehistoric eagles fighting off Nazi Zeppelins over the skyscrapers of Manhattan. 

For the 1930s, War Eagles would have been positively James Cameron in its scope. The movie would have been in Technicolor, the same process for making colour movies (a rarity back then) such as The Wizard Of Oz and Gone With The Wind. Willis O'Brien, the effects legend behind King Kong, was set to do the visual effects. The screenplay was written by Cyril Hume, who wrote many of the hit MGM Tarzan movies as well as the now classic 50s SF film, Forbidden Planet.

With a premise so rich and a team like that, it begs the question: how did this movie not get made?  Well, the answer had something to do with the real life version of World War II. 

Producer Cooper was also very much the adventurer. He was a flier and subsequent prisoner of war during World War I.  On the brink of the US entry into World War II, Cooper left Hollywood to join the US Air Force; despite the fact he was already old enough to have been exempt from military service. When he left, War Eagles was put on hold. It was never picked up again. At the time of Cooper's departure, the film was reportedly pretty far into production too.

A novel supposedly based on the unproduced screenplay entitled War Eagles by American animation writer and producer Carl Macek came out many years later. It is not known just how much of the book represents the movie that might have been. 

IMDb does indeed list a 2012 version of War Eagles, with a similar plot to the original, as being ‘in development’ but it cites no stars, director, writer, producer or studio attached to it. This potentially amazing movie, it seems, has been languishing in Hollywood development hell for almost 80 years now. 

Star Trek Meets Eddie Murphy 

Back in the mid 80s, riding high on the phenomenal success of the first Beverly Hills Cop movie, former Saturday Night Live star Eddie Murphy was just about the biggest comic on the planet. Around that time, somebody got the idea of expanding Murphy's comedic range beyond that of just the planet.

Also not doing too badly in the mid 80s was the Star Trek franchise. The feature film series, based on the seminal sci-fi TV series, was hot off the one-two punch of the hit movies, Star Trek II and III. Leonard Nimoy, director and star of the upcoming Star Trek IV, felt that, after all the emotionally wrenching death, destruction and resurrection in II and III, it was time for the Trek franchise to lighten up a bit. After all, where were the Star Trek movies’ answer to the show's classic comic relief episodes like The Trouble With Tribbles?

That answer was probably not in the idea that came next.

Apparently somebody at Paramount Pictures got wind of the lighter direction idea for Trek. Perhaps they then looked at some Beverly Hills Cop box office receipts and suddenly came up with a not completely unpredictable idea. Why not put Eddie Murphy in the next Star Trek movie? Their question was not a rhetorical one. 

Nimoy decided to play the studio's little game and considered the idea. Murphy, reportedly a huge fan, leapt at even the very idea of appearing in a Star Trek movie. According to Nimoy's book, I Am Spock, both parties, while remaining enthusiastic, expressed reservations over such a crossover. Both Nimoy and Murphy were well aware of the potential for failure. The wacky alien concept was bounced around but, in the end, it was decided that Murphy would be funniest if he were allowed to stay squarely in his mid 80s urban context. Thus the idea of a time travel story line was born.

The story goes that someone at the studio suddenly became aware of Superman III, which featured groundbreaking comedian turned movie star Richard Pryor in a central role. The combo of the very funny Pryor and the very established franchise of Superman, while modestly successful at the box office, was poorly received by critics and fans alike. Somebody at Paramount got appropriately scared of the idea of potentially killing both Murphy's and Trek's box office mojo simultaneously. Keep the two apart, on the other hand, and there was almost guaranteed success for each.

That may well have been the right call. Star Trek IV went on to become the highest grossing Star Trek movie up to that time. Murphy's next two movies, The Golden Child and Coming to America, are still among the star's top ten highest money makers ever. 

The time travel scenario did stay in the picture, though. The part Murphy was supposed to have played in Star Trek IV eventually morphed in the role of 20th century marine biologist Dr Gillian Taylor, Kirk's love interest in the film.

Imagine if Murphy had stuck with the part that part. Now that would have been a crossover.

Batman versus Superman

Cast your mind back to a time just after Joel Schumacher and George Clooney ‘killed’ the Batman franchise. A time when it was tragically obvious that Christopher Reeve would never play Superman again. Around that time, superhero movies were seeing something of a box office renaissance with the success of X-Men and the first Spider-Man. Hulk, Daredevil and Fantastic Four movies were also on the way. Marvel Comics movies were doing well, but the DC Comics-based movies were still dormant.

Not surprisingly, the idea of reviving both the Superman and Batman franchises was very much on the minds of the people at DC and their parent company, Time Warner. Reportedly, the predominant feeling was that reviving DC's flagship characters would be best done sooner than later. Many different options on how to go about reviving both Batman and Superman were explored.

What they settled on was Batman versus Superman.

While some fans expressed reservations about the versus concept, planning for the film moved ahead. The studio signed Wolfgang Petersen, the well-known German director of such films as Das Boot, The Perfect Storm, Enemy Mine, The NeverEnding Story, Troy and Air Force One, to direct. Petersen stated publicly that he was very into the idea and the he loved the film versions of both characters that had appeared thus far.

Possible casting choices that hit the nascent internet rumour mill at the time included Jude Law or Josh Hartnett as Superman and Colin Ferrell or (actual eventual Batman) Christian Bale as The Dark Knight himself. Bale was also reportedly considered for the role of Superman.

Wow. Imagine that. There could have been a Bale versus Bale movie. 

Like the Eddie Murphy meets Star Trek idea, however, Warner/DC got cold feet at the idea mixing franchises. They decided that it would be better to revive each character separately. If Batman versus Superman bombed, both characters were basically screwed at the box office. If only one or the other bombed, well, they always had Batman versus Superman in their back pocket to help boost the hypothetically less successful franchise.

Warner/DC finally went with Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. For the Kryptonian's resurrection, there was Bryan Singer's ostensible follow up to the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, Superman Returns. Batman Begins was a huge hit, as were its sequels, The Dark Knight and the less well critically received The Dark Knight Rises. Superman Returns, on the other hand, did well financially but not as well with critics and fans. Yet even with a one more successful than the other scenario realised, there was never any talk of Bale's Batman duking it out with Brandon Routh's Superman. 

The Future of the Crossover?

Now, with the trailblazing success of The Avengers, you’d think that crossover movies would be in the works from just about every studio and known franchise out there. That is not necessarily the case.

DC Comics is sticking with its plans to make a feature film version of its signature superhero team, The Justice League. Surprisingly, though, they will do so without introducing any of the characters that make up the League in their own movies (the only possible exception being Superman from Man Of Steel and the highly unlikely inclusion of Ryan Reynold’s Green Lantern from the poorly received 2011 feature film).

So, for the most part, Hollywood seems to be steering away from blockbuster crossovers. We are probably not about see James Bond versus Jason Bourne or Harry Potter meets Twilight or The Expendables versus The Hunger Games any time soon.

Let’s hope so, anyway.

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