DC superhero movies that never got the greenlight

Odd List Rob Leane 28 Aug 2014 - 06:13

We may be in the golden age of superhero cinema, but here are some DC movies that never made it…

Naysayers would have you believe that Hollywood chucks bucket-loads of cash at any old comic book movie pitch that happens to float through their corner-office window, get stuck to their shoe or come to them miraculously as an on-the-toilet epiphany.

However, this is not the case, particularly with DC comics characters. While some films that do get made may seem like bog-fodder (oh hey, Green Lantern), there are plenty of comic adaptation pitches, in-development scripts and passion projects that have ended up not getting made for various reasons.

We had a rummage through the aeons of DC cinema history (also known as extensive Googling) and pulled together all the comic book movie projects we could find that ended up in the bin of crushed dreams for Batman, Superman and more. If we’ve missed any, do let us know in the comments.

To learn more about Nicolas Cage as Superman, Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman and much more, read on.

Botched Superman movies

Superman V, aka Superman: The New Movie

The combination of Christopher Reeve as Superman and Richard Donner in the director’s chair was undeniably the pairing which launched the very idea of superhero cinema as we know it today. Even though Bryan Singer’s X-Men was needed to give the subgenre a kick up the backside a few decades later, Donner’s seminal comic book movie Superman: The Movie was his main inspiration.

Naturally, even with Donner (and his Superman II and Superman III replacement Richard Lester) long gone and Superman IV: The Quest For Peace trying its best to kill the franchise, a sequel was still considered. “The script was frankly... the best one since [Superman] II or III," franchise producer Alexander Salkind has since claimed. "It was Brainiac and the city [of Kandor] encapsulated. It was fantastic."

Reeve was attached too, with the death and rebirth of Superman sure to offer him some juicy material to get his teeth into. It’s a shame that this never went into production proper, but it’s understandable given the all-round critical bashing of Superman IV.

Superman Reborn

After this, the success of The Death Of Superman arc in the comic book world led Warner Brothers to snap up the cinematic Superman rights from the Salkinds. Their first idea was Superman Reborn – a kid-friendly reboot with plenty of toy-based possibilities.

Brainiac, Doomsday, Parasite and Silver Banshee all featured in the eventual script, with a Force-like discipline thrown in for good measure too. Kevin Smith was brought in for more rewrites, later calling the script “like the Batman TV show version of a Superman movie; very campy.” Count us glad to have missed out on this one.

Superman Lives

Upon expressing his worries about the Superman Reborn script, Kevin Smith was allowed to start the script again, with the catch being that Warner Brothers could make whatever demands they wanted. Said demands became more and more ridiculous by the sounds of it, too. The project became Superman Lives, and, as you probably already know, had a notoriously troubled development.

We looked at the leaked script of Superman Lives in far more detail than this list format allows here. Some of the ‘highlights’ from this amazingly bizarre production included studio requests for “a gay R2-D2 with attitude,” a cuddly space dog and Brainiac fighting polar bears. Eventually, Tim Burton became involved and Kevin Smith was nudged out.

Nicolas Cage was on board to play Superman (who the studio wanted dressed in black and not flying), with Michael Keaton purportedly holding a role (which was ‘not exactly’ Batman, in his words) and Kevin Spacey offered the role of Lex Luthor years early. With more rewrites, kids being brought in to judge concept art, Burton departing to direct Sleepy Hollow and Nicolas Cage dropping out in 2000, the project eventually ground to a halt. Not before Warner Brothers had offered the director’s chair to everyone in Hollywood (including Michael Bay) and the starring role to Will Smith, though. Keep an eye out for the story behind this cursed production in an forthcoming film The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened?

Superman: Flyby

After toying with the idea of a Batman Versus Superman movie, which went so far as to offer Christian Bale and Josh Hartnett the central roles, the focus instead turned to more separate solo movies. JJ Abrams turned in a script in 2002 for a Superman reboot entitled Superman: Flyby, which the studio seemed to jump at. It had the old Superman origin beats like the Kryptonian Civil War, the death of his birth parents, romancing Lois Lane and working at the Daily Planet, with one big change being casting Lex Luthor as a UFO-obsessed government official.

Bret Ratner was signed up to direct, but had trouble finding a star. Jude Law and Josh Hartnett were both approached, but were both purportedly put off by the proposed string of sequels. In what looks with hindsight like a huge moment of hubris, Ratner is quoted as saying that “I've told Jude and Josh my vision for the movie, I've warned them of the consequences of being Superman. They'll live this character for 10 years because I'm telling one story over three movies and plan to direct all three if the first is as successful as everyone suspects."

Reeve was hired as a consultant, with Smallville’s Tom Welling and the late Paul Walker also being considered for the starring role. Future Superman Henry Cavill also screen-tested for the role a few years early (that’s him in the picture above). These casting issues, and problems with the film’s producer Jon Peters, sent Ratner out the door. McG came and went. Abrams was denied a chance to direct his script. In the end, Bryan Singer came in and they started afresh with Superman Returns instead.

Bryan Singer’s Man Of Steel

Superman Returns actually went and got made, obviously. However, the combination of Warner Brothers’ reported disappointment at the film’s box office total (and their desire for more action sequences), Singer’s desire to direct Valkyrie, the writer’s strike slowing things down and the end of Brandon Routh’s contract in 2009 all combined to mean that production was shut down on a sequel.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t plans, though. Singer told Empire earlier this year that his sequel would have featured Darkseid and would have been called Man Of Steel. We’ve defended Superman Returns before (here), and can’t help wondering whether vocal internet commenters would have preferred another Singer Superman to the opinion-splitting Man Of Steel we got instead. We’ll never know, of course.

Plans for a Lobo movie, potentially directed by Guy Ritchie, also came and went around 2009.

The binned Batman films

Tim Burton’s Batman 3

Similarly to his DC cohort Supes, the screen career of Gotham’s Dark Knight has also been plagued by failed ideas and botched projects. This goes as far back as Tim Burton’s 1980s Bat-franchise, when Burton’s planned sequel to Batman Returns went awry and made way for the cheesier Batman Forever, with Joel Schumacher at the helm.

Burton had planned an altogether different threequel, with Michael Keaton still heading the bill and Catwoman potentially returning. Hollywood legend has it that the late, great Robin Williams had been offered the role of The Riddler, too. Marlon Wayans had been in costume tests for the role of Robin, Renee Russo was the new love interest and Brad Dourif had been touted for the Scarecrow. The Batman Returns-esque style turned Warner  off though, so Burton was bumped to the role of producer (which didn’t entail much, rumour has it) and bright colours, comedy and toy sales were bumped up the priority list.

Batman Triumphant (Batman Forever sequel)

Batman Forever and Batman & Robin came and went, fulfilling Warner Brothers’ desire to impress kids but alienating a lot of fans in the process. The main difference between these two films is that, while Batman Forever proved survivable, its sequel did not. Bat-nipples, logic flaws and puns aplenty were just too much to bounce back from. Again, that didn’t stop Hollywood from plotting.

Batman Triumphant was the mooted follow-up, which was said to feature Scarecrow as the main villain, Harley Quinn as a vengeful daughter of the Joker and Jack Nicholson himself as a hallucinogen-created unreal version of his iconic villain (that’s a fan rendering of said moment above). To be fair, this sounds better than either of the Batman films Schumacher actually made, but the critical and financial failure of Batman & Robin (which failed to match any of its predecessors on either front) meant we’d never get to see it.

Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One

Warner played with two different ideas after ditching their original Batman continuity, the first of which was a prequel/origin story. Specifically, there was talk of Darren Aronofsky tackling Frank Miller’s iconic Batman: Year One arc from the comics.

There were to be some differences to the source material, namely Bruce losing his fortune, Alfred being changed into an African-American mechanic, a suicidal Commissioner Gordon and the Batmobile becoming a Lincoln Continental. Call him a sceptical bastard, but this writer thinks we might have dodged a bullet with this one. Sounds like an interesting story, but not much like the Batman we know and love. Seeing Aronofsky’s distinct visual style blending with Gotham could’ve been a treat, though.

Batman Beyond

Also in development after Batman Forever was a live-action interpretation of animated series Batman Beyond. Like the TV series, which also spawned a comic-book line, the film focused on the future of the Batman universe, resettling Bruce Wayne as an elderly tutor to Terry McGinnis, the new Batman. Ace the Bat-hound featured heavily in scripts, apparently.

Paul Dini and Alan Burnett, who co-created the TV show, pitched the idea of a live-action version, which Warner ran with for a while. Boaz Yakin, director of Remember The Titans, worked on a version of the script before the project fizzled out and Batman Begins got made instead. Rumours of a Batman Beyond film also circulated after the conclusion of The Dark Knight trilogy. This could be an interesting sequel subject matter one day, should the cycle of movies ever get beyond three or four instalments.

Joss Whedon's Batman

In the pitching stage before Batman Begins went into production, Joss Whedon also had his eyes on a Batman movie. “It wasn’t what they [Nolan and co] did but the vibe was very similar," Whedon confirmed in 2008. "Mine was a bit less epic. It was more about the progression of him and it was more in Gotham City. He didn’t go to Tibet and meet cool people, but it was very similar in vibe.”

Speaking more of his plans, Whedon added that "in my version, there was actually a new [villain], it wasn’t one of the classics - which is probably why they didn’t use it. It was more of a Hannibal Lector type. He was somebody already in Arkham Asylum that Bruce went and sort of studied with.”

“It was a whole thing. I get very emotional about it, I still love the story. Maybe I’ll get to do it as a comic one day,” he mused. It seems unlikely now, but we’d certainly read that comic.

Other ditched DC superheroes

Terry Gilliam’s Watchmen

Here’s one that’s been in the news recently – Terry Gilliam’s unsuccessful Watchmen project. Producer Lawrence Gordon brought in Gilliam during the first attempt at trying to get the iconic (but long-thought-unfilmable) DC comic book to the screen in a co-production between 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers.

Producer Joel Silver recently revealed that Gilliam’s ending “had the Ozymandias character convince, essentially, the Doctor Manhattan character to go back and stop himself from being created, so there never would be a Doctor Manhattan character.” Ozymandias was, interestingly, rumoured to be played by former Doctor Who star Peter Davison.

Silver added that “in the vortex that was created after that occurred, these characters from Watchmen only became characters in a comic book.” Although Snyder’s comments about saving Watchmen from the Terry Gilliams of the world was arguably a bit harsh, this ending does sound like the kind of thing that would leave reviewers, comic book fans and casual viewers very confused and slightly peeved. Paul Greengrass also attempted making a Watchmen script (this one with added visible intestines for Dr Manhattan) work a while later, too. With similar levels of success.

Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman

For a while, it seemed like Joss Whedon was fated to be ever the bridesmaid, never the bride in the world of writing and directing comic book movies. On top of his aforementioned never-to-be-seen Batman movie, he also had a stab and putting together a Wonder Woman project.

Said to receive between two to three million dollars for the role of writer-director, Whedon took to the task of writing a script back in 2005, after wrapping work on Serenity. It was set to be an origin story featuring love interest Steve Trevor plane-crashing onto Themyscira before moving the action to Man’s World. Whedon’s script took a while to materialise, and he was reluctant to cast from an unfinished script. Things eventually came to a head when execs didn’t like Whedon’s outlined plot in 2007. It’s fair to say that Whedon has done alright without them, and that the world would still really like a Wonder Woman movie.

Green Arrow: Escape From Super Max

Of all the would-be DC movies in the pile of nearly-made-its, this one sounds particularly interesting. Green Arrow: Escape From Super Max would have played with the cinematic superhero formula significantly – plonking Green Arrow in a high security prison (for a crime he, of course, didn’t commit) from the start. His quest to escape through hordes of bitter villains and high security trappings would have made up the central plot.

It sounds like quite a cool idea to us, like the Arkham Asylum video game with a cinematic twist. The opinion-splitting David Goyer was on script duties, and had claimed he had Riddler, Lex Luthor and Joker cameos lined up. Word on this one quietly died down in the years since its announcement in 2008, with reports of another Green Arrow movie (a straight origin tale) perhaps being the nail in the coffin.

Justice League: Mortal (pre-Avengers DC team-up)

In 2007, a script was ordered for a Justice League movie. Kieren and Michele Mulroney (Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows) were on scribe duties, while George Miller (Mad Max, Babe, Happy Feet) was attached to direct. The idea of using a Beowulf-style motion-capture technique was floated around.

A cast which saw Arnie Hammer cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, DJ Cotrona as Clark Kent/Superman, Adam Brody as The Flash and Megan Gale as Wonder Woman was assembled. Script problems, shooting location disagreements and the eventual decision from Warner to attempt separate franchises before crossing over into a team movie eventually meant that the project was shut down in 2010. Interesting that the Green Lantern movie and The Dark Knight trilogy didn’t actually lead to this team-up, and they’ve ended up having to do a little reverse engineering by filling a Man Of Steel sequel with cameos anyway.

Ryan Reynolds' Green Lantern sequels

Speaking of Green Lantern, there’s a whole universe of crushed dreams here. Back in 2010, those involved were throwing around ideas for a trilogy of movies. Ryan Reynolds would have returned and presumably the teased threat of the yellow power of fear would have been a central plot point.

You know the rest of story already, no doubt. The powers that be announced that they were ‘somewhat disappointed’ with the opening weekend numbers, and things didn’t really improve from there. It took until 2013 for David Goyer to officially confirm that Ryan Reynold’s lanterning days were over though, with his confirmation that Man Of Steel is the first film in a new shared DC universe, and that any future Green Lantern films would be with a new cast. 

So, there’s plenty of DC superhero movies we’ve missed out on. If we could pop over to an alternative reality to see any of those, we would probably pick Tim Burton’s Batman 3 first, followed by Christopher Reeve’s Superman V and Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman.

Keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming low-down on all the Marvel movies that never saw the light of day.

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