Green Arrow: Escape From Super Max – what happened?

Suicide Squad might just have ultimately stolen the thunder of the once-planned Green Arrow movie. Here's what happened...

There’s no shortage of superhero movies nowadays, but not all the comic book film ideas touted around in Hollywood end up getting made. Some superheroes just can’t catch a break when it comes to the big screen.

One of these is Green Arrow, aka Oliver Queen. Sure, he has his own TV show on The CW, but the emerald archer still hasn’t been in cinemas, or in any of the known plans for DC Entertainment and Warner Bros’ expansive upcoming movie slate. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Suicide Squad, Cyborg, The Flash and even Green Lantern all have movies in the works right now, but Oliver Queen is still out in the cold with only his goatee and his sleeveless hoodie to keep him warm.

David S Goyer was the last person to try and get a Green Arrow movie off the ground. At the time, he was best known as the writer of the Blade trilogy and co-writer of Batman Begins. Since then, he has since gone on to work again with Christopher Nolan some more on The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, with Zack Snyder on Man Of Steel, and with NBC to produce Constantine. Put simply – he’s a big cheese in the superhero adaptation business, and one of the architects of the DC movie universe.

He was developing a script with Justin Marks (a comparative unknown at the time, now working on Top Gun 2 and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book). Their project went by the name Green Arrow: Escape From Super Max

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So what happened? Well, here’s everything we know about the Green Arrow film that never was…

What’s it all about, Ollie?

The basic idea here is a strong one – the superhero Green Arrow gets incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. Specifically, he was put away for the assassination of a high-ranking government official, which was set up to look like his own handiwork.

Subsequently, he’s locked up with a bunch of villains in the high security Super Max facility. He locked up many of the villains himself [gulp!]. As the title suggests, he doesn’t intend to stay, and ends up forming unlikely partnerships with his own rogues’ gallery as a means to find an escape.

“He’s Green Arrow for the first 10 minutes of the movie, and then he’s arrested and his secret identity is revealed,” Goyer told the now-defunct WizardUniverse.com (IGN‘s and plenty of other reports remain online) in April 2007. “They shave his goatee and they take his costume and send him to prison for life, and he has to escape.”

“It’s like Alcatraz,” Goyer added, “and he has to team up with, in some cases, some of the very same villains he is responsible for incarcerating in order to get out and clear his name. Of course, tons of people try to kill him while he’s in there.”

“We’ve populated the prison with all sorts of B and C villains from the DC Universe. For the fans, there will be all sorts of characters the hard-core comic book junkies will know, but they’re all going to be there under their human names and no one is wearing a costume, but there will be a lot of characters with powers and things like that.”

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Comic book fans will notice some familiar ideas there, some of which point towards Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth as an inspiration. This 1989 Batman comic by writer Grant Morrison and artist Dave McKean saw the caped crusader battling through his own riotous rogues gallery within the eponymous mental facility. The lunatics took over the asylum, and Batman was called in to stop them. This comic would later go on to inspire Rocksteady’s videogame Batman: Arkham Asylum.

The idea of a superhero incarcerated among his enemies is certainly an exciting one, and would have offered a different one-main-location take on the tried-and-tested superhero movie formula. Developing the design of that location – the prison, Super Max – was an important part of the film, in co-writer Justin Marks’ opinion.

“It’s a very, very awesome prison,” he told MTV in August 2008. “I majored in architecture in college, and design is how I actually started in. For Super Max, designing that prison, it had to be the kind of thing that was a character in and of itself.”

“We’re in a world where instead of just trying to contain a guy who’s really big, you’re trying to contain a guy who can — in the case of Icicle — who can freeze things. What kind of a cell would a guy like that need in order to have his powers neutralized? So to escape from Super Max they have got to go through the most elaborate heist we’ve ever seen, involving superpowers. Because the prison itself kind of has superpowers!”

There’s plentiful potential for action sequences there. A superhero – without his weapon of choice – battling his way out of a super-sophisticated lock-down using only his wits and some tenuous alliances with known villains, could well be brilliant, with the right director attached and a polished script.

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In a nice change of pace from the standard superhero movie, this wouldn’t have been an origin story. Instead, Green Arrow: Escape From Super Max would jump right into the action and use dialogue and flashbacks to explain any necessary backstory.

“By the time a movie like this comes out, we will all understand origin stories,” Marks said to (once again) MTV. “And mainstream audiences now are willing to suspend their disbelief to the point that we can believe that a world exists where superpowers exist and people dress up in costumes. So now what? Now what do we do? And I call this Superhero 2.0.”

“We do deal with his origin — he’s got a very interesting origin with a desert island and everything else — but we get to the core of Green Arrow not by showing where he starts but by pushing him into a key moment in his life where everything he has is lost, and he’s got to earn it all back. I think for audiences it’s going to be a great way to get to know a new character.”

Marks thought that Oliver Queen was perfect for this story, calling him “the Jason Bourne of superheroes, a guy who exists with his own sort of set of tricks. […] the difference between Ollie Queen and a guy like Bruce Wayne — they’re both rich, they both have their things – but Batman is about his equipment and is about his theatricality and about his detective skills. And Green Arrow is a guy who’s really just the sort of MacGyver type […] In his hand, anything can be a weapon.”

One thing that really stands out here is Marks’ passion for the source material, and his desire to tell a different type of superhero story that doesn’t spend two hours building up to a big superhero moment, but doing the exact opposite instead. Super Max would have started with an established hero and deconstructed him via the prison experience. Interesting stuff.

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So who are all these villains, then?

Oliver Queen wasn’t going to be the biggest DC Comics name in his own movie. It seems like Goyer and Marks were keen to fill Oliver Queen’s film with recognisable villains from the wider DC universe, including the rogues’ galleries of Batman and Superman.

“Oh, we’ve got Lex Luthor in there,” Marks told MTV. Also adding that “I’m pretty sure Riddler gets his shot — Ed Nigma gets his moment.” There were rumours online that Luthor’s role would have been a cameo – reportedly, we may have seen the genius-level villain drugged up by prison doctors, in a bid to stifle his evil intellect. There’s no more information out there pertaining to the Riddler’s role.

Following Heath Ledger’s death, Goyer told (again!) MTV in July 2008 that Super Max would have contained a Joker Easter egg, too. “You don’t actually see him, just his name on a cell. It’s a real Easter Egg. That’s one cross-pollination we would stay away from [doing more with],” he said.

“The Tattoo Man is in there which seemed like a no brainer if you’re doing a movie about a super prison – having a character with super tattoos,” he added. “Amanda Waller’s in there as well, from the Suicide Squad. Those are probably the two I like the most, absent Green Arrow.”

The big bad would have been a new invention for the film itself – a character called Marcus Cross, a corrupt CEO who shares a long history with Queen and orchestrated his imprisonment. Later, the assassin he hired to mimic Green Arrow ends up in the prison, too. We assume a big fight would have followed. And that’s all we know about the story…

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So, what happened?

Well, by all accounts, things were going quite well with this project for a time. In particular, the cross-property interconnectivity – including characters from Batman, Superman and Suicide Squad lore – seemed to be appealing to Warner Bros.

“I know Warner Brothers is having a big rethink about how they approach all their DC films,” said Goyer in the aforementioned MTV interview July 2008, “and they’ve been taking a lot of meetings recently about it. And this is a script they like a lot because there are all sorts of characters in this prison. They like that idea.”

So, two months after Iron Man came out, Warner Bros were talking about making their next set of DC Comics movies more interconnected. That’s hardly surprising, and Escape From Super Max certainly fits that bill. Yet, this movie was never made.

In November 2008, Goyer and Marks were looking to recruit another scribe to their project. “We’re working on that. We’re about to bring on another writer,” he told MTV in a different interview. “Obviously, Warner Bros is now heavily into mining all of the various DC properties,” he added. But at some point, the mining stopped. MTV moved on and reported on other films. Goyer and Marks moved onto manifold other projects.

Goyer opened up in 2009, when asked him if the horror film Supermax – which had a similar premise to his film – could spell doom for the project. “Not necessarily,” he replied. “I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive.”

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“Right now, there’s not much to report,” he added when asked for more info. “Warner Bros is moving very slowly in terms of what they’re intending to do with their DC Projects. They just recently brought on [DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson] and once they’ve figured that out, they’re going to get back to us on that one.”  

And since then – radio silence.

The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Green Lantern and Man Of Steel all came and went. DC and Warner Bros announced a mammoth slate of movies up until 2020, without even a whiff of Green Arrow.

We heard nothing for ages, until we got the chance to ask him ourselves about the project in October 2015. Specifically, if he thought Escape From Super Max – stuffed with villains, not unlike 2016’s Suicide Squad – was simply ahead of its time.

“I think it absolutely was,” Goyer confirmed. “I think if that script had come over the transom a couple of years later… It was completely ahead of its time. By the way, everything I see about Suicide Squad looks fantastic and it’s a different story. But it was absolutely ahead of its time.”

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He added: “You know, Marvel was considering doing the Sinister Six and at the time, God, I think this was eight or nine years ago that we wrote a couple of drafts, but it certainly was like this oddball project at Warner Bros at the time, they were like—even though the script was good—‘why would we make a movie about a bunch of villains? That makes no sense.’”

What happened to Super Max, then?

“It just didn’t have…it was ahead of its time, to be quite frank,” Goyer told us. “The executive on it was really visionary but the higher-ups, none of whom are at Warner Bros any more, just thought at the time, you know, we just want to make Batman and Superman movies. We don’t want to make any other characters. But this is before Marvel had really taken off, before more obscure projects like Guardians Of The Galaxy or Ant-Man or things like that had huge success, before the current gold rush I guess, if you will. It’s natural that eventually someone was going to make a villain movie, so that’s just what happened!”

So there you have it – Escape From Super Max was perceived as an ‘oddball project,’ and Warner Bros decided to press ahead with Batman and Superman movies instead. By the time that the discussion of a villain movie finally came up again, Suicide Squad ended up going ahead instead.

Could it ever be saved?

So, could this project ever come back to life? In all honesty, the chances of a full-on filmic version are virtually nil. As Goyer himself mentioned, Green Arrow: Escape From Super Max has been pipped to post by another villain movie – Suicide Squad.

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There’s an outsider chance that a big financial success for Suicide Squad could revive some interest in Super Max, but it seems more likely that – in the event of a box office smash – Warner Bros would push ahead with a Suicide Squad sequel rather than launch another villain-centric property.

There are other ways that this script could see the light of day, though. A graphic novel adaptation is plausible, not unlike The Star Wars comics made from George Lucas’ original script treatment for A New Hope. This writer would certainly read it. An animated film version would surely find an audience, too.

Or perhaps the TV show Arrow could incorporate the ideas Goyer and Marks were working on into The CW show as a big, bombastic season finale at some point. The writers would need to spend some time building Super Max as a location before that could happen, though; Arrow’s version of the prison currently only has one inhabitant (Deathstroke, aka Slade Wilson).

Another option would be for Rocksteady to follow Batman: Arkham Knight with a game version of Green Arrow: Escape From Super Max. Imagine playing your way through a maze-like prison designed to withstand superpowers with just your fists and your wits. Maybe there could even be some playable villains to help you out.

All these ideas may seem a little wishful thinking, but hey, we’re all allowed to dream. Of course, we’ll let you know if any of our wild speculation comes true.