We’ve recently been investigating the pile of nearly-made-its in the ever-growing world of cinematic comic book adaptations. You could be forgiven for thinking Hollywood will strap wads of cash to any old comic book writer who stumbles past their door, but so far we’ve written approximately 5,000 words that say otherwise.
First, we delved into DC’s chequered past and found heaps of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman projects that we’ll sadly never get to see (and some other projects we’re quite glad we’ll never have to sit through). We then did the same for Marvel, unearthing plans for a Paul McCartney Silver Surfer rock opera, James Cameron’s bizarre Spider-Man script ideas and an amazingly-cast Dazzler animation from the 1980s.
Now, we turn our attention to the more obscure corners of the comic world, including separate universes, imprints and outright independent publishers, and the big money movies that nearly took off for their lesser-known properties. Naturally, this search has been more difficult than our others, not least because searching ‘obscure’ alongside ‘comic book movies’ doesn’t actually help narrow your Google search at all.
Because of this, we’ve decided to focus in on a small group of nearly-greenlighted adaptations that we find particularly interesting, rather than pretending to have garnered a comprehensive list. Please let us know any of your favourites that we’ve missed in the comments.
So, featuring monkeys, Quentin Tarantino and WWII heroes displaced to the near future, here’s our list of indie and obscure comic book properties that made it tragically close to the big screen…
We’re going to start with one which we really would have loved to see – a Preacher movie, which has nearly happened twice on the big screen, and once on the little version.
If you’re not familiar with Preacher, it’s a comic book series by Garth Ennis (who’s also worked on Punisher and Hitman) and artist Steven Dillon, which was published by DC’s riskier Vertigo imprint from 1995-2000.
It has a whiff of cinematic gold to it, blending realistic characters with supernatural trappings, and kicking off with an origin story to rival the big boys – Jesse Custer, a preacher in Texas, is inadvertently possessed by a creature so powerful it could rival God himself, in a freak event which both destroyed his church and killed all his parishioners.
This creature is called Genesis, and it is the end product of a forbidden affair between an angel and a demon. This potentially cataclysmic combination of good and evil, combined with the conflicted rage of a pissed-off preacher is the central juxtaposition that makes Preacher so interesting.
Jesse sets off to find God, and not in a figurative sense. The big cloud-dwelling man with a beard went into earthly hiding when Genesis was born, and Jesse is hungry for answers. His journey (teamed up with his other half and a drunken Irish vampire) pits them against foes both real and mystical, with his quest for vengeance providing plenty of action.
First, Ennis sold the rights to Electric Entertainment, got Rachel Talalay of Tank Girl on-board to direct and managed to nab Kevin Smith in a producer role. Around 2002, Cyclops himself James Marsden joined the cast as Jesse. Eventually, budgetary problems shut them, sadly.
Next, Daredevil and Ghost Rider script-writer Mark Steven Johnson was working on a HBO series which would follow the comics very closely, before the network gave up on the idea for being too dark and potentially religiously offensive.
Most recently (and arguably most promisingly), the latest man to attempt bringing Preacher to the big screen was none other than American Beauty director and Bond rejuvenator Sam Mendes, in whose hands we feel this could have become a proper cinematic treat, with his penchant for action and emotion potentially resulting in a supernatural version of Calvary.
Sadly, it never came to fruition. “I could not find a way of making Preacher—tonally it’s a very difficult thing to make work, and there’s a reason why it’s struggled so much,” Mendes told Collider recently.
“It wasn’t just that I sort of walked away from it because they wouldn’t pay for it or anything like that,” he added. “It was because I couldn’t really make it work, I couldn’t find a way of defining what it was onscreen.”
Seth Rogen is attached to produce (but not star in) a TV version, which is said to be fully scripted, picked-up by AMC and rumoured to hit our telly boxes in 2015. Our fingers remain firmly crossed that this time Preacher will actually make it all the way through production.
Sgt Rock is a DC property that dates back to 1959. He primarily exists outside the main DC universe though, so we’re going to chuck him in here. The eponymous Sgt (real name Frank) is a member of the US military who has had a vast collection of comic book adventures – he has fought in Europe, Japan and Africa, picking up plenty of readers in the process.
He gained promotion to his esteemed position the not-nice way – by seeing his comrades killed in the field of battle on his first mission after signing up in the wake of the Pearl Harbour attacks. He’s been an example of comics attempting to adapt to social context for as long as he’s existed.
Skilled in combat and shooting things, Sgt Rock also possesses unfathomable amounts of strength. Called ‘the skipper’ to his troop, known as Easy Company, Sgt Rock is a no nonsense leader with plenty of blood on his hands from years in the military.
Despite not exactly being a household name for kids today, he is revisited and referenced fairly regularly by new generations of comic book writers. In the 90s, new stories popped up every few years, and most recently DC published a whole new run Sgt. Rock: The Lost Battalion in 2008, which also brought back wartime DC mainstays like The Haunted Tank and Johnny Cloud.
There’s been two attempts at getting a movie version made, the first of which came around the late 80s/early 90s and saw Arnold Schwarzenegger touted for the role. Despite initial scepticism at an Austrian playing the all-American hero, a script was drafted which saw Arnie portraying Frank as a German-speaking American soldier of dual heritage, who would use this to his advantage by ambushing enemies with his fluent German skills. Though details are hard to find about the exact whys and wherefores, this version never got any further.
Jump forward to 2007 and producer Joel Silver (Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, The Matrix) is attempting to get the film version of Sgt Rock off the ground again. A script was written, Guy Ritchie was purportedly on-board to direct and Bruce Willis was tipped to star in the title role. If any combination in Hollywood could make an enjoyable Sgt Rock movie, you’d put good money on those three.
However, the film seems to have hit a brick wall at some point in recent years. It was first put on hold so Ritchie could make Sherlock Holmes, and later bizarrely rumoured to have been transported from World War II to the near future according to news stories from 2010. Since then – radio silence. So we’d wager that this one is dead. A shame, because in the right hands there’s no reason it couldn’t work.
Mort, The Dead Teenager
Here’s one that there isn’t a huge deal of information about, which still sounds potentially brilliant. Mort, The Dead Teenager was a short-running Marvel comic which existed outside their main continuity and got missed in our bigger Marvel list.
The comic ran for only four issues back in 1993, and centred on the zombie adventures of Mort, who, as you might have guessed, was a teenager. Killed in a drag-racing incident after joy-riding his father’s car, Mort is guided through the afterlife by Teen Death, the child of regular Death, aka The Grim Reaper.
Carrying on the early 90s oddness, Mort is soon told that heaven is closed for repairs, and thrown back into his normal life, despite now being a member of the undead. He uses fun new abilities like being able to remove his own head to pull pranks on the cool kids that got him killed, all the while continuing his quest to get to ‘the good place’ (his name for heaven).
G.I. Joe writer Larry Hama is alleged to have written the comic as the means to help pitch a movie, and initially succeeded in whipping up some impressive levels of interest. First up, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis picked up the rights, but later opted not to develop a movie. It’s a shame – if anyone could pull off an undead teen flick, it’d be that incredible pairing.
When they dropped the idea around 2002 though, an equally intriguing option came to the fore – Quentin Tarantino. The master of cinematic curveballs like ‘Brad Pitt as a scalper who turns the tide of World War II’ could probably have done something quite interesting with this oddball property too, but sadly he never did. He did get as far as casting Mort though, with Elijah Wood being his choice. Now who wouldn’t want to see that?
Y: The Last Man
Last on our list is another could-have-been big screen comic book adaptation which we really hope will reach the live action realm at some point in the future – Y: The Last Man.
Published by DC’s Vertigo imprint, this ten-part dystopian science fiction series began back in 2002 when writer Brian K Vaughan (who has written extensively for Marvel and DC, as well as working on TV’s Lost) and comparative newcomer artist Pia Guerra released the first volume of their Eisner-award winning story.
The premise of the piece is that every animal on the planet containing a male chromosome (human or otherwise, including sperms, embryos and fertilised eggs) was simultaneously killed by a plague on 17 July 2002. That is, everyone except escape artist Yorick and his pet monkey Ampersand.
Extinction seemingly awaits, and as such society begins to crumble. The search for seemingly unfindable answers (human evolutionary backfires, an attack on the Chinese and cursed amulets feature heavily in theories) and a quest for a cure are both plot strands, but Yorick’s run-ins with secret agents, government officials and geneticist doctors are just as important to the story.
Before the series had even finished, plans for a movie were already afoot. Vertigo’s sister company New Line Cinema acquired the rights and David S Goyer came on-board as producer. The Disturbia duo of writer Carl Ellsworth and director DJ Caruso were originally involved to rework a script written by I, Robot’s Jeff Vintar.
However, they didn’t succeed at getting a script accepted by New Line Cinema. When Vaughan himself turned in a draft, it wasn’t liked either. Rumour continued to fly around the press though: Shia LaBeouf, who had starred in Disturbia, initially denied playing Yorick, before displaying openness to the idea later on. Ampersand was rumoured to be played by a non-CGI real-life monkey and Alicia Keys was rumoured for a role as Agent 355.
Caruso ultimately walked when New Line Cinema denied his idea to make a trilogy of films rather than just one. He claimed there was too much material to do justice in one film. With a 60-issue run to work with, we think he might have been right. He left to develop I Am Number Four instead.
Jericho writers Matthew Federman and Stephen Scaia joined up to try again with the film after The Incredible Hulk’s Louis Leterrier unsuccessfully pitched a TV series idea. Dan Trachtenberg (director of the gaming fan film Portal: No Escape) became attached as a director in January last year.
Despite this, Vaughan has told Comic Book Resources in January this year that the rights will revert back to him and Pia Guerra in the near future unless New Line start filming imminently. As that seems unlikely, it seems pretty safe to call this one another could-have-been. We’re interested to see what the creators do with the rights next, though.
So, the world of non-superhero comics is just as difficult when it comes to actually getting your film made. Each of these four projects could have found a big audience if produced correctly, but so far none have made it out of their development hell. If we could only pick one of them to pop into an alternate reality and witness, it’d have to be Quentin Tarantino’s Mort, The Dead Teenager with Elijah Wood.
If you want more analysis of probably-nots from the world of Marvel and DC, check out our list of properties we really hope they aren’t developing.
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