This article contains some Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice spoilers.
In 2016, a little movie called Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice made some waves by pitting the two heroes against each other, and depicting a slightly older, more seasoned Batman. It’s no secret that this isn’t the first time Warner Bros. has tried to pair the World’s Finest team on the big screen with a different Batman vs. Superman movie, which went under the working title of Asylum, nearly making it into production back in 2002.
At the time, both the Batman and Superman franchises were adrift. Superman hadn’t seen a big screen outing since 1987’s miserable Superman IV: The Quest for Peace while Batman’s creative prospects were smarting from the overstuffed Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. A change was in the air for both heroes. Warner Bros. had spent much of the past decade trying to resurrect Superman by killing him, commissioning multiple drafts of Superman Lives/Superman Reborn from a multitude of writers including Nightcrawler’s Dan Gilroy, Terminator’s William Wisher, and most famously, fresh off the success of Chasing Amy, Kevin Smith. These were still the pre-Batman Begins days, with the ill-fated Batman: Year One and Batman Beyond movies in the pipeline, and a failed pilot script for a very much pre-Gotham young Bruce Wayne TV series.
The aborted production has been detailed all over the internet for years (notably in this excellent io9 article), so I’m not going to get too deep into it here. The short version is that while Warner Bros. was developing the J.J. Abrams penned Superman: Flyby (which I wrote about in detail here), the studio also decided to try and resurrect two franchises for the price of one with director Wolfgang Petersen’s Batman vs. Superman. While Petersen decided to go off to make Troy, the studio eventually chose to move forward with Flyby instead, which of course never got made either. But like I said, that’s a whole ‘nother story. Still, the key players involved are definitely worth mentioning: Petersen (Air Force One) was lined up to direct, and potential stars (it never got that far) included Jude Law as Superman and Colin Farrell as Batman. Se7en’s Andrew Kevin Walker also wrote the initial draft.
The information in this article is based on comes from a draft dated June 21, 2002, and already contains revisions by Akiva Goldsman. Don’t worry, though, because despite its problems, at no point does Asylum devolve into a Batman & Robin style debacle. In fact, in a lot of ways, this would have been an effective reboot for both characters without exposing audiences to the tedium of more origin stories.
Even though it’s set anywhere from five to 10 years into their respective careers, there’s little here to explicitly prevent this movie from being a direct sequel to either of those earlier franchises (even though that isn’t the case) and audiences could have drawn their own conclusions about whether or not these were intended to be the same versions of the characters that they had been enjoying (or not enjoying) in previous films. For example, the only overt nod to Batman’s recent cinematic past is the fact that the Joker’s headstone bears the name “Jack Napier.” A similar “vague sequel” approach was used when Superman finally did make it back to the screen with 2006’s Superman Returns which picked and chose what it wanted to from the Donner/Lester/Salkind years.
While Warner Bros. was clearly hot to revitalize two of their biggest properties in one shot, there’s little to no consideration about any kind of wider shared cinematic universe on display. Other than a couple of Barbara Gordon appearances (she’s the Commissioner now and there are some weird hints that she may have been romantically involved with Bruce Wayne in the past), and a mention of Aunt Harriet from the 1966 TV show, you can forget about any DC Comics Easter eggs. There’s no mention of the Justice League or any other heroes, and the focus is always squarely on the title characters.
I have to say, Batman vs. Superman starts off quite strong. In fact, it’s opening pages appear to “get” Superman in a way that virtually no other Superman screenplay from this notoriously dark period in the character’s history ever quite did (both Abrams’ Flyby and Kevin Smith’s Superman Lives have their moments, though). As you might expect for a blockbuster screenplay turned in less than a year after the devastating attacks on the World Trade Center, there’s a certain amount of 9/11 imagery in play, although not in the form of the wholesale destruction that has since come to symbolize cinematic shorthand for this.
Instead, after a nearly successful terrorist attack on Metropolis’ equivalent of the United Nations building, Superman is put in the uncomfortable position of preventing a mob from beating one of the terrorists to death. Of course, this terrorist is later revealed as the Joker, and Superman’s actions here become the basis of his rift with Batman.
How? Well, Bruce Wayne, who has happily retired his crime fighting alter ego, is marrying the woman of his dreams. Clark Kent is the best man at the wedding. But when the newly-minted Mrs. Wayne is killed by a dart with Joker toxin on their honeymoon, all signs point back to the terrorist who Superman let live and get away at the start of the film. Bruce blames Clark for this, but it’s only Clark’s insistence that he won’t let Batman kill the responsible party that brings them into direct conflict.
What’s interesting about this element of the script isn’t that Superman’s overbearing moral code is what starts the fight between the two. His concern is less for the loss of the Joker’s life than it is for Bruce Wayne if he actually crosses that line and kills his foe in anger. Superman knows that if Batman goes down that path, he’ll never return. Some rather tortured dialogue aside, compare this to the murky and far more antagonistic “motives” behind the climactic fight in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and I have to say, the movie we ended up getting comes up considerably lacking.
Some of the traditional Warner Bros.’ obsessions surrounding Superman are still present in here. The need to have Clark/Superman portrayed as an outsider is what results in his estrangement from Lois Lane, and nothing cuts Clark more deeply than Bruce telling him that he can’t possibly understand how he feels because he’s just an alien. The other Warner Bros. obsessions, like making sure that Batman offers as many merchandising opportunities as possible (virtually every Bat-vehicle you can dream of appears, as does some Kryptonite-laced battle armor) are also well on display.
It all falls completely to pieces at the end, though. The script strays well into the very worst of early 21st Century blockbuster storytelling territory. The fight between Batman and Superman is overlong, the villains are over the top caricatures, and the logic of Lex Luthor’s plan to (I shit you not, this is what happens) resurrect the Joker so he could hire a woman for Bruce to marry in order for him to kill her, and play Superman and Batman against each other, is maddeningly nonsensical.
But there’s one thing it does get right. As Batman finally puts his boot on the Joker’s throat, ready to crush the life out of the architect of his misery, Superman tells him, “Go ahead… People have a right to choose.”
Batman keeps his foot to Joker’s white throat, looking up.
So be my guest. But do me one favor before you do. Before you kill him. Take off the mask.
Batman looks back down at Joker.
Don’t hide behind it. Don’t pretend this is some other part of you doing this. This is your right, as a human being. Your retribution. So do this as the man who’s going to live with it for the rest of his life. Take off the mask.
After another minute of this (I admit, it goes on too long), Batman relents, and doesn’t take another life with Superman standing by.
So while Batman vs. Superman: Asylum may very well have turned out to be another soulless blockbuster, it still wouldn’t have cost either of its lead characters their souls. And perhaps more importantly, the only story this movie had to tell was its own, as it wasn’t particularly concerned about setting up sequels or a half a dozen other movies.