Capeless: The Batman and Superman movies that never happened

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There have been a lot of cinematic roads not taken for DC's two biggest superheroes.

Batman and Superman have headlined a total of 14 live-action feature films since 1978, when Superman: The Movie starring Christopher Reeve became the first expensive superhero epic to achieve blockbuster success at the box office. Since then, the two iconic DC Comics characters have hit peaks and valleys both in terms of quality and financial success, yet rarely has there been a time in the last 38 years when their parent studio -- Warner Bros. Pictures -- was not developing a movie starring at least one of them.

With the long-awaited pairing of the two in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice now in theaters, we thought it might be worth taking a look back at what could have been. Of the dozen abandoned Batman and/or Superman projects listed below, any one of them could have changed the course of comic-book movie history for better or worse. We'll never know ... but it's fascinating to look at how many different permutations these characters have gone through to get where they are today.

The Batman (1983 script)

Producers Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker purchased the film rights to Batman from DC Comics in 1979, then spent the next several years being turned down by every studio, none of which got the pair's vision for a darker, more serious Caped Crusader, and all of which still wanted the campy 1960s TV series as a template. Nonetheless, the pair eventually found a home for the project at Warner Bros. Pictures and commissioned a script from Tom Mankiewicz, who had worked on several James Bond films as well as 1978's Superman: The Movie. Mankiewicz's script was based loosely on the Strange Apparitions comic book arc and was essentially an origin story for both the Dark Knight and Robin, while also incorporating villains Joker, Penguin and crime boss Rupert Thorne. No director or star ever signed on for the film, although Ivan Reitman was considered to direct and reportedly wanted to cast Bill Murray as Bruce Wayne/Batman. The script went into rewrites -- some nine different screenwriters worked on it -- eventually mutating into what became Tim Burton's 1989 Batman.

Superman V (early '90s)

While Batman was having trouble getting launched on the big screen, the Superman franchise had problems of its own. 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace was an all-around disaster, but Cannon Films -- which had inherited the franchise from the Salkinds and distributor Warner Bros. -- nevertheless was interested in pressing forward with a fifth film starring Christopher Reeve. A script was allegedly written in the early 1990s in which Superman died and was reborn, only to find himself trapped in the shrunken Kryptonian city of Kandor, presumably put there by Brainiac. The project was eventually abandoned and the rights to Superman ended up back at Warner Bros. (which had purchased DC Comics). Two aspects of this story -- Brainiac and Kandor -- remain parts of the Superman mythology that we'd still like to see on-screen someday.

Superman Reborn (approx. 1993)

Warner Bros. was busy with the Batman franchise for a while in the '80s and early '90s, but reacquired the rights to the Man of Steel around the same time and started developing a new Superman film that turned out to be quite bizarre. The original script by Jonathan Lemkin (Demolition Man) had Superman killed by Doomsday -- but not before non-sexually impregnating Lois Lane with his "life force," causing her to give birth to a child who quickly grows into a new version of Superman. Further rewrites focused on the romantic problems between Superman and Lois, while introducing Brainiac as Doomsday's creator and providing Superman with a robotic suit that mimicked his powers until he mastered them again on his own. Villains like Parasite and Silver Banshee also showed up. The studio eventually decided on a massive overhaul of the whole thing and hired Kevin Smith to write a new screenplay, leading to one of the most infamous abandoned films of all time.

Batman III (1995)

In addition to being a colossal box office smash, Tim Burton's Batman was a cultural phenomenon that changed the mass audience perception of the Dark Knight once and for all. His 1992 follow-up, Batman Returns, went a little too dark and macabre for parents, kiddies and corporate sponsors like McDonald's, while still earning a respectable amount of cash but nowhere near what the first one did. Nonetheless, Burton did take at least one meeting about directing a third Bat-film, and Michael Keaton was still on board well into 1994 (the photo above is reportedly of an unused Keaton Batsuit sculpture for the film). There were also rumors that Michele Pfeiffer would return as Catwoman, that Robin Williams had been approached to play the Riddler, and that Marlon Wayans would be Robin after being left out of Batman Returns. But none of this came to pass. Warner Bros. execs told Burton his services were no longer required and handed the reins to Joel Schumacher, with the mandate to make a more kid-friendly and "fun" Batman movie. That was also Keaton's cue to exit Wayne Manor, while Williams took too long to decide and the role of the Riddler went to Jim Carrey. So, instead of a Burton-Keaton-Pfeiffer-Williams Batman III, we got...Batman Forever.

Superman Lives (1996 - 1998)

Kevin Smith was hired to write a brand new Superman script after the plug was pulled on Superman Reborn, but he fell under the supervision of eccentric producer Jon Peters, who made bizarre demands, such as wanting Superman to wear a black suit, taking away his ability to fly and having him fight a giant spider (it didn't matter how the spider got there). Smith gamely went to work and came up with a story in which Brainiac creates Doomsday to kill Superman (a leftover from the earlier Reborn idea), while also blocking the sun's light so that Superman's powers are cut off. Supes is eventually resurrected by a Kryptonian android called the Eradicator, which then turns itself into a suit that Kal-El wear until his powers return. Tim Burton was signed to direct (and immediately had Smith's script rewritten), Nicolas Cage was cast as Superman, and actors such as Christopher Walken and Gary Oldman were considered for Brainiac. Superman Lives got deep into pre-production, with costumes fitted, soundstages reserved and crew hired, but Warner Bros. shut it down in April 1998 due to a budget that rose as high as $190 million (that would be considered almost a bargain today). The whole crazy story is chronicled in the terrific documentary, The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?

Batman Unchained (1999)

Batman Forever begat Batman & Robin, and before that took a wrecking ball to the franchise in spectacular fashion, plans were already afoot for a fifth Batman movie in that cycle. Mark Protosevich (Thor, I Am Legend) was hired to write the script, which was called Batman Unchained (not Batman Triumphant as rumored for years) and would feature the Scarecrow and Harley Quinn as the villains, with Jack Nicholson's Joker also slated to return as part of a hallucination that Batman suffers due to the Scarecrow's fear gas. Had he directed it as planned, Joel Schumacher says he would have course-corrected back to the darker style that the series started with. George Clooney was signed to encore as the Bat and Nicolas Cage was on board as Scarecrow, but then Batman & Robin flopped, shutting down Batman Unchained and putting the franchise on ice for the next eight years until Christopher Nolan resurrected it.

Batman: DarKnight (2000)

Although it would be years before Batman returned to the multiplex, Warner Bros. continuously tried to reboot the property in the wake of the Batman & Robin disaster. One of the first attempts was also one of the strangest. Batman: DarKnight (yes, with that spelling) was a script submitted by two totally unknown writers named Lee Shapiro and Stephen Wise, based on a pitch they made to the studio. The story had Bruce Wayne retired from fighting crime and Dick Grayson attending Gotham University while Dr. Jonathan Crane, a.k.a. Scarecrow, conducts his experiments involving fear as head of Arkham Asylum. During a confrontation with colleague Kirk Langstrom, Crane initiates the process that turns Langstrom into Man-Bat, with the latter embarking on a reign of terror that somehow gets him mistaken for the work of Batman. The Dark Knight then returns to action to clear his name and stop Man-Bat. Not a bad premise, actually, but making Man-Bat work onscreen would have been a challenge. However, no one ever tried: the studio passed, although Scarecrow and his fear gas did eventually make it into a Batman film.

Batman Beyond (2000)

2000 was a busy year for Batman projects that got put into development...and stayed there. One of those was Batman Beyond, a live-action version of the animated series in which an elderly Bruce Wayne acts as a mentor to a new, teenage Batman in a futuristic Gotham City in the year 2039. Created by Paul Dini, Bruce Timm and Alan Burnett, the show had a 52-episode run (and one direct-to-video film) that was acclaimed as one of the more unique takes on the Batman mythos. It certainly seemed to lend itself to a feature as well, with Dini and Burnett assigned to write a script and Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) attached to direct. But the studio had a change of heart in the summer of 2001, deciding to focus on Batman: Year One instead, and Batman Beyond was abandoned...a shame, really.

Batman: Year One (2000 - 2002)

Frank Miller's 1987 comic book arc Batman: Year One was among the group of stories from that period -- including Watchmen and Miller's The Dark Knight Returns -- that revolutionized and deconstructed superhero stories. A gritty retelling of the Bat's origins, the comic was dark, violent and featured a young Bruce Wayne working on the street, Selina Kyle as a prostitute and Jim Gordon battling rampant corruption in the Gotham PD. Director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) was hired to direct and co-write the film with Miller, with Aronofsky envisioning it as a complete, R-rated revision of the Batman mythology that jettisoned many of its core elements. Warner Bros. got cold feet over Aronofsky's concept, but some elements made it into Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins -- including the casting of Christian Bale as Batman. 

Batman vs. Superman (2002)

In development around roughly the same time as Batman: Year One, Batman vs. Superman was spearheaded by director Wolfgang Petersen (The Perfect Storm) and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven). Remarkably, the story featured elements that managed to surface in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice 14 years later. The movie was set five years after the retirement of Bruce Wayne as Batman, following the death of Robin at the hands of the Joker. Wayne is happily married, until his wife is also murdered by the Clown Prince of Crime. Enraged that his friend, Superman, stopped him from killing the Joker years earlier, Batman goes on a reign of terror against Gotham's criminals, but his brutality doesn't sit well with the Man of Steel and the two allies turn on each other, only to learn that Lex Luthor has been pulling their strings the whole time. Warner Bros. supposedly wanted to fast-track the movie for a 2004 release, Petersen approached Christian Bale (again!) to play Batman and Josh Hartnett to don Superman's gear -- but then the studio had a change of heart and decided to spin the two heroes into their own franchises once more. After all, two tentpoles were better than one, at least at the time.

Superman: Flyby (2002 - 2004)

Following the collapse of Batman vs. Superman, the Batman franchise found its way into the hands of Christopher Nolan and superhero movie history was made. Superman, however, continued to struggle. J.J. Abrams, hot off the success of his series Alias, was commissioned to write a new screenplay starring the Man of Steel. The result, Superman: Flyby, was an origin story that began on Krypton with Jor-El battling his evil brother, Kata-Zor. Jor-El is defeated and imprisoned, but not before sending his son, Kal-El, to Earth. The rest involved a re-imagined Lex Luthor as a CIA agent, Clark Kent revealing himself to the world as Superman, and a battle with four evil Kryptonians that ends up with Superman dead and visiting Jor-El in Kryptonian heaven, where Supes is resurrected and sent back to save Earth. Warner Bros. set a summer 2004 release date. Brett Ratner and McG flip-flopped as director, while actors like Jude Law, Brendan Fraser, Josh Hartnett, Paul Walker, David Boreanaz, Ashton Kutcher and a young unknown named Henry Cavill were all considered for the title role (that's the suit above). In the end, however, Ratner and McG both walked, the script went into rewrites, and Bryan Singer came on board for what finally materialized in 2006 as Superman Returns.

Justice League: Mortal (2007 - 2008)

With Superman Returns underperforming at the box office and a sequel stalled in development after being initially announced for a 2009 release, Warner Bros. got the bright idea to make a Justice League movie despite none of the other characters except Batman appearing on the big screen before (unconfirmed rumors suggested that Christopher Nolan, working on The Dark Knight at the time, was not happy about it, either). Nevertheless, the studio forged ahead with the great George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) behind the camera and a cast (see photo above) that included Armie Hammer as Batman, D.J. Cotrona as Superman, Megan Gale as Wonder Woman, Common as Green Lantern, Teresa Palmer as Talia al Ghul, Adam Brody as the Flash, and Jay Baruchel as lead villain Maxwell Lord. A writer's strike and issues with getting a budget rebate from Australia -- where the movie was initially going to be filmed -- delayed the start of production, and Warner Bros. delayed it even further until shutting the project down, ostensibly because they did not want to have two different Batmans in the marketplace. But Justice League: Mortal came darn close to getting made...and we can only wonder what the DC Extended Universe might look like now if it had.

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