Fall and Rise of The Dark Knight: A Tale from Development Hell

TalesDevHellSquareFew heroes have inspired so many stories as the costumed crime fighter known to almost every man, woman and child on Earth as Batman. The creation of cartoonist Bob Kane and his (mostly uncredited) partner Bill Finger, Batman made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27, published in May 1939 — a year after Superman’s début. Lacking the superpowers of his predecessor, ‘The Bat-Man’ was forced to rely on his physical prowess, and the enormous wealth of his alter ego, the millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, who provided his costumed counterpart with a house (the Batcave), a car (the Batmobile), an aircraft (the Batplane) and a utility belt full of gadgets. Kane credited numerous influences for his creation, including Zorro, The Shadow and a 1930 film entitled The Bat Whispers, which featured a caped criminal who shines his bat insignia on the wall just prior to killing his victims. “I remember when I was twelve or thirteen… I came across a book about Leonardo da Vinci,” Kane added. “This had a picture of a flying machine with huge bat wings… It looked like a bat man to me.”

Batman first reached the silver screen as early as the 1940s, with the first of two fifteen-chapter Columbia serials: Batman (1943), starring Lewis Wilson as the Caped Crusader, and Batman and Robin (1949), with Robert Lowery. Almost two decades later, on 12 January 1966, the ABC television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward brought the characters to an entirely new generation, running for only two seasons, but earning a quickie big-screen spin-off within the first year. Although Kane’s earliest stories had a noir-ish sensibility, over time the characters developed the more playful personae that were magnificently captured by the camp capers of the TV series. “Batman and Robin were always punning and wisecracking and so were the villains,” Kane said in 1965. “It was camp way ahead of its time.” In the 1970s, Batman continued to appear in an animated series, Superfriends, but the legacy of the 1960s TV series meant that it was not until Frank Miller reinvented the character for the darkly gothic comic strip series The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One in the mid-1980s that the world was ready to take Batman seriously again.

Just as Batman had made his first appearance in comic strips a year after Superman, the development of the Batman movie — the first since the 1966 caper with Adam West — began a year after the blockbuster success of Superman: The Movie in 1978. Former Batman comic book writer Michael E. Uslan, together with his producing partner Benjamin Melniker, secured the film rights from DC Comics, announcing a 1981 release for the film, then budgeted at $15 million. Uslan and Melniker hired Superman’s (uncredited) screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz to script the story, which was set in the near future, and closely followed the Superman model: an extended origin story, followed by the genesis of his superhero alter ego, and his eventual confrontation with The Joker. It ended with the introduction of Robin. It was Uslan’s wish to make “a definitive Batman movie totally removed from the TV show, totally removed from camp; a version that went back to the original Bob Kane/Bill Finger strips.”

By 1983, the project was still languishing in Development Hell, as potential directors including Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) and Joe Dante (Gremlins) came and went. It was following the surprise success of Tim Burton’s slapstick comedy Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure that Warner Bros — whose stewardship of the project resulted from a deal with Peter Guber’s Casablanca Film Works, with whom Melniker had a development deal — offered the project to lifelong Bat-fan Tim Burton, who was busy making Beetlejuice for the studio. “The first treatment of Batman, the Mankiewicz script, was basically Superman, only the names had been changed,” Burton told Mark Salisbury. “It had the same jokey tone, as the story followed Bruce Wayne from childhood through to his beginnings as a crime fighter. They didn’t acknowledge any of the freakish nature of it… The Mankiewicz script made it more obvious to me that you couldn’t treat Batman like Superman, or treat it like the TV series, because it’s a guy dressing up as a bat and no matter what anyone says, that’s weird.” Although Burton had fond memories of the series, which he would run home from school to watch, he had no wish to duplicate its campy tone. Yet it would take the comic book boom of the late 1980s — notably the success of the collected edition of The Dark Knight Returns — to convince Warner Bros that Burton’s approach might connect with audiences. “The success of the graphic novel made our ideas far more acceptable,” he observed.

With Warner Bros’ blessing, Burton began working on a new draft with emerging screenwriting talent and fellow Bat-fan Sam Hamm, whose comedy script Pulitzer Prize had sparked a bidding war and landed him a two-year contract with Warner Bros. Hamm felt that the Superman model was wrong; that rather than dwell on Batman’s origins, the character should be presented as a fait accompli, with his background and motivations emerging as the story progressed, so that the unlocking of the mystery becomes part of the plot. “I tried to take the premise which had this emotionally scarred millionaire whose way of dealing with his traumas was by putting on the suit,” Hamm said. “If you look at it from this aspect, that there is no world of superheroes, no DC Universe and no real genre conventions to fall back on, you can start taking the character seriously. You can ask, ‘What if this guy actually does exist?’ And in turn, it’ll generate a lot of plot for you.” Burton liked the approach: “I’d just meet Sam on weekends to discuss the early writing stages. We knocked it into good shape while I directed Beetlejuice, but as a ‘go’ project it was only green-lighted by Warners when the opening figures for Beetlejuice surprised everybody — including myself!”

Mel Gibson, Alec Baldwin, Bill Murray, Charlie Sheen and Pierce Brosnan were all rumoured to be on Warner Bros’ shortlist for the title role, although Jack Nicholson’s casting as The Joker meant that the studio could afford to go with an unknown — after all, it had worked with Christopher Reeve for Superman. Burton had his doubts. “In my mind I kept reading reviews that said, ‘Jack’s terrific, but the unknown as Batman is nothing special,’” he told Mark Salisbury. Neither did he want to cast an obvious action hero — “Why would this big, macho, Arnold Schwarzenegger-type person dress up as a bat for God’s sake?” Finally, it came down to only one choice: Michael Keaton, whom he had just directed in Beetlejuice. “That guy you could see putting on a bat-suit; he does it because he needs to, because he’s not this gigantic, strapping macho man. It’s all about transformation…” observed Burton. “Taking Michael and making him Batman just underscored the whole split personality thing which is really what I think the movie’s all about.”

By this time, Hamm’s involvement had been sidelined by the writers’ strike, so Burton brought in Beetlejuice writer Warren Skaaren and Charles McKeown (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen). Their principal job was to lighten the tone — not because of Keaton’s casting, but because of studio fears that a troubled and disturbed Batman, full of self-doubt and unresolved psychological issues, might turn off audiences. “I see what they’re doing,” Hamm conceded, “in that they don’t want to have a larger-than-life, heroic character who is plagued by doubts about the validity of what he’s doing, but it’s stuff that I miss.”

Principal photography began under tight security in October 1988. Although Sean Young’s riding accident threw the schedule out at an early stage, it could have spelled disaster for the production had it occurred later in the shoot; as it was, none of her scenes had to be re-shot when Kim Basinger stepped into Vicki Vale’s shoes. In spite of this early setback, the sheer scale of the production, the complexity of the special effects, the extensive night shoots, the large number of interior and exterior locations, and the restrictive nature of Jack Nicholson’s contract — which, despite his enormous fee, meant that he could only be called for a specified number of hours per day, including time spent in the makeup chair — Burton delivered the film on schedule, and only a fraction over budget. The anticipation for Batman was running at fever pitch by the time the film finally hit US cinemas on 21 June 1989, swooping to a record-breaking $42.7 million opening weekend, becoming the first film to hit $100 million after just ten days on release, and grossing $413 million worldwide. ‘Bat-mania’ swept the planet, with the film becoming not only the biggest film of 1989, but perhaps more significantly the most successful in Warner Bros’ history. Thus, it came as no surprise when the studio invited Burton back up to bat for the sequel. No one was more surprised than the director, however, when he said yes.

Although Warner Bros left the Gotham City set standing at Pinewood Studios (at a cost of $20,000 per day) in the hopes that the success of Batman would warrant a sequel, Batman Returns was ultimately shot in Los Angeles, with Burton again at the helm, and Michael Keaton back in the Batsuit. This time, Burton’s dark sensibilities were given a freer reign, with The Penguin (Danny DeVito) and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) as the villains. Sam Hamm’s script (which also featured Catwoman) was rejected in favour of one by Heathers scribe Daniel Waters, which was subsequently doctored by Wesley Strick (Cape Fear).

“When I was hired to write Batman Returns ([called] Batman II at the time), I was asked to focus on one (big) problem with the current script: Penguin’s lack of a ‘master plan’,” Strick recalls. “To be honest, this didn’t especially bother me; in fact I found it refreshing — in comic book stories, there’s nothing hoarier or (usually) hokier than an arch-villain’s ‘master plan’. But the lack of one in Batman II was obsessing the Warner brass.” Strick says that he was presented with “the usual boring ideas to do with warming the city, or freezing the city, that kind of stuff.” (Warner executives evidently continued to have similar ideas as the years passed: a frozen Gotham ended up as a key plot device in Batman & Robin.)

Strick pitched an alternative approach — inspired by the ‘Moses’ parallels of Water’s prologue, in which Baby Penguin is bundled in a basket and thrown in the river where he floats, helpless, till he’s saved (and subsequently raised) by Gotham’s sewer denizens — in which Penguin’s ‘master plan’ is to kill the firstborn sons of Gotham City. Warner Bros loved it, and so did Burton. However, as Strick admits, “It turned out to be a controversial addition. The toy manufacturers were not alone in disliking it — it also did substantially less business than the first [Batman].” Indeed, although Batman Returns scored a bigger opening weekend ($45.6 million) than its predecessor, its worldwide gross was $282.8 million, barely two thirds of Batman’s score.

Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995) — featuring Val Kilmer as Batman, Jim Carrey as The Riddler, Nicole Kidman as love interest Dr Chase Meridian, Chris O’Donnell as Robin, and (despite the casting of Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent in Batman) Tommy Lee Jones as Harvey Dent/Two-Face — bounced back, with a $52.7 million opening weekend and a worldwide gross of $333 million. Yet the $42.87 million opening weekend and mere $237 million worldwide gross of the same director’s Batman & Robin (1997) — with George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell as the titular dynamic duo, Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy and Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl — effectively put the franchise on hiatus, despite a reported $125 million in additional revenue from tie-in toys, merchandise, clothing and ancillary items.

Despite the fact that, as far as Warner Bros was concerned, the future of the franchise remained in doubt, a plethora of rumours, lies and/or wishful thinking circulated about a fifth Batman film. Madonna had been cast as The Joker’s twisted love interest, Harley Quinn. The adversary in Batman 5 was to be The Sacrecrow — a second rank villain first introduced in the comics in 1940 — played by John Travolta, Howard Stern or Jeff Goldblum (depending on which source you believed). Jack Nicholson was returning as The Joker, possibly in flashback or as hallucinations invoked by The Scarecrow. “The Joker is coming, and it’s no laughing matter,” Nicholson himself reportedly teased journalists when asked about upcoming projects at a press conference for As Good As It Gets. In fact such was the level of scuttlebutt in the months following the release of Batman & Robin that several of the most prominent Internet rumour-mills — including Dark Horizons and Coming Attractions — took the unusual step of placing a moratorium on Batman 5 rumours. Yet from all this sound and fury a few tales of the Bat did emerge which appeared to have an element of truth. One was that Mark Protosevich — who scripted The Cell and Ridley Scott’s unproduced adaptation of I Am Legend for Warner Bros — had written a script, entitled either Batman Triumphant or DarkKnight, which featured Arkham Asylum, The Scarecrow and Harley Quinn, as well as numerous nightmarish hallucinations of Batman’s past.

One of the biggest rumours centred on the casting of Batman himself. Despite the fact that George Clooney was contracted to make at least one more film in the series, Kurt Russell — then starring for Warner Bros in Paul Anderson’s ill-fated Soldier — was widely reported to be in line for the role, although producer Jon Peters was dismissive. “He’s not Batman,” he told Cinescape. “Forget it. How could he be Batman? He’s my age. He could be Batman’s father, but not Batman.” The studio, apparently hoping to break the ‘revolving door’ casting of the Batman role, publicly stood by Clooney, who appeared willing to fulfil his contract. “If there is another, I’d do it,” he told E! News in September 1997. “I have a contract to do it. It’d be interesting to get another crack at it to make it different or better. I’ll take a look at [Batman & Robin] again in a couple of months,” he added. “I got the sense that it fell short, so I need to go back and look at it, see what I could have done better.”

Although Clooney believed he had “killed the franchise”, it was director Joel Schumacher, who had wrenched the series almost all the way back to the campy style of the sixties TV show, who bore the brunt of the blame for the relatively poor performance of Batman & Robin. “I felt I had disappointed a lot of older fans by being too conscious of the family aspect,” he told Variety in early 1998. “I’d gotten tens of thousands of letters from parents asking for a film their children could go to. Now, I owe the hardcore fans the Batman movie they would love me to give them.” The implication was that he would be asked to make another Batman, and on 1 July 1998 he went further, telling E! Online that he had talked with Warner Bros production chief Lorenzo di Bonaventura about the possibility of doing another one. “I would only do it on a much smaller scale, with less villains and truer in nature to the comic books,” he said.

Schumacher’s chief inspiration was Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, illustrated by Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again collaborator David Mazzucchelli, using a heavily-inked, high-contrast style which recalled newspaper strips like Dick Tracy, and coloured with earthy tones by Richmond Lewis. In just four twenty-four-page issues, Miller rewrote the first year of Batman mythology from the point of view of James Gordon, a young police lieutenant still years away from his promotion to the more familiar rank of Commissioner. As Miller wrote in his introduction to the collected edition, “If your only memory of Batman is that of Adam West and Burt Ward exchanging camped-out quips while clobbering slumming guest stars Vincent Price and Cesar Romero, I hope this book will come as a surprise.”

Year One begins as Gordon arrives in Gotham with his pregnant wife Ann, just as Bruce Wayne returns to the city where his parents were shot dead before his eyes eighteen years earlier. After twelve years of self-imposed exile, Wayne begins training himself for the double life he is soon to lead: layabout playboy by day, masked vigilante by night. However, while Bruce is discovering the difficulties inherent in trying to clean up streets that want to stay dirty, Lieutenant Gordon is finding that the corruption he encounters among street cops is endemic, and goes all the way to the top. Although Gordon initially endangers himself by exercising zero tolerance towards his corrupt colleagues, he also earns a reputation for heroics, making him as untouchable as he is incorruptible — until he slips into an affair with a beautiful colleague, Detective Essen, forcing him to admit his infidelity rather than give in to blackmail.

Meanwhile, just as a freak encounter with a bat has inspired Bruce Wayne to adopt an alter ego to strike fear into the dark hearts of the Gotham underworld — not to mention the same corrupt cops Gordon is fighting from the inside — so the ‘Batman’ inspires a cat-loving prostitute named Selina to switch careers, leaving the ‘cathouse’ (brothel) to become a costumed cat burglar. Finally, Batman narrowly escapes after being cornered in a tenement building and fire-bombed by Gordon’s superiors — just in time to save Gordon’s newborn baby from thugs, and thereby create an unofficial alliance between the two idealistic crime fighters, one in plain clothes, one in costume.

Despite Schumacher’s interest in using Year One as the basis for a darker, grittier adaptation, in the summer of 1999 Warner Bros asked New York film-maker Darren Aronofsky, fresh from his breakthrough feature, Pi, how he might approach the Batman franchise. “I told them I’d cast Clint Eastwood as the Dark Knight, and shoot it in Tokyo, doubling for Gotham City,” he says, only half-joking. “That got their attention.” Whether inspired or undeterred, the studio was brave enough to open a dialogue with the avowed Bat-fan, who became interested in the idea of an adaptation of Year One.
BatmanWide3“The Batman franchise had just gone more and more back towards the TV show, so it became tongue-in-cheek, a grand farce, camp,” says Aronofsky. “I pitched the complete opposite, which was totally bring-it-back-to-the-streets raw, trying to set it in a kind of real reality — no stages, no sets, shooting it all in inner cities across America, creating a very real feeling. My pitch was Death Wish or The French Connection meets Batman. In Year One, Gordon was kind of like Serpico, and Batman was kind of like Travis Bickle,” he adds, referring to police corruption whistle-blower Frank Serpico, played by Al Pacino in the eponymous 1973 film, and Robert De Niro’s vigilante in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Aronofsky had already noted how Frank Miller’s acclaimed Sin City series had influenced his first film, Pi; in addition, the director already had a good working relationship with the writer/artist, since they had collaborated on an unproduced feature adaptation of Miller’s earlier graphic novel, Ronin. “Our take was to infuse the [Batman] movie franchise with a dose of reality,” Aronofsky says. “We tried to ask that eternal question: ‘What does it take for a real man to put on tights and fight crime?’”

The studio was intrigued enough to commission a screenplay, in which Aronofsky and Miller took a great many liberties, not only with the Year One comic book, but with Batman mythology in general. For a start, the script strips Bruce Wayne of his status as heir apparent to the Wayne Industries billions, proposing instead that the young Bruce is found in the street after his parents’ murder, and taken in by ‘Big Al’, who runs an auto repair shop with his son, ‘Little Al’. Driven by a desire for vengeance towards a manifest destiny of which he is only dimly aware, young Bruce (of deliberately indeterminate age) toils day and night in the shop, watching the comings and goings of hookers, johns, pimps and corrupt cops at a sleazy East End cathouse across the street, while chain-smoking detective James Gordon struggles with the corruption he finds endemic among Gotham City police officers of all ranks.

Bruce’s first act as a vigilante is to confront a dirty cop named Campbell as he accosts ‘Mistress Selina’ in the cathouse, but Campbell ends up dead and Bruce narrowly escapes being blamed. Realising that he needs to operate with more methodology, he initially dons a cape and hockey mask — deliberately suggestive of the costume of Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th films. However, Bruce soon evolves a more stylised ‘costume’ with both form and function, acquires a variety of makeshift gadgets and weapons, and re-configures a black Lincoln Continental into a makeshift ‘Bat-mobile’ — complete with blacked-out windows, night vision driving goggles, armoured bumpers and a super-charged school bus engine. In his new guise as ‘The Bat-Man’, Bruce Wayne wages war on criminals from street level to the highest echelons, working his way up the food chain to Police Commissioner Loeb and Mayor Noone, even as the executors of the Wayne estate search for their missing heir. In the end, Bruce accepts his dual destiny as heir to the Wayne fortune and the city’s saviour, and Gordon comes to accept that, while he may not agree with The Bat-Man’s methods, he cannot argue with his results. “In the comic book, the reinvention of Gordon was inspired,” says Aronofsky, “because for the first time he wasn’t a wimp, he was a bad-ass guy. Gordon’s opening scene for us was [him] sitting on a toilet with the gun barrel in his mouth and six bullets in his hand, thinking about blowing his head off — and that to me is the character.”

The comic and the script have many scenes in common — including Bruce Wayne’s nihilistic narration (part Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, part Rorschach from that other great late 80s graphic novel, Watchmen), a heroic Gordon saving a baby during a hostage crisis, Selina as proto-Catwoman, the beating Gordon receives from fellow cops as a warning to give up his war on corruption, his suspicion that Harvey Dent is The Bat-Man, and the climactic battle in the tenement building. But it acts as a jumping-off point for a much grander narrative. Although the script removes the subplot of Gordon’s adultery, it goes further towards blurring the boundaries between accepted notions of good and evil: Gordon decries The Bat-Man’s vigilantism as the work of a terrorist whose actions put him outside the law, not above it, unaware that it was as much his own televised declaration of war on crime and corruption which inspired Bruce to vigilantism as the senseless and random murder of Bruce’s parents.

The script contains numerous references for Bat-fans, including a brief scene with a giggling green-haired inmate of Arkham Asylum, and goes a long way towards setting up a sequel, as Selina/Catwoman discovers the true identity of The Bat-Man. Interestingly, neither the comic book nor the script provide an entirely convincing argument for Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman: while Year One takes a more traditional approach — a bat smashes through the window of Bruce’s study — the script has Bruce take inspiration from the Bat-shaped mark produced by his signet ring (shades of Lee Falk’s superhero The Phantom) which leads the tabloids to dub him ‘The Bat-Man’.

In a rare interview, Miller told The Onion about working with Aronofsky. “He’s a ball,” he said. “Ideas just pour out of his ears. We tend to have a lot of fun together. It’s funny, because in many ways I think I’m the lighter one of the team, and I’m not used to that.” Although he would not talk about the content of the film “because I think Warner Brothers would have somebody beat me up,” he observed that asking a screenwriter what the movie would be like “is like asking a doorman whether a building is going to be condemned.” Nevertheless, Aronofsky believes that his and Miller’s approach would have made Tim Burton’s Batman look like a cartoon. “I think Tim did it very well,” he says, “especially on his second film, which I think is the masterpiece of the series. But it’s not reality. It’s totally Tim Burton’s world; a brilliant, well-polished Gothic perfection concoction. The first one did have a certain amount of reality, but there were still over-the-top fight sequences, and I wanted to have real fights, [explore] what happens when two men actually fight, which you just don’t see. Because once you start romanticising it and fantasising it into super-heroics, in the sense of good guys versus bad guys, and you’re not playing with the ambiguity of what is good and what is bad… I just could not find a way in for myself to tell that story.

Of his own approach, Aronofsky admits, “I think Warners always knew it would never be something they could make. I think rightfully so, because four year-olds buy Batman stuff, so if you release a film like that, every four year-old’s going to be screaming at their mother to take them to see it, so they really need a PG property. But there was a hope at one point that, in the same way that DC Comics puts out different types of Batman titles for different ages, there might be a way of doing [the movies] at different levels. So I was pitching to make an R-rated adult fan-based Batman — a hardcore version that we’d do for not that much money. You wouldn’t get any breaks from anyone because it’s Warner Bros and it’s Batman, but you could do it for a smart price, raw and edgy, and make it more for fans and adults. Maybe shoot it on Super-16 [mm film format], and maybe release it after you release the PG one, and say ‘That’s for kids, and this one’s for adults.’” Nevertheless, he adds, “Warner Bros was very brave in allowing us to develop it, and Frank and I were both really happy with the script.”

In Burbank, Warner Bros was simultaneously pursuing an equally radical approach to its biggest franchise, as Aronofsky reveals. “They had a vision of a Matrix version that could have been really cool, but it just wasn’t something I was really interested in doing.” Aronofsky may be referring to the possibility of The Matrix writer-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski helming a Batman film — which Lorenzo di Bonaventura admitted “had crossed his mind” — perhaps even with Keanu Reeves in the role, a rumour which Reeves himself appeared to encourage when he told listings magazine TV Times how he would approach the role. “It’ll have to be dark, very sombre,” he said. “Something that’ll make people think twice about whether they’re actually watching a Batman film or not… I want to see more about what makes [him] tick — Bruce is far more than just your average wacko.” As for The Joker, he went on, “He’s the archetypal bad guy, the ‘Bat-nemesis’. He’s the dude with whom the Bat must battle — he’s in the film, or I’m not! And Jack Nicholson has to do it again, definitely.” Within days, Warner Bros sensibly dismissed talk of Keanu Reeves starring as Batman, causing rumour-mongers to turn their attention to an equally bogus suggestion: Ben Affleck. Speaking via his official website’s message board, the future star of Daredevil hastily dismissed the claim as “pure fiction. There is no Batman script, no movie being planned, [and] they have not called me or my agent.”

While the future of the live-action Batman remained up in the air, the Caped Crusader was flying high in a highly stylised and hugely successful TV show, Batman: The Animated Series, which amassed eighty-five half-hour episodes between 1992 and 1995, and spawned numerous feature-length spin-offs — beginning with the theatrically-released Batman: Mask of the Phantasm — and no fewer than four sister series. One of these, Paul Dini and Alan Burnett’s futuristic Batman Beyond (aka Batman of the Future) — in which an ageing Bruce Wayne hands over the Batman mantle to teenage protégé Terry McGinnis — caught the eye of the studio, which was soon considering the possibility of a live-action version. “I know that it’s one of the possible options that they have discussed on the lot,” Dini told Cinescape in November 1999, adding that no script had been written. “I don’t know what their plans are for it beyond just investigating several alternative ways to keep Batman going, as opposed to the way they’ve been doing the last two or three movies,” he added. “It’s a real idea that they’re considering, but no one has asked us to be involved with it.” Warner Bros registered several domain names related to Batman Beyond: The Movie, which were unconnected to the direct-to-video animated feature Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker, and in August 2000 Variety named Boaz Yakin, who had written a script for Marvel Comics’ The Punisher and directed the surprise hit Remember the Titans, as director of the live-action Batman Beyond. As co-creator Paul Dini told website Comics Continuum, “Boaz is co-writing the script with Alan Burnett and myself, as well as directing.” Although such a script was almost certainly completed, soon after Dini’s announcement the studio let it be known that it was no longer pursuing the Batman Beyond approach.

In the meantime, several former Batman interpreters threw their hats into the Bat-ring, with Val Kilmer expressing interest in returning to the role, while even George Clooney offering his own take on the next film: “You do the movie cheap, in a film noir style,” he told the Internet Movie Database. “Make Batman the Dark Knight, something Tim Burton didn’t even do. You start at Alfred’s burial, with a Sam Spade film noir narrator, talking to this Death figure standing there that only he sees. Go into the first big action set [piece] with Robin and he gets killed.” Clooney’s continuing contractual connection to the franchise did nothing to quell various rumours linking Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, Aaron Eckhart (Erin Brockovich), Brendan Fehr (TV’s Roswell) and Christian Bale (American Psycho) to the role, despite the fact that neither Boaz Yakin nor Darren Aronofsky had ever discussed the potential casting of their stillborn projects.

With Year One and Batman Beyond both on the shelf, a more likely prospect seemed to be the big-screen team-up of DC Comics’ two biggest heroes, a cinematic equivalent of the popular World’s Finest title and the animated Batman/Superman adventures. The idea was first mooted in October 1998, when Jon Peters told Cinescape’s Beth Laski that a fifth Batman film was unlikely, “unless we put Batman and Superman together later.” Warner Bros evidently saw a team-up movie as more than just a tantalising possibility, but a viable way of bringing the Superman and Batman franchises out of the development mire. It was soon confirmed that the studio was excited about a script entitled Batman vs Superman, written by Se7en and Sleepy Hollow scribe Andrew Kevin Walker and subsequently ‘polished’ by Akiva Goldsman (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, A Beautiful Mind), in which the characters would begin as allies, albeit with radically different worldviews, before facing off in a showdown brought about by Bruce Wayne’s familiar desire to avenge the violent killing of a loved one.
BatmanWide2The story begins five years into Bruce Wayne’s life post-Batman, having put his costume back into the closet following the death of Robin. He has settled down, married a woman named Elizabeth, and is happier than ever. Over in Metropolis, however, Superman has not been so lucky in love, having been dumped by Lois Lane due to the myriad difficulties of being Clark Kent’s girlfriend. When The Joker, previously thought dead, kills Elizabeth with a poison dart, Bruce takes it hard. First, he blames Superman, because the Man of Steel saved The Joker from a fatal beating just before the murder; second, he resumes the mantle of Batman — not, this time, under any pretence of metering out justice, but for the sheer cathartic pleasure of beating up bad guys. Superman, who has been busy wooing his first love, Lana Lang, in Smallville, tries to talk Bruce out of his vengeful ways, an act which ultimately pits the two heroes against each other. Eventually, it transpires that Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor was behind The Joker’s return, hoping that Batman and Superman would kill each other. Instead, the two heroes unite to defeat first The Joker, and finally Luthor, the man fundamentally behind Elizabeth’s death.

Opinions from Internet script reviewers were divided, either over the details of the Walker and Goldsman drafts, or the very idea of having Batman and Superman go mano a mano. Responding to an unfavourable review of Goldsman’s rewrite by Coming Attractions’ Darwin Mayflower, Batman on Film reporter ‘Jett’ said that, while he had not read the Goldsman draft, “I very much liked Walker’s original… I thought it was a very dark and powerful script and had a very clever way of pitting Batman against Superman. Mayflower flatly does not like the squaring off of Bats and Supes… [whereas] I found it quite exciting — plus you know that they are going to end up as allies in the end. Mayflower also has a problem with Goldsman’s (who many credit for the killing of the Bat-franchise with his p.o.s. Batman & Robin script) rewrites,” Jett added. “The only reason I can come up with why WB let Goldsman do rewrites was to lighten the script up a bit. Walker’s original — in my opinion — was dark. Perhaps WB thought too much so.”

Nevertheless, the studio was sufficiently excited about the script to postpone its plan for a new stand-alone Superman film and a fifth Batman in order to fast-track Batman vs Superman for a 2004 release, with Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, The Perfect Storm) at the helm. “It is the clash of the titans,” the German-born director told Variety in July 2002. “They play off of each other so perfectly. [Superman] is clear, bright, all that is noble and good, and Batman represents the dark, obsessive and vengeful side. They are two sides of the same coin and that is material for great drama.” Petersen subsequently spoke to MTV.com about his love for the Batman and Superman films, “especially in both cases the first two. I saw them over and over again.” Batman vs Superman, he added, would be part of the lore of the films and the comics, “but it’s also different. First of all, the dynamics are different because if they are in one movie together it changes a lot of things and it gives you a new perspective on superheroes… You also have the look and feel of Metropolis, the bright golden city, and the feel of Gotham, which is a shadowy, sinister city, in the same movie. This is Superman/Batman of the time after September 11th, also. It takes place in today or tomorrow’s world.”

Unsurprisingly, the announcement of a fast-tracked Batman vs Superman movie led to a surge of speculation as to which actors might don the respective capes. “We have a script that really very, very much concentrates on the characters,” Petersen told MTV.com. “It’s really material for two great actors.” Although he had previously cited Matt Damon as a possible star, Petersen later clarified that he was merely an example of the kind of actor he was looking for. “Someone who we so far did not really think of as a big action hero, who turned out to be a great actor who can also do great action… He’s one of these guys, but there’s a lot of these guys out there.” As far as the rumour-mills were concerned, Jude Law and Josh Hartnett were apparently front-runners to play Superman/Clark Kent, while Colin Farrell and Christian Bale — the latter previously connected with the Year One role — were widely mentioned for dual duties as Bruce Wayne and Batman. (“No, that’s Bateman, not Batman,” quipped Bale, referring to Patrick Bateman, his character in American Psycho.) Barely a month after the Variety announcement, however, Batman vs Superman seemed suddenly to have fallen out of favour with the studio, leading director Wolfgang Petersen to quit the project in favour of Troy, an epic retelling of Homer’s The Iliad starring Brad Pitt.

The studio’s swift about-face was based on a number of factors. Firstly, on 5 July, Alias creator J. J. Abrams had turned in the first eighty-eight pages of a new stand-alone Superman script, designed to be the first of a trilogy. Bob Brassel, a senior vice president for production at the studio, called producer Jon Peters, urging him to read the work-in-progress. “I did,” Peters told The New York Times, “and it was amazing. In a world of chaos, it’s about hope and light.” Abrams delivered the remaining fifty pages of the script in mid-July, just as Spider-Man began its amazing assault on box office records, suggesting that light and airy, not dark and powerful, was the way to go with superhero flicks. At that point, Peters, Abrams and Brassel met in the offices of executive vice president for worldwide motion pictures Lorenzo di Bonaventura — the man behind the Harry Potter and Matrix movies, and a long time champion of Batman vs Superman — who said that he liked the script (“It had more epic ambition than earlier Superman scripts,” he said later), but that he planned to release Batman vs Superman first. According to Peters, Abrams said, “You can’t do that,” suggesting that it was akin to releasing When Harry Divorced Sally before When Harry Met Sally.

Both sides had their points: with two iconic heroes for the price of one, Batman vs Superman arguably stood the better chance in a marketplace soon to be crowded with superhero films, ranging from Hulk to Daredevil, and more sequels featuring Spider-Man and The X-Men; however, if the darker sensibility of Batman vs Superman did not connect with audiences, it could effectively kill both franchises before they had had a chance to be revived. Besides, if either Batman or Superman failed, the studio would still have the team-up movie to fall back on. As studio president Alan Horn told The New York Times, “In reintroducing these characters we wanted to do what was in the best interest of the company.” Thus, in early August, Horn asked ten senior studio executives — representing international and domestic theatrical marketing, consumer products and home video — to read both scripts, and decide which of them stood the better chance in the post-Spider-Man marketplace. “I wanted some objectivity,” Horn explained. “Why not get an opinion or two?” At the meeting, di Bonaventura argued in favour of Batman vs Superman; others, however, felt that Abrams’ three-part Superman story had better long-term prospects for toy, DVD and ancilliary sales. Besides, even if the majority had not favoured the Superman script, Horn had the casting vote. “I said I wanted to do Superman,” he told The New York Times. “At the end of the day it’s my job to decide what movies we make.”

The plan, Horn later told The Hollywood Reporter, was that Superman, the long-mooted Catwoman spin-off, and “a Batman origins movie” (presumably Year One) would revive both franchises, paving the way for a team-up movie. “I’d like to think that each character will evolve so that when we have Batman vs Superman, the meeting of the two will feel more organic,” he said. Peters, the former hairdresser and Batman producer who had toiled through the development of a Superman film for eight years, was moved to tears when Alan Horn phoned to tell him the news. “I swear I heard the flapping of angel wings when Alan was talking,” he said. Peters, in turn, called Christopher Reeve, who had played Superman in four films between 1978 and 1987, and had recently guest-starred on the small-screen Superman show Smallville, despite a crippling spinal injury he suffered in a fall from a horse. “He told me that his original idea was to do a film of Superman vs Batman,” Reeve later recalled. “They were pretty far into it, and then Jon saw that documentary that my son made about me and how five years after the injury I started to move.” According to Reeve, Peters began to rethink the idea: “‘Why should [they] have two superheroes fighting?’(((1))) The movie that Warner Bros is making now will be a much more uplifting and spiritual story.” In August, Warner Bros officially switched off Batman vs Superman’s green light. Days later, on 4 September, its greatest champion, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, quit after twelve years at the studio, giving credence to the widespread speculation that Horn vs di Bonaventura — an epic battle of wills between two of the studios biggest guns over two of its biggest assets — had contributed to his departure.

Where all this left the Batman franchise was unclear. Almost anyone, it seemed, was invited to apply for the vacancy of the next film’s screenwriter, and even Grant Morrison, author of one of the biggest selling graphic novels of all time, Arkham Asylum, threw his hat into the ring. “My own movie agent at Creative Artists Agency submitted a treatment I’d entitled Batman: Year Zero, which had a young Batman travelling around the world, slowly assembling the familiar components of his outfit and disguise in the year before returning to Gotham as its protector.” As a change from The Joker or the Penguin, Morrison’s villains were Ra’s al-Ghul and Man-Bat from Denny O’Neil’s widely acclaimed Batman stories of the 1970s. Although Morrison’s application was unsuccessful, the team which was assigned the restoration of the Bat-franchise evidently agreed with his approach, electing to return to Batman’s roots as part of their restoration effort.

It was in early 2003 that Warner Bros revealed the new curator of the Bat-franchise: Christopher Nolan, director of the tricksy Memento and a well-received remake of Scandinavian thriller Insomnia. “All I can say is that I grew up with Batman,” Nolan commented. “I’ve been fascinated by him and I’m excited to contribute to the lore surrounding the character. He is the most credible and realistic of the superheroes, and has the most complex human psychology. His superhero qualities come from within. He’s not a magical character.” Although Variety also reported that both Year One(((2))) and Catwoman — the latter scripted by John Rogers (The Core), starring Ashley Judd (later to be replaced by Halle Berry) and directed by visual effects veteran Pitof — were also on the cards, Nolan’s untitled Batman project(((3))) seemed the most likely to move forward, although it remained unclear which script would form the basis of the film. Nolan, who knew Batman but was uncertain about his wider comic book context, turned to David S. Goyer, who scripted Dark City, The Crow: City of Angels, the comic book adaptation Blade and its sequels, and unused drafts of Freddy vs Jason, for help with the script. Ironically, Goyer, whose lifelong dream had been to write a Batman movie script, was unavailable, preparing to direct Blade: Trinity — but agreed to give Nolan some ideas pro bono. As Goyer recalls, “I said, ‘If I did do it, this is what I would do, and you can have my ideas for free.’ I talked for about an hour and spitballed a large amount of what the film is, and Chris said, ‘Wow, that sounds great.’ He went away again for a few more days, [then] I got a call saying, ‘You have to do this.’” Goyer carved out the time to write the first draft of the script.
BatmanWide1The Nolan-Goyer Batman set out to achieve something no comic book or film had accomplished thus far: tell a definitive origin story, charting the journey from the murder of young Bruce Wayne’s parents all the way to the formation of Batman as a masked vigilante. Drawing heavily on the comic book history of the character, Nolan and Goyer filled in the blanks, working with Nolan’s regular production designer Nathan Crowley to build a Batman story from the ground up — exactly the approach which Warner Bros wanted to re-boot its biggest property. Released on 5 June 2005, Batman Begins made just over $200 million at the US box office — fifty million dollars (and a few million audience members) short of Burton’s Batman, but a healthy start to what would, with The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) signal the return of the bat to box office dominance — not only among its comic book peers, but Hollywood in general. Sixteen years since Tim Burton’s Batman gave birth to the film franchise and Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin killed it off, the Dark Knight had returned — with a vengeance.

1 The fact that Peters could wonder why audiences might want to see superheroes fighting arguably shows the Batman producer’s failure to understand one of the greatest appeals of comic books.

2 Batman: Year One would eventually be made as a direct-to-video animated feature, released in October 2011.

3 Batman Begins was famously filmed under the codename The Intimidation Game, which many fans mistook as the actual title of the new Bat-film.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: