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Imaginary Stories: 10 Superhero Films That Could Have Been

A column article, Top Ten by: John Bender, Nick Boisson, Nick Hanover

Not too long ago, the correct response to the idea that Zack Snyder had been selected to direct a Superman film would have been "What the fuck?!" But this week, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel is hitting theatres and may even be a hit for DC (there's a reason most of this list is DC). So we've decided to look back at 10 other super hero films that almost happened, but never quite made it to fruition for whatever reason.


 

Superman Nicolas Cage

Tim Burton’s Superman

The Details: The list of big ’90s names associated with Tim Burton’s doomed 1998 production of Superman Lives is rather stunning: Burton, Kevin Smith, Nicolas Cage (as Superman), Kevin Spacey (as Lex), Jim Carrey (as Brainiac), Courteney Cox (as Lois Lane), Chris Rock (as Jimmy Olsen) and Michael Keaton (as ???). The biggest problem facing the project was the producer, Jon Peters, who had been trying to make his distinctive vision for Superman come alive since Warner Bros. acquired the rights in 1993. Unfortunately, Peters’s vision included a gigantic spider as the main villain, a “space dog” as Luthor’s pet for merchandising purposes, and Brainiac’s assistant L-Ron as “a gay R2-D2 with attitude.” Also, under no circumstances was Superman to wear his iconic costume or fly in the movie. Smith was disgusted with Peters’s constant tampering with his script, and when Burton brought in another writer to overhaul the story, the project finally started to unravel. Kevin Smith tells the story pretty well.

How We Think It Would Have Gone: It would have been interesting at the very least. Some art design for the film has trickled out over time that looks kind of cool, and that list of names suggests that every single actor onscreen would chew the scenery to pieces. Smith’s script was roughly patterned after "The Death and Return of Superman," which was a well-known storyline with the capacity to draw theatergoers. And Cage as Superman? Not the craziest idea, since he behaves like an alien in almost every performance. There’s also the fact that Burton proved capable of handling Batman reasonably well, so it wouldn’t have been a total mess. Who knows? If this had gone off without a hitch in 1998, we might be looking at a Warner Bros. DC film universe built on two Tim Burton movies from the ’90s.

John Bender

 

Hugh Jackman Wolverine

 

Darren Aronofsky's Wolverine

 

The Details: At one point, indie auteur Darren Aronofksy was attached to a Wolverine rebootwhich was meant to be a standalone story that would feature Wolverine training in Japan. Wolverine star Hugh Jackman had pursued Aronofsky for some time and had originally even wanted him to direct X-Men 3 and to sweeten the pot, the film would have been penned by Usual Suspects screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. But unfortunately, family issues caused Aronofsky to step out and now we're getting The Wolverine by James Mangold, of 3:10 to Yuma fame.

 

Wolverine Japan Hugh Jackman

 

How We Think It Would Have Gone: The first Wolverine film was a horrible mess with far too many plotlines and next to no character development, so it's not that much of a leap of faith to assume an Aronofsky Wolverine film would have been the opposite. McQuarrie's script reportedly would have originally kept the mutant count to only one, which of course would have been Wolverine himself, and it was an adaptation of Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's original Wolverine mini, which focused on Wolverine's time in Japan. Aronofsky is a perfect fit for that material, as he's known for his meditative looks at what it means to be a man out of place and out of time, as was the case in Jackman's last outing with him, the severely underrated metaphysical sci-fi work The Fountain. That film also dealt with mortality in an exceedingly unique way and when you get down to it, that's kind of what Wolverine himself has always been about. Under Aronofsky's direction, The Wolverine could have been a more philosophical superhero film, one that would have potentially finally netted some overdue Oscar love for the genre and could have fit in with similar ronin stories like Beat Takeshi's gorgeous Zatoichi reboot. We'll soon see how much of McQuarrie's original script makes it over for Mangold's version, but it's doubtful that the action heavy director will be able to capture the tone Aronofsky and Jackman originally aimed for.

- Nick Hanover

 

Justice League of America

George Miller’s Justice League

The Details: Back in 2007 -- before Marvel’s Iron Man announced The Avengers movie was coming, before Zack Snyder was said to be the new Richard Lester, before Christopher Nolan became the sole arbiter of Warner’s DC films -- George Miller was attached to direct DC’s Justice League. George Miller is most well known for the Mad Max series. Though, by 2007, he was the Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City guy. Still, George Miller’s film sounded like it was going to be one epic offering of superheroics. But 2007 was the infamous year of the WGA writer’s strike, when everything from film, television and even video games were lost in the middle of development. In November of that year, Miller had the entire League cast: D.J. Cotrona as Superman, Armie Hammer as Batman, Megan Gale as Wonder Woman, Common as Green Lantern (John Stewart), Adam Brody as the Flash (Barry Allen), Santiago Cabrera as Aquaman (Arthur Curry) and Hugh Keays-Byrne as the Martian Manhunter. Two villains were also cast: Teresa Palmer as Talia al Ghul and Jay Baruchel as a yet unknown villain. Much of the film was also to be produced using WETA Digital’s computer graphic techniques -- most likely for the costumes, producing a CG Martian Manhunter and making D.J. Cotrona look white. Alas, the writer’s strike went on for much longer than anyone had expected, the cast moved on to other projects and the “green light” for this film switched to red.

 

Justice League of America

 

 

How We Think It Would Have Gone: Miller's casting makes it seem as though he was aiming for a younger, hipper JL and that approach could have yielded some interesting results. Miller may be better known for his kid-friendly films these days, but the Mad Max series is still widely respected for a reason and a big part of that is Miller's ability to tightly plot action and provide stunning choreography. Still, Miller's reliance on relative unknowns for the cast and the ballooning budget (it reportedly was projected to be as high as $300 million) caused WB to pull the plug, despite the involvement of WETA, which undoubtedly would have helped ensure the film's special effects would have been incredible. This could have been a big screen adaptation of JLA:Year One for all we know, but instead we're going to get Zack Snyder's take on the team. Sigh.

- NB

 

Jack Black Green Lantern

Robert Smigel’s Green Lantern

The Details: In 2004, Warner Bros. approached Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s butt, Robert Smigel, to draft a Green Lantern comedy with funny fart rocker Jack Black in mind for the lead role. Being unfamiliar with the mythology of the Green Lantern, Smigel did some research before coming up with a solid comedic premise: what if the ring mistakenly chose a total dumbass to be the next Green Lantern? Black’s character, a reality television star, would suddenly be thrust into a Patriot Act-inspired surveillance state showdown against Sinestro with only his limited wits and negligible work ethic to save him. The best gag of the whole script involves the Green Lantern knocking Earth off its orbit to avoid an incoming yellow asteroid, which of course results in myriad natural disasters. He then uses the ring to create a copy of Superman, who flies around Earth to turn back time and undo all of the damage. Being a lazy slob, he lets the Superman imitation handle all of the superhero stuff going forward.

 

Jack Black Green Lantern

 

How We Think It Would Have Gone: Call me crazy, but this movie sounds kind of hilarious. I like the idea of a reality star being given superpowers—infinite capability to pursue nonexistent aspirations—and this was early-2000s Jack Black, a full year before he made an already bad King Kong movie even worse. Smigel seems to have done his due diligence, too, despite the fact that it would have been a comedy. I think I’d be even more intrigued by whether DC’s new film universe (launching with Man of Steel and the ensuing Justice League movie) would feel obligated to incorporate Black’s Green Lantern, or at least the Superman replica that does his work for him.

JB

Lobo Mature

The Rock's Lobo

The Details: At some point around 2012, WB decided that their next superhero film property should be Lobo, starring...The Rock.  Brad Peyton, the genius behind Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, was attached as director and it looked like it was well on the way to development, until The Rock announced this year that he was no longer going forward with the role.

 

Lobo

 

How We Think It Would Have Gone: Seriously? This would have been an epic debacle. Regardless of your opinion of The Rock, it's pretty clear that he doesn't exactly fit the role of a grungy veteran bounty hunter who murders without thought and even if he did, Peyton's involvement indicates that WB hoped to make this a family friendly, PG-13 or under action film. Anyone familiar with Lobo know the appeal comes from the hyper violent satire the comic is filled with, which places it squarely in the realm of things like 2000 A.D. rather than DC's more mainstream superhero titles. It'd be like turning World War Z into a PG-13 drama. Oh, wait...

- NH

Green Arrow

David S. Goyer’s Green Arrow

The Details: Here’s the elevator pitch for what would have been David S. Goyer's Green Arrow: Super Max: Oliver Queen (Green Arrow) is framed for a crime he did not commit and is sentenced to life in Super Max maximum security prison. Now, to catch the real culprit and clear his name, our hero must escape from Super Max, which houses a slew of DC’s B- and C-list villains and rogue superheroes. Unfortunately, it mostly stalled out, partially because of the arrival of an identically named horror film, partially because WB chose to focus its Green Arrow energy on a tv show and the continuously in development Justice League film.

 

Green Arrow Oliver Queen Mugshot

 

‚ÄčHow We Think It Would Have Gone: While I cannot stand most scripts that have come out of David S. Goyer, Super Max may very well be the best superhero movie idea that I have heard. The concept is so incomparable to anything that has been done with a superhero in cinema (or even comics and animated series, for that matter) that it could very well have made the perception of Green Arrow much more badass than the CW show could ever hope to do. Rather than the DC villiains you always see on television and film, my guess is that we would have seen the likes of Captain Cold, Gorilla Grodd, Solomon Grundy, The Parasite, Captain Boomerang, Toy Man, The Ventriloquist, heck, maybe even Mr. Mind! And the high stakes aspect of the film means it would have been more tense and heist-like than normal. There isn’t a clear reason why this film never got off the ground other than Warner Bros. being too afraid to try something new and daring with their characters. I understand that superhero flicks cost quite a bit of cash, but there was nothing but good press behind this film. It is still considered to be “in development”, but following a Green Arrow origin story, which -- let’s be honest -- no one will care enough to see.

NB

 

Batman Superman

 

Wolfgang Petersen's Batman vs. Superman

 

The Details: Last decade, WB was struggling to revive their DC superhero franchises, and in the wake of the collapse of the J.J. Abrams/McG Superman Lives concept, the studio looked elsewhere for a revival. They wound up announcing Wolfgang Petersen's Batman vs. Superman, a sort of World's Finest that would have brought their two biggest heroes together for one massive film. Jude Law was cast as Superman after Colin Farrell and Christian Bale were both initially approached, and it even featured a script by Se7en writer Andrew Kevin Walker, known for his original X-Men screenplay and a Silver Surfer script that went undeveloped. But Petersen bowed out to do Troy instead and that obviously went very well for him.

 

Superman Batman Dark Knight Returns

 

How We Think It Would Have Gone: Honestly, it's probably for the best that this one went nowhere. Jude Law doesn't make any sense whatsoever as Superman and Petersen has arguably only made flop after flop after flop in the time since The Perfect Storm. Petersen works best when dealing with disaster films, specifically when they involve boats, and he has yet to prove himself with this kind of material. Any Superman/Batman collaboration requires a lot of tightrope walking since the wo characters are polar opposites, and there aren't a lot of directors around who are up for that kind of challenge. Marvel has made their recent films work because of their focus on character and the willingness of the studio to take risks with creative directors while DC seems to continue to struggle with flexibility and this film more than likely would have fallen prey to that, too. A great Batman vs. Superman concept would have been Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, particularly if paired with a similarly gonzo director. But that's unlikey to happen any time soon.

- NH

Wonder Woman

Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman

The Details: Believe it or not, The Avengers was not the first superhero film that the man who created Buffy was attached to. Warner Bros. finally had the belief that a Wonder Woman film would actually be an experience that moviegoers might genuinely want to see. They believed this so much that they tapped Joss Whedon, known best for his strong portrayals of female characters, for a script and attached him as the director in March 2005. And then, Warner Bros. did exactly what we all expected them to do: drop the ball from fear of making a solo superhero film with a female lead. The way Whedon tells it, he never had the chance to even complete a single draft of the $2+ million dollar script Warner hired him to pen. Each time he brought the studio a new story outline, Warner rejected the pitch and asked for another. Whedon had done this for nearly two years until he left the project in February 2007, citing “differences” with Warner Bros. Since then, Whedon has expressed a feeling of frustration with Warner/DC for the now defunct project, which we learned would have featured Diana’s great love, Steve Trevor, and could have possibly starred his first choice for the Themysciran princess, Cobie Smulders.

 

Joss Whedon

 

How We Think It Would Have Gone: My biggest issue with this one was that it easily was the DC film project that I was most excited to see. Joss Whedon doing Wonder Woman seemed like a natural idea. Whedon is known for changing how women were portrayed on television and that female leads in a film project can turn a profit and even help a network that was nothing (The WB) become a contender for audience views with the big networks. Wonder Woman is a powerful character who has a wealth of stories in her canon and can easily be a character that generates as much fanboy love as Batman or Superman. All that adds up for a perfect combination of property and director, and whatever Whedon's film would have been, it seems obvious that it would have been a big hit for the property and WB on the whole, at least if The Avengers is any indication. Had Whedon been allowed to just go with his vision, we might have seen a Wonder Woman not too dissimilar from Buffy, imbued with great powers and an even greater need to help humanity, no matter how much humanity might hurt itself. 

Maybe, one day, we’ll get a Wonder Woman film. I just hope it won’t be as awful as the David E. Kelley pilot from NBC.

- NB

 

Dr Manhattan Watchmen

 

Terry Gilliam's Watchmen

The Details: Way back in the late '80s, Terry Gilliam was attached to an adaptation of Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' seminal breakdown of superheroics. It initially looked like it was going to be the director's follow-up to The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Joel Silver, fresh off the success of the Batman films, was on board to produce. Gilliam worked with frequent collaborator Charles McKeown on the script, which was itself based off an original screenplay by Sam Hamm, who wrote the first Tim Burton Batman film. Details are scarce on what it would have been, but not too long ago, Gilliam spoke out in an interview about his problems with Zack Snyder's adaptation and how his own take would have differed, specifically in regards to the ending. Even so, Gilliam admitted he had issues with fitting things into a two hour timeframe, and the limits of technology at the time.

 

Terry Gilliam

 

How We Think It Would Have Gone: I still believe the best possible Watchmen adaptation would have been one which went meta with the medium of film in the same way the original does with the medium of comics, and Gilliam is arguably the best possible director for that approach. Gilliam may have a self-described "anarchic" approach to narrative, but in regards to Watchmen, that could have been a benefit rather than a hindrance. The biggest issue instead would be the Silver connection, as the producer is infamously hands-on and it's doubtful that he would have given Gilliam the freedom he would have needed to make such an adaptation truly his own. Nonetheless, Gilliam would have almost certainly provided a much richer, vibrant, creative take on the series than Zack Snyder's bloated, awkward hyperviolent effort.

 

James Cameron Spider-Man

James Cameron’s Spider-Man

 

The Details: In 1992, Carolco Pictures (the production company behind Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Total Recall and the first three Rambo films) was hell-bent on acquiring the rights to Spider-Man, since their golden boy James Cameron had expressed interest in writing and directing the project. After Cameron and four other writers submitted a warmed-over, half-assed initial draft, Cameron provided his own solid-R “scriptment” a few months later that more visibly bore his trademark disdain for nuanced storytelling or understated themes. Cameron’s Spider-Man would have featured Sandman and Electro as its villains, although Cameron entirely rewrote their origin stories and changed their names for no apparent reason. He also offered a similarly loose interpretation of Peter Parker’s character, suggesting that his snobby, aloof Peter “wears his isolation like a badge…with an air of superiority.” Carolco eventually went bankrupt before it could move on the project.

How We Think It Would Have Gone:

       EXT. A DAMAGED BRIDGE OR URBAN MONUMENT, VIVIDLY RENDERED IN

          GLORIOUS 1993 CGI - NIGHT

 

          SANDMAN holds SPIDER-MAN in his oversized fist.

 

                              SANDMAN

                    I've got you right where I want

                    you! This ends NOW!

 

          Sandman winds up to punch Spider-Man to death. It

          seems all hope is lost. Just before he delivers the

          blow...MARY JANE tackles Sandman!

 

                              MARY JANE

                    Guess again, beach bum!

 

                              SANDMAN

                    Damn!

 

          Mary Jane turns to Spider-Man and winks.

 

                              MARY JANE

                    What, did you think I'd just let  you--ACK!

 

          Mary Jane is seized by the throat and pinned to the wall by

          ELECTRO.

 

                              ELECTRO

                    And NOW we finally put an end to this!

 

          Electro pulls his fist back dramatically, only to pause when he hears...

 

                              AUNT MAY

                    It’s “lights out” for you, Electro! 

 

          AUNT MAY hang glides into the scene, firing from a machine

          gun mounted on her forearm. She guns down Electro before

          coolly landing beside Spider-Man.

 

                              AUNT MAY

                    I'm getting too old for--

 

          Aunt May pauses mid-quip, stunned, and looks down to see

          ELECTRO withdrawing a knife from her stomach.

 

                              ELECTRO

                         (cackling madly)

                    TWO can play at this game!

 

          Spider-Man holds Aunt May in his arms as she dies.

 

                              AUNT MAY

                         (pointing to her heart)

                    Peter...you'll always be...right here.

 

          Spider-Man clenches one fist and stares at the ground. All

          hope is lost.

 

                              MARY JANE

                    Listen to her, Peter. One spider, one hope, one shot. Do what this city needs you to do. You’ve got this. 

                    You're our only hope. With great power comes the hope. We've only got one shot to save the day. 

                    You’re that chance I’m talking about. I believe in you. Vaya con dios...Spider-Man.

 

                              ELECTRO

                    How touching...but now to murder the hero of New York City once and for all!

 

          Spider-Man, controlling his rage, looks up at Electro

          with an odd smile.

 

                              SPIDER-MAN

                    I don’t fucking think so...I've got you right where I want you! This ends NOW!

 

          Spider-man aims his web blasters at Electro and

          prepares to fire, but he stops when he hears Sandman’s voice behind him.

 

                              SANDMAN (O.C.)

                    I wouldn't do that if I were you.

 

          Spider-Man turns to see MARY JANE in Sandman's

          clutches...

JB

John Bender is a Twitter anarchist with questionable opinions about celebrity lifestyles and the Lost finale. He edits erotic novels by day and works tirelessly by night to improve upon his personal record of 42.00 in the Mecha Marathon minigame in Mario Party 2. He also plays in Fitness.


Pop culture geek, Nick Boisson, lives in front of his computer, where he is Section Editor of Comics Bulletin's video game appendage and shares his slushily obsessive love of video games, comics, television and film with the Internet masses. In the physical realm, he works in Guest Relations for Florida Supercon in Miami as well as a day-to-day job, which he refuses to identify to the public. We're thinking something in-between confidential informant and professional chum-scrubber.

He rants on about the things he loves (and hates) on Twitter as @nitroslick. You can also find him on Steam, Xbox LIVE, PlayStation Network, Nintendo Network and Raptr under the name “nitroslick”.


Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.

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