[This Was Originally Posted On May 13. It's The Second In A Multi-Part Series That Lead Editor Mario-Francisco Robles Has Been Working On. He's Finally Prepared To Finish The Series. We'll Be Reposting The Previous Entries In Order To Catch You Up For Both The Finale And The Eventual Book]
Welcome back to a special ongoing look at Warner Bros. and how it's handled its DC Comics properties. It's going to be a weekly, ongoing miniseries here at LRM. This entry will look at what into relaunching the Batman and Superman franchises, and more. We'll explore all of the interesting parallels and forks in the road that brought us to where the DCEU is today.
Last week, we left off in 1997. BATMAN AND ROBIN came out and was a huge black eye for Warner Bros., effectively turning what was a once promising franchise into a punchline. It was the fourth installment of that series, and it killed BATMAN almost as definitively as the fourth SUPERMAN film had grounded the Man of Steel exactly 10 years earlier.
But before we can look at how Warner Bros. planned to rebound its DC properties post-1997, we have to look at a few notable moments earlier in the 90s.
Long before we would ever get to 2006's SUPERMAN RETURNS, Warner Bros. had five- yes, five- failed relaunches for Supes. First the Salkinds tried to get SUPERMAN V made in the early 90s, then there was SUPERMAN REBORN (93-95) which would eventually give way to SUPERMAN LIVES (96-98). Each film had wilder ideas than the last.
Some of the things we might've seen had any of those films gotten made:
- Superman dying and being reborn in the bottle city of Kandor
- Doomsday kills Superman, but before dying his "life force" essentially impregnates Lois Lane. This would lead to a virgin birth for Lois, who witnesses as the baby ages 21 years in just three weeks. The child assumes the mantle of Superman and saves the world
- A depowered Superman in a robotic suit
- Brainiac fighting a polar bear inside the Fortress of Solitude
- Brainiac giving Lex Luthor a "space dog"
- L-Ron: A "gay R2-D2 with attitude"
- A Superman in a black suit that cannot fly
The most famous of all of these aborted Superman films was SUPERMAN LIVES, which was going to be directed by Tim Burton and would star Nicholas Cage. The subject has been covered ad nauseam elsewhere- with a full scale documentary devoted to the infamous project. What you need to know about the Kevin Smith-written project, for the purposes of this column, is that Burton and Cage both signed pay-or-play deals. This means that, ultimately, Burton and Cage walked away with $5 million and $20 million, respectively, for a film that never happened. This doesn't count all of the pre-production costs that went into the film that amounted to nothing because WB pulled the plug in 1998.
It's estimated that Warner Bros. spent $30 million on the aborted film. Remember that.
From there, they almost went forward on a pitch for SUPERMAN: THE MAN OF STEEL by a fellow named Alex Ford. When that would also go the way of the dodo, Ford had a realization about the folks at Warner Bros. "I can tell you they don't know much about comics. Their audience isn't you and me who pay $7.00. It's for the parents who spend $60 on toys and lunchboxes. It is a business, and what's more important, the $150 million at the box office or the $600 million in merchandising?," he said, of his brief time developing the movie.
Meanwhile, over on the Batman end of things...
Long before Christopher Nolan would reboot the series with 2005's BATMAN BEGINS, Warner Bros. had six close shaves with a new Dark Knight movie. There was a direct Joel Schumacher sequel BATMAN UNCHAINED- which also had the alternate title BATMAN TRIUMPHANT (97-98), BATMAN: DARKNIGHT (98), a ROBIN spin-off with Chris O'Donnell, then an open competition between dueling productions of BATMAN BEYOND and BATMAN: YEAR ONE (2000-2002). Warner Bros. had both of those last two films in development, and planned to green-light the first one that came together to their liking. Ultimately, they scrapped both.
Which brings us to 2002 and BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN...
When the studio heard a pitch for a film that would pit Batman and Superman against each other, they opted to drop everything else and move forward with that film. In 2003, Warner Bros. was set to produce BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN. It was going to be directed by Wolfgang Petersen (POSEIDON, TROY), and be based on a script by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) and Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind). Actors like Colin Farrell, Jude Lau, Paul Walker, James Franco, and Josh Hartnett were circling the project, and it was heading towards a summer 2004 release. However, the project fell apart. Not because of any real strife in the production itself, but because Warner Bros. decided it didn’t want to rush into it. The studio decided it would rather give each character their own solo movies and then build up to the VS angle.
This brought Warner Bros. back to a J.J. Abrams-written film called SUPERMAN: FLYBY that they'd gone back and forth on. At one point, it was going to be directed by McG, then Brett Ratner. Ratner was rumored to be lining up his RED DRAGON stars Anthony Hopkins and Ralph Fiennes for the roles of Jor-El and Lex Luthor, while all kinds of actors were approached for Superman. Included in the hunt for a new Man of Steel were actors like Henry Cavill, Matt Bomer, and Brandon Routh. However, the chaotic development of the film- which saw a ballooning budget and intense fights with producer Jon Peters- saw Ratner exit in 2003 and McG return to SUPERMAN: FLYBY.
Meanwhile, while filming Fox's X2: X-MEN UNITED in 2002, director Bryan Singer made a direct pitch to Richard and Lauren Schuler Donner. Mrs. Donner was serving as a producer on the film, as she has for all of the X-MEN movies. The Donners greeted Singer's idea, which would serve as a continuation of his earlier SUPERMAN films, very positively. In 2004, McG left SUPERMAN: FLYBY for a second time. Fresh off of the success of 2003's X2, and comforted by the Donners embracing of his idea, Singer and Warner Bros. met to discuss his pitch.
In July of 2004, only a month after McG walked away from FLYBY, Singer officially signed on the dotted line and SUPERMAN RETURNS was on the way. He wouldn't be alone, as he brought over two of the writers he'd made X2 with (Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris).
On the Batman end of things, Christopher Nolan- who was coming off of the success of MEMENTO and his remake of INSOMNIA- was tapped to direct a dark, mature series reboot for the Dark Knight. David S. Goyer was hired to write it.
So now, Warner Bros. finally found its way forward. Both solo projects were in the works, and they'd soon be able to get to that BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN film they were so interested in.
The film's titles mirrored each other in the way that they were messages to the audience:
Superman RETURNS: This is the Superman you all know and love, and he's coming back!
Batman BEGINS: We want you to forget about the campy, nippled George Clooney Batman so we're hitting Reset and starting over from scratch!
Singer's Superman and Nolan's Batman would eventually throw down, and DC would have something of a, um, cinematic universe on its hand. Or so they thought...
Be sure to come back next week, when we look at what would eventually happen when Superman returned and Batman began, and how the fallout of one of those films would lead to a few major detours.
- The list of people who attempted to reboot these characters is a venerable who's who of fanboy favorites. There's the aforementioned Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, and J.J. Abrams. But you may be surprised to know that Joss Whedon, Darren Aronofsky, and Paul Dini also took cracks at it to no avail. Even Robert Rodriguez was ready to step up to the plate, but couldn't because of a scheduling conflict
- The Akiva Goldsman-written I AM LEGEND threw in an easter egg for fans, based on his involvement with the aborted BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN, which you can see here:
- Matt Bomer's chance to play Superman may have gone down in flames when SUPERMAN: FLYBY was scrapped, but the actor would go on to not only play the character in a foreign car commercial but also voiced him in SUPERMAN: UNBOUND.