Movies from Earth-21 of 12
Superhero movies are a dominant force in pop culture, with new ones announced all the time. But many of those projects never come to fruition. In fact, the history of superhero films is fraught with near-misses and failed adaptations.
Now, one of those near-misses (or at least a version of it) may actually take flight, with J.J. Abrams reportedly in talks for a second shot at developing a Superman film.
Didn’t know Abrams once had a Superman plan? Read on to find out all about Superman: Flyby and nine other superhero movies we almost saw on the big screen.
George Miller’s Justice League: Mortal2 of 12
While Christopher Nolan was hard at work on Batman Begins, did you know Warner Bros. also had a parallel Justice League movie in the works?
That’s right. Mad Max director George Miller was sent to Australia with $220 million dollars to cast the full JL team – Batman included – for a movie titled Justice League: Mortal. He cast some young actors who were teen idols or soon-to-be stars, but a number of factors led to Warner Bros. killing the project just before filming was to begin. Would it have been successful? Would it have been Avengers before Avengers? You decide.
With a script, director, cast and budget all in place, things were going well for Justice League: Mortal until November 2007 when the WGA Writers Strike happened – freezing any re-writes to get filming started. When the strike ended three months later, the film was hit with another unexpected blow – Australia, who had promised a major tax break to film in Australia, reneged on the deal which left Miller and Warner Bros. on the hook for even more money than the $220 million expected to make the film work. WB then relocated filming to Canada, but that delayed any more work on the film itself until July 2008 – and by that time, WB had cold feet at a costly team movie when Batman Begins had done so well as a solo film. So a Justice League movie was out for now, in favor of reviving several of its solo film projects such as Green Lantern and Man of Steel.
Would it have been a hit? It’s hard to say. Miller has had major success with the Mad Max movies and the kid-friendly Babe and Happy Feet, but those are nowhere near the tenor of what you’d expect would work for a Justice League movie. And judging by the cast chosen and what they ended up doing afterwards, it’s difficult imagining people taking to Armie Hammer as Batman while Christian Bale was wowing in the Dark Knight trilogy. On paper, it looks like it might’ve turned out to be more of a dud than a franchise starter.
And if it failed, it would have tainted all the heroes for solo movies for years after.
David Goyer’s X-Men Origins: Magneto3 of 12
Some of the best parts of X-Men: First Class were the flashback scenes of Magneto and Charles Xavier as younger men - but all of that was originally intended for a whole different movie: a Magneto solo movie. In the lead-up to X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 20th Century Fox were already planning a second solo origin story: X-Men Origins: Magneto. The studio tapped Up In The Air screenwriter Sheldon Turner and David Goyer to direct something the writer described as “The Pianist meets the X-Men.”
The film was reportedly set entirely in the Cold War and would not have featured Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart at all.
So why did it get shelved? A number of reasons. Fox had announced filming was to be done in Australia for a 2009 release, but the film – like others – was handicapped when the 2007 writers’ strike happened. After that situation cleared up, the ideas for what would become X-Men: First Class started coalescing with the plan that it would pick up right after the Magneto movie. In December 2008 Goyer said the Magneto film was incumbent on the success of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and when that hit in May 2009, it failed to have the reception the studio had hoped for. Hedging their bets given that Magneto wasn’t as popular as Wolverine, the plot for X-Men Origins: Magneto was then enveloped into X-Men: First Class using story elements of the former and the cast and budding X-Men of the latter.
Would X-Men Origins: Magneto have worked on its own? Assuming they’d have gotten the same casting as X-Men: First Class - Michael Fassbender as Magneto and James McAvoy as Xavier – it would seem so. The Magneto script was reportedly used extensively in the creation of the final X-Men: First Class script, so judging by what those scenes look like it seems like a sure bet. The big X-factors (to pardon the pun) would be if people would buy a ticket for a movie where Magneto’s the main character, and the directing skills of David Goyer. While he’s been a key piece of the puzzle in many superhero films, if you look strictly at his directorial credits such as Blade: Trinity and the Unborn, it seems unlikely he could have hit those notes the way Matthew Vaughn did in X-Men: First Class.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 44 of 12
Sam Raimi’s three Spider-Man movies made over $600 million each. With that astronomical number in mind, it’s no wonder they planned a fourth. Raimi and the entire cast were on-board, with Anne Hathaway and John Malkovich joining on as Black Cat and the Vulture. What could possibly go wrong? Turns out, a lot.
Raimi and Sony were busy in 2007 dreaming up what Spider-Man 4 was to be, mapping out the rough plan before hiring James Vanderbilt to turn their story into a screenplay. His draft wasn’t acceptable, leading to three subsequent drafts that we know of, including one by The Hunger Games’ Gary Ross, all falling short of what Raimi wanted.
Sony was adamant about wanting a 2011 release date, and with the script not coming together as he hoped, Raimi dropped out of the project citing the inability to get a script he liked in time to shoot the movie. From all reports, Sony had no plans of replacing Raimi for a fourth Spider-Man film and instead decided to reboot the entire franchise – leading to Amazing Spider-Man in 2012.
What would a Sam Raimi Spider-Man 4 have looked like had it come to fruition? It seemed to all hinge on the script, which for some people was the reason Spider-Man 3 wasn’t as well received as the previous entries in the series. There were reports early on that the writer of the original Spider-Man film, David Koepp, was returning for this fourth movie but that never came to be. But had a sufficient script been completed in time for Raimi to film, it could’ve been a winner. And the idea of seeing Anne Hathaway as Black Cat, years before she’d suit up as Catwoman for Dark Knight Rises would have been intriguing in itself.
Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One5 of 12
Years before Christopher Nolan stepped on board for Batman Begins, Warner Bros. had another idea for an auteur filmmaker to deliver a different Batman. That movie? Batman: Year One. Years before Black Swan or even Requiem for a Dream, Warner Bros. hired Darren Aronofsky to direct an adaptation of Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s seminal work – with Miller himself onboard to co-write. The film had even pegged Christian Bale as their Batman. But what happened?
After two years of development, Warner Bros. scaled back their superhero film plans in fear of over-saturating the market, and pulled Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One in favor of a more star-studded Batman & Superman to be directed by Wolfgang Peterson. Warner Bros. has a long track-record of greenlighting films only to cancel them before film rolls (more on several of them as you read on...) and even Peterson’s Batman & Superman got that same treatment.
Would Batman: Year One have performed as well as Batman Begins had it made its way to theaters? While the only surefire proof is for it to happen, from all of the players involved and the way Warner Bros. got behind Batman Begins there’s no apparent reason why it couldn't have come together. While Miller and Aronofsky had some departures from the original comic books in their script, Aronofsky seemed like an ideal director who had a string of bad luck when it came to shepherding non-original stories to theaters with major studios.
Guillermo Del Toro & Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Strange6 of 12
After years of hemming and hawing, Marvel finally made a Doctor Strange movie a few years ago – a well-received entry in its ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe. But did you know for a brief time in the summer of 2007, Marvel had plans for a Doctor Strange movie with Guillermo Del Toro directing and Neil Gaiman writing? It’s a fanboy’s dream, and those two seem uniquely appropriate to make a magic superhero movie work - but it was over a few months after it started.
What happened? In 2007 Neil Gaiman was in tight with Marvel after working on Marvel 1602 and The Eternals, and revealed that in the early summer of 2007 he was in early talks with Marvel to pen a Doctor Strange screenplay. While this was happening, Gaiman visited del Toro on the set of Hellboy 2: The Golden Army and when the topic came up, del Toro grabbed Gaiman (and later Marvel) with interest to direct.
Unfortunately, del Toro is well-known for over-booking himself and when he signed on to direct The Hobbit had to bow out of doing Doctor Strange. With del Toro now out, Gaiman said he didn’t want to do the movie without del Toro on board.
Would it have been good? That’s extremely hard to say as the film was never anything more than talk, promises and conjecture. But if, say, Gaiman and del Toro jumped in together after Hellboy 2 then the film would have probably come out sometime in 2009 or 2010, making it a unique and intriguing pillar in Marvel’s then-budding franchise building towards The Avengers.
James Cameron’s Spider-Man7 of 12
In the heady days of the early 1990s, Marvel was riding high on the success of its comic books and animated series – but saw an even loftier goal when James Cameron expressed interest in directing a Spider-Man movie.
In 1991, Cameron co-wrote a brief script for a Spider-Man feature just as he completed shooting True Lies. Cameron was onboard to co-write and direct, with his future Titanic star Leonardo DiCaprio penciled in as Spider-Man and Arnold Schwarzenegger rumored to play Doctor Octopus.
Although that might seem shaky now, at the time it seemed like a surefire hit – but it was nixed by one thing even a superhero can’t beat: an empty bank account.
Everything seemed to be moving along well until the production company handling it all, Carolco, found themselves short on money after some box office bombs and were unable to keep the plates spinning long enough to get Cameron’s Spider-Man made. At the same time, Carolco became embroiled in a series of lawsuits with Viacom and Columbia Pictures over rights issues, with it all falling through completely in 1996 when Carolco and Marvel declared bankruptcy. The movie rights to Spider-Man ultimately reverted back to Marvel, who quickly sold them to Sony to aid in their ascendancy from bankruptcy.
Finances aside, would Cameron’s Spider-Man have been amazing? It’s tough to argue with James Cameron’s track record, especially since he did Titanic after Spider-Man fell through. The casting seems “unique” even in the kindest of terms to modern eyes, but in the early 90s, Schwarzenegger's career was at its height, and DiCaprio was a budding heartthrob. But the real issue seemed to be the reported script: it involved mutated people, an anti-capitalist bent, and was heavy on profanity and steamy sex scenes. But then again – what if Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson had the romance Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt ended up having in Titanic? It’d be a very different Spider-Man than what we’ve now come to expect.
Quentin Tarantino’s Iron Man8 of 12
While far from the first superhero film, 2008’s Iron Man movie can be credited for kicking off the superhero movie boom we see today. That film took 18 years to make it to film however, and in the long and complicated road it took to completion there was one stop that had two of the biggest Hollywood names of the 1990s doing it. In October 1999, 20th Century Fox (who owned the Iron Man movie rights at the time) had deep discussions with Quentin Tarantino to write and direct a Tony Stark feature with Tom Cruise already penciled in to star. Tarantino had been in talks previously to do a Luke Cage: Hero for Hire movie with Lawrence Fishburne, but this was several degrees bigger.
So what happened? Tarantino was in the middle of a six-year gap between movies and was stinging a little bit from the poor reception to 1997’s Jackie Brown. If you look back at his movies, he’s only done one movie based on characters he didn’t create - Jackie Brown - and doesn’t seem to jump at every opportunity. And Fox’s deal reeked of desperation after three years of development hell. Tarantino ultimately turned down the movie, and just a few weeks later Fox sold the Iron Man rights not seeing any promise.
What would a Tarantino Iron Man movie look like? The Pulp Fiction auteur has trademark dialogue that would pop off the screen, but the real question is would he change to make a superhero movie or would the idea of a superhero movie change to fit him? Ang Lee tried and failed to make his kind of superhero movie with Hulk, but Tony Stark seems like a character right up Tarantino’s alley. Make no mistake, however – Tarantino’s film would have been light years different than the eventual 2008 Iron Man, but they’d most likely have one thing in common: Samuel L. Jackson.
Tim Burton & Nicholas Cage’s Superman Lives9 of 12
Tim Burton will forever be known and revered by comic book fans for his landmark Batman film from 1989. His style and approach perfectly suited the Dark Knight - but would it fit Superman? Fans almost got an answer to that question when Burton signed on to direct what was to be called Superman Lives in the late 90s – with a screenplay that was based on a draft by filmmaker, comic book writer, and super-fan Kevin Smith.
Their vision for Superman was quite different for the Man of Steel – even more alien than his original origins would have you believe. But they quickly built up an offbeat (but all-star) cast with Nicholas Cage as Superman and rumored roles of Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor (a role he later took in Superman Returns), Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen, and Courtney Cox as Lois Lane.
So with all that firepower, what stopped them? Burton and the studio sent the prospective film through numerous re-writes, pushing Smith’s script to the side in favor of someone of Burton’s choosing. Subsequent drafts featured shocking elements such as Superman being under a therapist’s care, a merged version of Lex Luthor and Brainiac called “Lexiac,” and a secondary villain who transformed into a flying car. The studios estimated that the final script was too expensive to film, leading them to call for re-writes to scale back the special effects needed. After three additional drafts and $30 million dollars spent with no movie to speak off, Warner Bros. put the production on hiatus – leading Burton to depart the project to film Sleepy Hollow. Warner Bros. tried to revive the film with replacement directors, but the script eventually wilted in favor of other possible Superman projects Warner Bros. had in mind.
Frankly. It’s tough to imagine Tim Burton or Nicholas Cage doing a Superman movie and making it work without forsaking their own artistic styles and devices. Although Burton’s Batman was a seminal film, it was due in large part to Burton’s style being compatible with the darkness of that character. And although Nicholas Cage was at the peak of his career in transitioning from being an indie star of Leaving Las Vegas to action star with The Rock and Con Air, what he brings to the table seems highly contrary to even the most generous depictions of Superman. Still, many fans would have bought a ticket just to see the spectacle.
Cage eventually got the chance to play Superman - voicing the Man of Steel in 2018's Teen Titans Go! To The Movies.
Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman10 of 12
Joss Whedon had been wanting to make a superhero movie for years. And after a myriad of talks, pitches and screenwriting gigs, Warner Bros. offered Whedon his chance in 2005 with Wonder Woman. Whedon was at a turning point in his career, with Serenity not performing as well as he’d hoped and the Buffy franchise in its dormancy - Wonder Woman seemed like just the thing to turn that tide. Whedon had high hopes for DC’s leading lady, taking in her comics legacy and being practical about what the character was missing and needed.
Years later Whedon revealed that he had picked out Cobie Smulders (who would later be cast as Maria Hill in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) as Wonder Woman, but they never had that chance as two years after Whedon was hired onto the project it all ended.
What happened? Although the producers of the movie have avoided commenting, Whedon’s said in interviews that they couldn’t come to an agreement on the kind of movie to make. Neither Whedon nor the producers would budge, leading Whedon to quit the project. Whedon bounced around for the remainder of 2007, before self-starting a resurgence with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, eventually leading to Whedon’s second chance at a superhero movie: The Avengers.
What would a Whedon Wonder Woman movie look like? In interviews since, Whedon’s description of the movie had a humanitarian tone with Diana recoiling after seeing human atrocities around the globe and ultimately lunging in to stop the face of many of those evils – a mega-corporation bent on world domination. Whedon has since had another near miss with a superhero movie, signing on to write and direct a Batgirl film before departing the in-development project.
J.J. Abrams’s Superman: Flyby11 of 12
He brought Star Trek back into action. He put Star Wars back on top … but could J.J. Abrams have fixed Superman back in the early 2000s? It almost happened, even before the writer/director became a household name.
From 2002 to 2004, Abrams worked with Warner Bros. on a film project entitled Superman: Flyby that would have seen Superman live, die and be resurrected as he fought bad seeds from his Kryptonian family tree. Years before Man of Steel, both Henry Cavill and Amy Adams did screentests for the movie, but for several reasons the production never happened.
Like many Warner Bros. superhero movie projects (as you’ve learned in this countdown), the studio has shown itself to waffle on a direction for comic book movies, often getting cold feet when it comes time to film. A prolonged and unfruitful casting attempt that lasted over a year, combined with disagreements over the shooting location, hampered the movie from getting on track. The final nail in the coffin of the film came when Bryan Singer, fresh off of directing the first two X-Men films, pitched them his own Superman movie which eventually became Superman Returns.
But what would a J.J. Abrams Superman movie look like? It’s hard to say – Abrams was never officially the director, acting only as screenwriter with Brett Ratner and McG floating in and out of the project. Abrams was pitching for the director’s chair in mid 2004 before Singer came along. From all reports, the script featured Superman fighting off a Kryptonian uncle and his kids along with Lex Luthor as an alien-obsessed government agent. One of the biggest departures from the staid origin story of Superman was that Krypton wouldn’t be destroyed, with a cliffhanger ending that had Superman returning to his homeworld at the end of the film.
Would it have been great? On paper it sounds like a tough pill to swallow, but given Abrams’ track record since leaving this project maybe he'd be worth the benefit of the doubt - and he may still get his shot, with Warner Bros. reportedly in talks with Abrams to helm a new Superman film.
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