The History of Batman Movies Part 3: The Films they Never Made

Val Kilmer in Batman Forever
Val Kilmer in Batman Forever | © Warner Bros.
Photo of Cassam Looch
Film Editor21 May 2018

  • Although there have been a number of Batman movies that have made it to the big screen, the list of ‘almost made’ productions is even bigger. Here’s a rundown of the films we never got to see, and the actors that nearly got to wear the cape and cowl at some point in the past.

Batman movies that were never made

A proposed sequel to Adam West’s 1966 Batman was the first to be announced and then canned, something that would continue to occur a lot in the following years.

After the cancellation of the TV series, the character wasn’t seen again on screen for over two decades. Although the comics were enjoying a boom period, the film incarnation was stuck in limbo. The Superman film of the late seventies starring Christopher Reeve and directed by Richard Donner added an impetus which also, thankfully, killed off a proposed Batman in Outer Space movie (seriously).

A script for The Batman was announced in 1983, with suggested casting going as far as putting forward Peter O’Toole as The Penguin. Although the script morphed several times and was almost unrecognisable by the time Tim Burton began work on his film in 1989; at one stage it was proposed that Robin would make an appearance, with Eddie Murphy in the driving seat.

Interestingly, and somewhat closing the circle on this particular Batman project, The Batman is also the proposed title of the solo movie starring Ben Affleck as the Caped Crusader. Several directors (including Affleck himself) have dropped out of helming the project, and its current status is unclear. The plot was said to have included the narrative where the original Robin would have died, as referenced in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), when a red and yellow costume, typically in the style Robin would wear, is seen in a glass cabinet covered in the unmistakable writing of the Joker.

Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice | © Warner Bros.

We spoke to War for the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves last year about taking on directing duties on The Batman and at the time it was full steam ahead. Recent stories have suggested Reeves might be out, although the director denies this. There has certainly been little in the way of progress on the title in the last 12 months.

Tim Burton’s third Batman film

Tim Burton’s Batman movies were groundbreaking for many reasons, and hugely successful to boot. It was a surprise that the director walked away from the series after two movies, and there is still considerable debate over why. Rumours persist that the studio were unhappy with the darker tone of Batman Returns (1992) and were pushing for a more family-friendly final act to his trilogy. There were plans for a third Burton film, called Batman Triumphant, to be made.

This third Burton movie would have kept Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent (the actor was replaced by Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever) and added Robin, who was already cast. Marlon Wayans was set to take on the role and Robin Williams was the favourite to portray the villain. Both actors left the project when Burton walked away, and Michael Keaton also refused to return as Batman without the director of the first two films.

The Joel Schumacher Batman movies that were never made

Joel Schumacher’s foray into Gotham began quite well. Batman Forever (1995), although gaudy and neon-drenched, did well at the box office, and while Batman & Robin was being edited for its 1997 release, Warner Bros. greenlit a third film in the Schumacher series. Of course, the critical mauling dealt out to Batman & Robin scuppered that idea, but from what we know Batman Unchained would have looked something like this; Batman finds himself incarcerated in Arkham Asylum and under the influence of Scarecrow’s fear serum. Harley Quinn would have made an appearance (both Madonna and Courtney Love were rumoured for that part), and we would have seen cameos from previous villains of the series.

Although elements of The Dark Knight Returns have been used in some films, a straight adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic has yet to make it to the big screen. The idea of an older Batman leading the way and reflecting on his life under the mask led to some of the most outlandish casting rumours one could imagine, with one possibility being that Keaton would come back and reclaim the role he made famous.

Other great Batman ideas that never took off

Looking from a clean break from Batman after the debacle of the final Joel Schumacher film, Warner Bros. began to toy with the idea of a more experimental approach. Darren Aronofsky famously found himself attached to a version of Batman: Year One, a film based on the popular comic reboot that would chronicle the first year of the Dark Knight. This version, which Aronofsky himself has described as more like Death Wish or The French Connection in tone, would almost certainly have been an R-Rated movie. At the time, only a few superhero films had ventured into this territory and the concept was seen as commercially unviable by studios and analysts. It is only with the subsequent success of Deadpool (2016) and Logan (2017) that more adult-orientated takes on comic books are being made.

The closest we got to a Batman movie in-between Batman & Robin and Christopher Nolan’s trilogy was Wolfgang Petersen’s proposed Batman v Superman in the early 2000s. Fresh from the success of Air Force One, the director was handed a script that also featured the Joker and Lex Luthor as well as Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. Jude Law was in the running for the Man of Steel and Colin Farrell was a leading contender to portray Batman. Eventually the studio opted to relaunch each character separately with Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (2006) and Nolan’s rather more successful Batman Begins in 2005. It would have been interesting to see how such a team-up movie would have fared in a pre-Marvel movie age, and if it would have failed it’s unlikely we would be enjoying any Avengers films today.

Another failed team-up movie was George Miller’s Justice League movie. Prior to Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), the Australian director began work on this movie, titled Mortal, and even got as far as casting the principal players. He was after relative unknowns, and at that time Armie Hammer fit that description. Concept art from the pre-production of the movie hints at a visual aesthetic in keeping with the sun-drenched look of Mad Max: Fury Road and Miller did everything he could to keep costs down by casting several Australian actors in the main roles.

Who are the most famous people who almost played Batman

Alongside James Bond, the role of Batman is one that seems to generate the most hype and anticipation amongst film fans. Even now, with Ben Affleck firmly in the cape and behind the mask, rumours are swirling that a new man is about to take on the part. Karl Urban, best known as Bones in the rebooted Star Trek film franchise and as Judge Dredd in the most recent big screen outing for the 2000 AD character, joins an incredible list of actors who have been linked with the Caped Crusader.

With so many Batman films falling by the wayside, many actors have found themselves almost cast as Bruce Wayne. A lot of these nearly men have been linked to certain films which never got beyond the concept stage, but some have got as far as getting into costume and even taking part in extensive pre-production.

Before there was Michael Keaton, there was Bill Murray. That’s right, the actor best known for his deadpan comedy was in consideration when Tim Burton was first announced as the director of Batman in 1989. Although it seems like an odd choice now, Murray was well known at the time and had starred in popcorn movies like Ghostbusters (1984).

Earlier still, and probably even more bizarre, is the movie that was set to star David Niven as Alfred Pennyworth. This is the same film that would have cast Peter O’Toole as The Penguin, although producers were after a complete unknown for the role of Batman.

Burton actually had something of a fight on his hands to get his choice, Michael Keaton, to star in the movie. In fact, Keaton wasn’t even the first actor to be offered the role, as Ray Liotta handed a contract only to turn it down, a decision the Goodfellas star later said he regrets. Keaton was at the time better known for comedies, and wasn’t a household name. Producers of the film were said to favour more ‘obvious’ stars like Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford and Dennis Quaid. Something of a compromise was thought to be found in the shape of Pierce Brosnan, who was well known on TV at the time, but he too said he had no interest in doing a comic book film. It’s worth remembering that this was in the late 80s, and most of the industry at the time had soured on the genre after the terrible reviews for the notorious fourth Superman film.

Josh Brolin, who has two Marvel films on the way this year with Avengers: Infinity War and Deadpool 2, almost joined the DC universe by starring in Batman v Superman. This was prior to Ben Affleck being announced as the surprise choice for the role, but clearly the classic square-jawed nature of the character was at the forefront of the collective minds of producers. The same can be said of Call Me by your Name star Armie Hammer, whose name was floated once more recently after his previous association with the series with George Miller’s aborted Justice League film.

One actor who definitely went for the role and ended up starring in a Batman film was Cillian Murphy. Christopher Nolan eventually decided that Christian Bale was going to be his Bruce Wayne, but Murphy ended up portraying The Scarecrow in Batman Begins. Interestingly, Bale and Murphy have also been recently linked to the role of James Bond once Daniel Craig finally hangs up his Walther PPK.

We’re not saying that Joel Schumacher got a tad bit ‘fanciful’ with his choices for Batman after Michael Keaton walked away with Tim Burton, but his choices apparently included thespians Ralph Fiennes and – brace yourselves – Daniel Day-Lewis. Another actor, who, similarly to Brosnan and Liotta, regretted turning down the role, is Ethan Hawke.

Heath Ledger, who defied the critics and created a version of the Joker that matched up to the one we all knew from Jack Nicholson, was also in the running to play the Caped Crusader. Willem Dafoe has also, erroneously we might add, been linked to the part of Batman under the guidance of Tim Burton. The star of The Florida Project (2017) was actually being lined up for the Joker.

Heath Ledger almost played Batman in The Dark Knight | © Warner Bros.

There’s a clear divide between young and old when it comes to actors being linked to the role. These wildly differing names have been in the frame for the part depending on what type of film is being mooted at any given moment. Henry Cavill, the current Superman, and Jake Gyllenhaal are on the list of younger versions of the character along with most 20-something actors of the time. Josh Hartnett was seriously considered for the part, as were Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves. Those two actors had refused the offer not wanting to be typecast in blockbusters, but later went on to star in Pirates of the Caribbean and The Matrix respectively.

At the other end of the spectrum, and more closely linked to the script for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns adaptation, were senior actors like Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis. This Batman would have played up on the age of the character, something Nolan tried to do with the youthful Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Kurt Russell has also been talked of in this capacity, and, depending on where the series goes after Ben Affleck vacates the cape, expect to see the Big Trouble in Little China star back in the running in the future.

For more from our History of Batman Movies series visit Part 2: Sets and Locations and Part 1: Batman Actors, Films and Directors.

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