Welcome to Revisionist History, a column that has nothing better to do, we promise. In this edition, we’ll be taking a look at Akiva Goldsman’s unmade Batman vs. Superman movie.
Let’s go back in time to the year 2002. Batman and Superman are characters who are both in dire need of some rejuvenation on the big screen. Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin turned the Dark Knight into a joke only five years prior, while Superman has been an afterthought since 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
At the same time, society is living in the aftermath of 9/11. The War on Terror is underway and the world is a much darker place. The appetite for camp blockbusters isn’t as strong as it was in 1997. Warner Bros. must find a way to resurrect the most popular characters in DC Comics lore, but present them in a bold new light.
The studio has a couple of ideas brewing. J.J. Abrams already wrote a great screenplay for a movie called Superman: Flyby. Inspired by “The Death of Superman” storyline, it’s the ideal movie for bringing Superman back with a bang. This project is an option, but it can be put on hold and resurrected at a later date.
As for the proposed Batman reboot, the studio has some exciting ideas in mind. One possibility is Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s live-action Batman Beyond movie, which Boaz Yakin is interested in directing. Elsewhere, there’s Darren Aronofksy and Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One project, which boasts some ambitious ideas. They are promising options, but the studio has a grander vision that it wants to bring to life.
Instead of giving the iconic superheroes new solo movies, Warner Bros. decides to make a crossover film instead. What’s a bolder way to re-introduce these beloved characters than by pitting them against each other in the ultimate battle of caped crusaders? That’s going to get people’s attention.
Wolfgang Petersen agrees to direct the movie. He summons several writers to pitch their ideas, but Andrew Kevin Walker gets the gig. In addition to penning hits like Se7en and Sleepy Hollow, his unproduced scripts for X-Men and Silver Surfer movies show that he’s a superhero guy. More than anything, though, his pitch is the strongest of the bunch.
Inspired by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comics, Walker writes a script that reflects the darker storytelling of those comics. However, he counterbalances the doom and gloom with patriotic optimism. Superman has always epitomized the idea of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, and following 9/11, the character’s ideals are relevant again. All in all, this combination of elements gives both heroes their due.
Everyone is excited about Walker’s vision for the movie at first, but the studio eventually gets cold feet. The story has some great ideas, but it’s too dark and needs more iconic characters from Batman and Superman’s respective universes. Warner Bros. then proceeds to hire Akiva Goldsman to rewrite the script.
Goldman’s biggest challenge is finding a way to bring the characters together in a way that makes sense. Comic books are rife with stories about iconic superheroes battling it out and interacting with each other. Bringing those stories to the screen, meanwhile, is trickier.
In Goldsman’s Batman vs. Superman, the heroes are friends-turned-enemies. Batman retires from crime-fighting because he fears he’ll eventually snap and start killing bad guys. Superman is perhaps too moralistic which is why he saves Joker’s life, much to Batman’s dismay.
Bruce Wayne/Batman wants Joker dead because the Clown Prince of Crime murdered his wife. Superman saving Joker’s life doesn’t sit too well with the grieving husband. Meanwhile, Batman’s bloodlust rubs the Kryptonian the wrong way. This ultimately leads to their collision, which culminates in a massive battle.
With this being an early 2000s superhero movie that isn’t called Spider-Man or X-Men, some nonsense is inevitable. To introduce more iconic characters into the mix, the story goes in some wacky directions. For example, Joker is actually a zombie whom Lex Luthor brought back from the dead for one purpose: to pit Superman and Batman against each other.
Furthermore, it is later discovered that Batman’s wife is still alive because she’s one of Joker’s secret agents. She tricked Batman into marrying her knowing that her death would catalyze his breakdown and battle with Superman. It’s a full-proof plan that almost works, but Batman and Superman eventually put their differences to one side to defeat their foes.
Despite playing with some dark ideas, Batman vs. Superman doesn’t go too far off the rails. The Joker and Lex are depicted as over-the-top villain caricatures, which adds a cartoonish element to the story. The script also features every gadget and vehicle in Batman’s arsenal, so the merchandising potential is through the roof.
With a director in place and the script complete, Warner Bros. casts Colin Farrell and Jude Law as Batman and Superman, respectively. Both actors are on the rise and seem fitting for the parts. Farrell is mysterious and edgy, while Law is an ideal clean-cut hero. The movie is finally greenlit and Batman vs. Superman flies into theaters in 2004.
The film receives mixed reviews, with critics highlighting the tonal imbalance and preposterous story as the main issues. But Batman vs. Superman performs very well at the box office and inspires Warner Bros. to press ahead with new solo movies for each character, possibly resurrecting a couple of ideas they considered prior to this movie.
By pressing ahead with Batman vs. Superman, Warner Bros. never approaches Christopher Nolan in 2003 to helm the Dark Knight trilogy and change the landscape of superhero movies for years to come. And having learned from Batman vs. Superman‘s mistakes, the studio opts against making these characters rivals again in future movies.
What really happens: the studio decides to scrap 2004’s Batman vs. Superman in favor of Batman Begins and Superman Returns. The Dark Knight’s comeback is a success and spawns a brilliant trilogy. Unfortunately, Superman Returns, which is loosely tied to the 1980s Superman films yet features an all-new cast, is deemed a box office disappointment.
Supes is subsequently gone from the big screen until a full reboot with 2013’s Man of Steel. That movie gives birth to the DC Extended Universe, and the two heroes eventually collide in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In the end, their actual live-action showdown doesn’t live up to expectations, but fair play to Zack Snyder for trying to make it work.