In this unprecedented era of Maybe Too Much Batman, it's nearly impossible to remember that the years between 1997's Batman & Robin and 2005's Batman Begins marked an era in which the Dark Knight was damaged goods. In the wake of the critical and commercial failure of B&R, Warner Bros. struggled to find a way to bring the Caped Crusader back to movie theaters — an incredible thought considering that just a few years prior, the 1989 film was sold on the merit of a movie poster with nothing but the Batman logo on it. That's how easy a sell Batman had been less than 10 years prior.
The brand damage was far from irreparable, but the studio had to completely rethink its approach to the superhero franchise, as the neon camp of director Joel Schumacher's two most recent Batman films had clearly worn out its welcome.
The eventual solution? A stripped-down take on the character that handed the reins to an up-and-coming auteur by the name of Christopher Nolan. In Batman Begins (2005), Nolan took Bruce Wayne back to the beginning, depicting the rise of Batman in Gotham City as he took on the Scarecrow, Ra's al Ghul, and mob boss Carmine Falcone. It proved a smash hit that went on to define the next 15 years of Batman media — and continues to influence Bat-centric stories today.
But which approaches didn't make it to the silver screen? A number of Bat-films were considered for production (and even had creative teams assembled) before Nolan's take finally stuck. Nearly a decade passed between the release of Batman & Robin and Batman Begins, but the delay wasn't by any means for lack of trying.
There were five notable attempts to bring the character back to theaters during the Dark Knight's dark decade. Let's take a look at them.
BATMAN UNCHAINED (aka BATMAN TRIUMPHANT)
Despite Schumacher's second Batman film bombing hard, Warner Bros. was pretty sure it had a hit on its hands during the film's production. So sure, in fact, that it was preparing to commission a sequel before the film was even finished. Screenwriter Mike Protosevich was brought on to draft the next installment of the franchise, one that would have not only seen Scarecrow step in as the newest villain but also featured the return of Batman's original cinematic nemesis: The Joker.
Well, to be fair, it would have featured the Clown Prince of Crime in a dream sequence, not as a concrete threat in the film (though Harley Quinn would have appeared, reimagined as the Joker's daughter in this story). The studio was prepared to offer Jack Nicholson an obscene payday to step back into the Joker's clown shoes alongside the returning cast of Batman & Robin. It would have made for an interesting bookend to this era of Batman cinema, but upon Batman & Robin's abysmal box-office performance, the plans were quickly scrapped.
This one didn't make it past the pitching process, and with a title like that, it's probably for the best.
Screenwriters Lee Shapiro and Stephen Wise pitched Batman: DarKnight to Warner Bros., envisioning an older Bruce Wayne taking up the cowl once more to fight Scarecrow and Man-Bat. Rather than move forward with this one, the studio opted for a more familiar take on the character ...
BATMAN: YEAR ONE
While elements of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's definitive comic Batman: Year One made their way into Nolan's take on the Dark Knight, it wasn't the first time the studio had explored the potential of adapting the legendary comic with an acclaimed auteur.
Requiem for a Dream director Darren Aronofsky would have directed the film with a script written by Miller himself (which is available to read online). Eventual Nolan Batman star Christian Bale was approached to sign on as Bruce Wayne and Aronofsky has gone on record as saying he wanted Joaquin Phoenix to play the Joker.
In the hiatus between B&R and Begins, Warner Bros. was willing to try anything, anything at all, to bring Batman back to the screen — even if it meant doing so with Bruce Wayne in a supporting role instead of as the lead.
There were, briefly, plans to adapt the hit cartoon Batman Beyond to the big screen, which would have seen the Batman universe propelled into a future in which an aging Bruce Wayne entrusts the mantle of Batman to teenager Terry McGinnis. Sci-fi legend Neal Stephenson would have scripted the film alongside Batman legend Paul Dini, with Boaz Yakin both co-writing and directing.
In retrospect, it seems like a slam dunk, but allegedly the writers soon lost interest in developing the project. Warner proceeded to devote its attention to Year One.
BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN
Maybe the single most deranged effort to bring Bruce back to the big screen, Batman vs. Superman's story puts Dawn of Justice to shame in terms of madness. Andrew Kevin Walker, the screenwriter behind Se7en, pitched the project to Warner Bros., which enthusiastically picked it up and brought on Akiva Goldsman for rewrites (the script, titled Asylum, is available to read online). Air Force One and Das Boot director Wolfgang Petersen was set to helm the project.
In this incarnation of Batman vs. Superman, Superman and Lois Lane have divorced and Batman suffers a nervous breakdown five years after hanging up the cowl for good. Alfred, Jim Gordon, and Robin have all died — though Bruce is now engaged to a woman named Elizabeth Miller. At least he has her, right? Wrong. She dies at the hands of the Joker while they're on their honeymoon, leading to an inexplicable clash between Superman and Batman.
Casting rumors about this film have circulated for years. Colin Farrell and Jude Law were rumored for Batman and Superman, respectively, while other rumors peg Bale as Batman and Josh Hartnett as Clark Kent. The film remains an interesting curiosity, but unlike other projects discussed here, it seems like this one is best as an unproduced relic.
It's hard to imagine that there will ever be a time in which Batman isn't a constant screen presence at movie theaters from here on out. Still, the anniversaries of Batman Begins and Batman Forever seem as good a time as any to think back on the strange decade in which Warner Bros. couldn't make Batman work — right up until the moment it could.