Comic book films are filling cinema screens more than ever due to the worldwide popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the burgeoning DC Extended Universe, and the continual adaptations of comic book stories from across the decades. But like any film production, there are many false starts, botched projects, and broken dreams along the way.
As the decades of comic book adaptations have rolled on, more and more films have failed to launch due to myriad reasons. From the early days of superhero movies to the fallow ‘90s to the uneven boom of the modern era, there are dozens of comic book properties that have nearly come to fruition on the big screen. The following 15 films are comic book film adaptations that nearly happened, but were axed due to varying causes. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, the following movies provide some of the most interesting “almosts” in comic book cinema. And for brevities sake, we are leaving out comic books that were optioned by movie studios, but never made it past early planning stages.
Batman: Year One
In the wake of the disastrous Batman & Robin, DC Comics decided to let their Batman film property get some R&R. After a few years, they started floating new ideas, the biggest of which was director/writer Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One. While the idea of starting at Bruce Wayne’s origins was taken from writer Frank Miller’s comic of the same name, that was about all there was in common. In this version, Bruce loses his fortune after the murder of his parents and becomes homeless. He later teams up with auto repairman “Little Al” (a version of Alfred) and self-trains to fight crime. In addition, the Batman persona came from an intertwined T and W on his ring, which left on impression on the criminals he punched that looked like a bat. Bruce would only take up a Batman costume by the very end. The major changes were simply too much for DC, who scrapped the project.
Influence on Future Films: Aronofsky’s focus on Miller’s “Year One” comic book indicates that DC had a determination to retell the origin of Batman. While Year One departed heavily from the source material, DC Comics’ dissatisfaction with Aronofsky’s take would eventually result in the far more faithful and highly influential Batman Begins by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer.
Batman vs Superman
As DC Comics worked to restart both the Batman and Superman franchise, the company eventually decided to try out a film that brought the two icons together. The initial production of the film, with a script by Akiva Goldsman, happened around the same time as Batman: Year One and Superman: Flyby (more on that later), with Christian Bale approached for Batman and Josh Hartnett for Superman. Here, Bruce Wayne is retired for five years and Superman is struggling after a divorce from Lois Lane. When Bruce’s new wife is murdered by The Joker (who is supposed to be dead), the heroes come to blows and eventually team up against Joker and Lex Luthor (who was behind it all, surprise). While the Wolfgang Petersen-directed project would remain in limbo for a few years and received a tentative 2004 release date, it was scrapped when solo films for the heroes moved forward.
Influence on Future Films: While Batman vs Superman’s cancellation put the film idea on hold, the desire to create a film featuring The Dark Knight and The Man of Steel never died. It’s the general idea that most greatly influenced the eventual Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which really only shared the idea of the heroes battling and eventually teaming up.
Batman Unchained (aka Batman Triumphant)
Prior to Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, the Batman franchise was rolling along with massive success. But before the fourth film became a blight on superhero movies, plans were already in the works for a fifth entry in the series. In Unchained, The Scarecrow would play the role of villain along with Harley Quinn (written here to be The Joker’s daughter), who team up to take down The Dark Knight. While not much is known about the story, the centerpiece of the film would see Batman drugged by Scarecrow’s fear toxin, causing him to hallucinate confrontations with the many villains he had fought in the four previous films, with all the original actors returning. While Schumacher stated that Triumphant would be a return to much darker fare, he never had the chance to prove it. That’s ok, he had ruined Batman enough already.
Influence on Future Films: The kernel of Scarecrow being a main villain eventually developed into his presence in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, but most everything associated with Schumacher’s movies were jettisoned following the unmitigated of Batman & Robin.
Green Arrow: Escape from Super Max
Prior to the launch of the DCEU with Man of Steel, DC Comics and Warner Bros. had multiple comic book adaptations in the works. One of these was writers David Goyer and Justin Marks’ Green Arrow: Escape from Super Max. Eschewing the typical super hero origin story, the film would see the archer hero framed for murder and thrown into a maximum security prison designed to contain super criminals. In order to escape, the powerless Green Arrow must team up with villains including Lex Luthor, The Riddler, and more. While the script was reportedly well received, DC decided to focus on bigger properties first and the eventual creation of the Arrow TV show and the larger DCEU plans quietly pushed Super Max out of consideration.
Influence on Future Films: Nothing so far. With Green Arrow being mainly represented on the continually worsening CW TV Show Arrow and no plans for a big screen version of the hero, Escape from Super Max has yet to be filmed, adapted, or cannibalized for a different version, which is a shame.
Jack Black’s Green Lantern
Does DC Comics know what to do with Green Lantern? In comic books, yes. On film, no. The proof (other than the disastrous Ryan Reynolds film which actually was released) lies in the aborted Green Lantern comedy tentatively starring Jack Black. Nothing against Jack Black or comedic superhero films, but this is a complete misreading of the possibilities of a Green Lantern movie, much like the Reynolds film. By 2004, writer Robert Smigel (he of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog fame) finished a comedic Green Lantern movie that saw Black star as a man wrongly chosen by the Green Lantern Corps as their hero on Earth. Comedy hijinks would, invariably, ensue. The film gods, it seems, ran out of mercy when it came to Reynolds’ movie.
Influence on Future Films: Both this version and the eventual Ryan Reynolds version were propelled by terrible ideas and a general lack of understanding of Green Lantern. Maybe DC will learn by the time Green Lantern Corps arrives in about a decade or two. Come one Geoff Johns, save Green Lantern again!
Justice League: Mortal
In 2007, Warner Bros. and DC Comics decided to finally bring The Justice League to the big screen. However, instead of spinning off from the recently released The Dark Knight and Superman Returns, the film was to stand alone with a completely different cast as Justice League: Mortal. Director George Miller (of Mad Max fame) was set to direct and had his entire cast in place. The story would find The Justice League already established with Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Martian Manhunter, and more in action and under attack from Maxwell Lord, who steals Batman’s contingency plans to take down his fellow heroes. With set and costume designs underway and production set to begin in Australia, the film’s final draft was derailed by the 2008 writer’s strike, which paused production shortly before filming was set to begin. Nothing ever got back on track, with production locations switched multiple times and the actors’ contracts allowed to lapse, leading to the film falling apart permanently. Was it a good idea to have separate interpretations of heroes on the big screen at the same time? Maybe not, but Miller’s presence makes it a fascinating missed opportunity.
Influence on Future Films: While little is known about the upcoming DCEU Justice League film, the lack of announcements concerning characters like Martian Manhunter and Maxwell Lord indicate that it will have little in common with Justice League: Mortal. So far, it’s greatest influence is in its cancellation, which allowed Miller to refocus on Mad Max: Fury Road.
X-Men Origins: Magneto
After X-Men: The Last Stand brought the original X-Men trilogy to a close, Fox looked for the next step. They found it in a series of Origin spinoffs that would tell the beginnings of many of their classic characters. While X-Men Origins: Wolverine was developed first, David Goyer was hired to write the Magneto film. The story would track the young Jewish man from his years in a Nazi concentration camp through the ’60s as he hunts down Nazi war criminals. Eventually, his vengeful acts would turn him and a young Charles Xavier into enemies. However, Origins: Wolverine turned out to be a cinematic turd that poisoned the Origins well and put Magneto on hold. Eventually, Fox Studios prioritized the prequel film X-Men: First Class, which incorporated Magneto’s early years.
Influence on Future Films: It’s clear that Magneto’s Nazi-hunting early days were ported over from his cancelled solo film into X-Men: First Class in scenes during the movie’s first act, such as his killing of multiple Nazis in South America. They’re easily some of the best in First Class.
James Cameron’s Spider-Man
While Marvel Comics tried to get their superheroes on the big screen during the ‘80s and ‘90s, the results were mostly cheap direct-to-video failures and crushed dreams. But hope seemed to come in 1992 when superstar director James Cameron attempted to make a Spider-Man movie. Working with Carolco Pictures (who had the rights to the character at the time), Cameron created a story centered on high school Peter Parker gaining his powers, falling in love with Mary Jane, and fighting super criminals. This time, the enemies were Electro (whose name was changed to Carlton Strand for no reason) and Sandman (named Boyd here, also no reason). Among other strangeness, Cameron’s script had lots of profanity and a bondage-tinged sex sense between a masked Spider-Man and Mary Jane. While the film was moving forward, financial troubles forced Carolco to cease production permanently.
Influence on Future Films: Like Cameron’s script, Raimi’s film would completely ignore Gwen Stacy in favor of a Peter Parker-Mary Jane Watson romance. In addition, the organic webbing found in Cameron’s script would come to life in Raimi’s eventual Spider-Man, which would play out in the film’s puberty metaphors. Of course, the metaphors were far less heavy handed.
After Spider-Man 3 performed well at the box office despite poor reactions fro fans and critics, director Sam Raimi moved forward with the next film in the series. This time, Spider-Man would face off with The Vulture, rumored to be played by John Malkovich, and Black Cat, played by Anne Hathaway. However, Sony didn’t like the script, which went through four different versions, and Raimi reportedly had multiple disagreements with producers. This lead to continued fallout between the studio and the director after their rocky relationship during Spider-Man 3. As a result, Spider-Man 4 was scrapped and lost both its cast and crew. Sony rushed to get another Spider-Man film made in order to retain their rights to the character, resulting in the rebooted The Amazing Spider-Man.
Influence on Future Films: Anne Hathaway eventually fulfilled her wishes to be a cat-related super person by playing Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. Recently released storyboards for Spider-Man 4 show The Vulture in action, which may influence the upcoming Spider-Man reboot, which is said to feature the villain.
The Amazing Spider-Man 3
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and talkative Sony execs made it clear that there were major plans for follow-up films, with the second film in the series stuffing as many characters and unresolved plot threads into the narrative as possible. According to numerous tiny leaks, Amazing Spider-Man 3 would see Peter fighting Harry Osborn/Green Goblin, the resurrection of the dead Norman Osborn as a frozen head in a box, and Peter bringing both Gwen Stacy and her father Captain George Stacy back from the dead through genetic experiments. So clearly, part 3 would have a lot of crazy stuff happening that doesn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever. But the financial disappointment of ASM2 led to Sony canceling the sequel in favor of partnering with Marvel Studios for another reboot. You can also include Amazing Spider-Man 4, Sinister Six, The Untitled Aunt May Prequel Movie, and The Undefined Female Spider-Man Spinoff film in this as well, as Sony announced all of them prior to and after The Amazing Spider-Man 2, only to cancel them all just as quickly as they announced them.
Influence on Future Films: Hopefully, nothing.
Just one of the many failed attempts to get Superman back on the big screen after decades of silence, J.J. Abrams’ idea for The Man of Steel took the form of Superman: Flyby. Abrams’ film was designed as the first part of a trilogy and made some significant changes to the Superman mythos while still maintaining the well-known origin story. Here, Krypton does not explode and baby Kal-El is sent to Earth to protect him from his evil uncle and cousin, who eventually come to Earth to fight him because Superman is the destined ruler of Krypton. Kal-El partakes in a massive battle with a Kryptonian army, dies in combat, is resurrected by his father who commits ritual suicide to meet him in the afterlife, and wins, only to set off for Krypton at the end. Several rewrites occurred, Abrams left the project, and both Brett Ratner and McG came onboard as subsequent replacement directors before DC scrapped the film in favor of Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns.
Influence on Future Films: Both Brandon Routh (star of Superman Returns) and Henry Cavill (star of Man of Steel) both auditioned for the role of Superman in Flyby, only to each receive the role years later. Their considerations here clearly kept them in the minds of producers for later films.
Tim Burton. Nicolas Cage. Superman Lives. You’ve probably heard about it by now. After Burton’s success with Batman, Warner Bros. eventually wanted to give Superman another shot at the big time with the director at the helm. Superman Lives focused on Superman’s battle with Braniac, an evil alien supercomputer who sought to destroy the Man of Steel. After unleashing the monstrous Doomsday, Superman is killed in battle, but is eventually resurrected by the Kryptionian AI guardian known as “K.” Superman wins in the end and Lois reveals that she is pregnant with his child. While Superman Lives went through multiple scripts by various writers, they all revolved around the heroes death, inspired by the comic book storyline “The Death of Superman.” While the movie would get so far as to have a completed script, tons of concept art, and costume tests, it eventually fell apart permanently.
Influence on Future Films: While the execution is far different, the death of Superman finally came to fruition in film with the finale of Batman v Superman. And like Superman Lives, The Man of Steel will eventually come back to life, but most likely with far different results than Burton’s Superman movie. In addition, the idea of Lois having Superman’s baby can be seen in Superman Returns.
Superman Returns Sequel
Superman Returns was director Bryan Singer’s passions project, which saw a return to the same film universe established by the Christopher Reeve films. Prior to the film’s release, Singer made plans for a sequel. Coincidentally, Singer revealed the title would have been Man of Steel. This film would follow up on the reveal of Superman’s young super-powered son with Lois Lane and see the intergalactic despot Darkseid as the villain. Clearly, the sequel would have been a far higher stakes and action-focused follow up. Superman Returns’ lukewarm reception and generally disappointing box office returns delayed the sequel, which was eventually cancelled in favor of the full reboot of Man of Steel.
Influence on Future Films: There’s almost no DNA shared between the universes of Superman Returns and Man of Steel, either in tone, narrative, or character interpretation. Most likely, there will be no influence ever found in the DC Extended Universe, especially with the 1978 Superman film still being far more influential than Superman Returns.
Which of these cancelled films do you wish would have been made? Let us know in the comments!