Top List Thursday – Top ten most memorable comic book adaptations that almost happened

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With Joel Silver/Terry Gilliam and Zack Snyder recently taking turns to throw each other’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen under the proverbial bus, there’s been a lot of talk of what could have been in the comic book adaptation. Inspired by that, I thought I’d take a look at 10 other comic book adaptations – some good, some bad and some nuttier than squirrel poop – that almost got made over the years.

David S. Goyer’s Supermax

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We kick off our list with a great would-have-been, at least that’s according to anybody that’s read the script. Supermax, later titled Green Arrow: Escape from Super Max, was penned by Dark Knight Trilogy and Man of Steel scribe David S. Goyer along with fellow screenwriter Justin Marks, and would have told the tale of the emerald archer, Green Arrow, being framed for a murder he didn’t commit and sentenced to a “supermax” prison built specifically to house super powered individuals. Arrow would team up with the supervillains – many of whom he put in there – to break out of the supposedly unbreakable prison, so that he can capture the real culprit and prove his innocence.

The movie was described by many as an incredible heist flick, boasting a massive cast of several A-, B-, and C-list villains like the Joker, the Riddler, Icicle and Pied Piper, and with it’s mix of clever escapes and big action set pieces (think Prison Break, but with super powers) would have probably seen DC\Warner Bros take the early lead against Marvel in the comic book movie business. Instead, the flick got stuck in developmental hell for years and just slowly faded away. According to Goyer, production is still trickling along, but speak to anybody else and they’ll tell you that this one is dead. Pity.

Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman

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If there’s one thing that Joss Whedon does really well, it’s write kickass women in his work (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, Firefly, The Avengers) so of course he wanted to tackle the kickass-iest of them all, Wonder Woman, for years. He wrote a Wonder Woman feature film script back in 2007 and even had a pretty perfect actress lined up for the part in Angel‘s Charisma Carpenter. But for some reason, he just could not get the powers that be at Warner Bros to sign off on any of the approaches to the story he tried selling them. I have no idea what the WB execs wanted from a Wonder Woman film (and apparently, they still don’t), but the several script drafts that Whedon went through apparently didn’t have it.

So once again, just like with Supermax, this one ended up getting stuck in development hell at DC\Warner Bros for years, and with nobody willing to make a decision and just sign off, Whedon eventually just gave up on the whole thing and moved camp to Marvel… where he went on to make this little movie called The Avengers that you may have heard of.

James Cameron’s Spider-Man

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Back in the mid-90’s, way before Sam Raimi would get a crack at your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, that task fell to Terminator helmer James Cameron, and boy would his take have been a doozy. Essentially, Cameron wanted to create the first real mature, R-Rated comic book movie, with his Spider-Man script being rife with profanity and featuring a “sexually pent-up” Peter Parker who not only spies on Mary Jane in her underwear, but has sex with her on top of the Brooklyn Bridge. The film’s villains would be brand new takes on Electro and Sandman, but while the latter would simply be a character called Boyd and not the Flint Marko we know, the former would no longer be Max Dillon but rather a Donald Trump type businessman who accidentally kills a woman while trying to rape her and then brings her back to life, all with his electric powers. Yeah, Cameron went dark, yo!

Too dark for Marvel execs though, who eventually pulled the plug after several clashes with the director about the film. You can still check out the film’s original treatment over here though, while there’s also some concept art/story boards for your viewing (dis)pleasure.

Batman VS Superman

Batman Superman

Calm down. Zack Snyder’s Batman VS Superman hasn’t been cancelled. This is the Batman VS Superman movie that was going to be made back in 2002, and was originally written by Se7en scribe Andrew Kevin Walker with a rewrite by Fringe and I Am Legend‘s Akiva Goldsman

This version would have been really – REALLY – dark and gritty, featuring a grizzled Bruce Wayne that’s been retired from being Batman for 5 years after the deaths of Alfred, Dick Grayson, Jim Gordon and basically everyone he’s ever cared about, and a bitter Clark Kent aka Superman that had just gone through a messy divorce with Lois Lane. Batman would get married, with Clark as the best man of course, but then have his wife killed by the Joker on their honeymoon. Superman is implicated in her death forcing Bruce to don the cape and cowl again to go toe to toe with Superman. But after slapping each other around a bit, they realize that it’s all an elaborate plot by Lex Luthor to get them to take each other out, so they team up to take down the villain.

What’s most interesting about this proposed film – well, besides for just how glum the whole thing was – was that Christian Bale was actually DC’s pick to play Batman, while Josh Hartnett would have been wearing the red and blue Kryptonian pyjamas. Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, Troy, The Perfect Storm) was also tapped to direct, and all looked good to go.

However, Warner Bros seemingly then remembered that they were actually in the business of making as much money as possible and scrapped Batman VS Superman to instead rather develop solo films for the two heroes so that they could theoretically double their profits.

George Miller’s Justice League: Mortal

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Unless WB really screw up over the next few years, a Justice League film is probably on the horizon. I say probably, because no matter how much of a certainty it appears to be, it can always still be scrapped. After all, that’s happened before.

Back in 2007, Mad Max director George Miller was on the verge of making a Justice League movie a reality. He had lined up a talented young cast with Armie Hammer as Batman, DJ Cotrona as Superman, Megan Gale as Wonder Woman, Adam Brody as the Flash, rapper Common as the John Stewart incarnation of Green Lantern, Santiago Cabrera as Aquaman and Jay Baruchel as the movie’s telepathic villain, Max Lord. He had a pretty decent script (which you can read in its entirety over here), concept art was done, costumes were designed and they were ready to shoot in Australia.

Then the 2007/2008 Writer’s Guild strike happened, and some script rewrites that were needed had to be delayed. Miller’s decision to shoot it as a motion capture film a la Beowulf and Polar Express (which would have given him a lot of leeway with regards to cinematography) pushed up the costs, and coupled with the fact that Warner Bros failed to acquire a tax break from the Australian government for shooting there, meant that the film’s budget just got too bloated (according to Baruchel, it was up to about about $300 million). With a mostly unknown cast, it would have been too much of a gamble to recoup the cost, and with the delays and lack of shooting location, WB eventually decided to just cut their losses.

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4

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Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 was not a good a movie. This is an almost universally recognized fact. And after the first two movies were such a major success, you have to ask what happened? Well, what almost always happens in these cases: Studio involvement. Raimi’s original script was just going to feature Sandman as a villain, and wrap some things up with Harry Osborn, but Sony pressurized him into adding more elements including Venom (in the hopes of then doing a spin-off movie). The result was something that even Raimi has since publicly exclaimed that he was not happy with.

So why am I talking about Spider-Man 3 the entire time, when the title says Spider-Man 4? Simple: It’s kind of because of 3 that we never got 4. After the failure of the third film, Raimi began working on a fourth film that he hoped would rectify the mistakes and have the series end on a real high note. You may have noticed “series end” there, and that’s because as Raimi was developing Spider-Man 4, Sony had already begun discussions about rebooting the franchise, but would give Raimi one more movie to wrap up.

Raimi would write some drafts of the script which would see John Malkovich starring as the main villain, the Vulture (about as perfect a piece of casting as you can get), while Anne Hathaway would star as Felicia Hardy aka The Black Cat. Spider-Man, after getting dumped by Mary Jane, would also start a relationship with Black Cat. Another draft of the script introduced a new villain in the Vulture’s daughter, the Vulturess. Max Dillon aka Electro also made an appearance.

However, Raimi never got the chance to finalize the script and get it just right (one draft apparently had Spidey and Black Cat take out Electro by having him blow himself up after Black Cat shows him her cleavage) and with the clock ticking closer and closer to a proposed release date, he realized that there was a risk of doing it half-arsed abd turning in another Spider-Man 3. The director would rather release no film than a bad one again, so he told Sony that he was scrapping the film, and that they should just get their proposed reboot into production instead. Which is exactly what they did.

JJ Abrams’ Superman Flyby

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The prospect of contender to the Geek Crown, writer/director JJ Abrams, taking on a Superman movie is an idea that should get most geeks reaching for a change of underwear, but in a good way. Unfortunately, the reality was far from the imagined awesomeness, as fans discovered in 2002 when Abrams penned Superman Flyby.

Abrams’ script featured a new revision of Supes’ origin story, with gist being that instead of planetary cataclysm facing Krypton, it’s actually a civil war led by Supes’ father Jor-El on the one side, and his brother Kata-Zor on the other. Jor-El is eventually captured, but not before he sends his son Kal-El aka Superman off to Earth on a rocket ship, where he is found and raised by the Kents and eventually falls in love with Lois Lane. Now all of that doesn’t sound too bad or too radical a departure, but then things gets weird.

Once Kal-El reveals himself as Superman on Earth, his Kryptonian cousin Ty-Zor gets wind of it and heads to Earth with 3 cronies, with the intention of killing Kal-El to preemptively stop him from trying to take revenge on Kata-Zor (there’s this pesky prophecy about this, you see). And here’s the kicker: after a hectic battle they actually succeed in killing him. Cue massive funeral and much sadness from Lois.

But the story doesn’t end there as Superman wakes up in Kryptonian heaven, where he meets Jor-El. See Jor-El had sensed his son’s death from across the galaxy, and committed Kryptonian seppuku in prison so that he can be there for his son. Ghost Jor-El teaches him all sorts of life (or should that be death?) lessons, eventually convincing  Superman that he shouldn’t have died as there’s so much still left for him to do. So Superman agrees, decides to not be dead anymore, and then totally isn’t. Seriously. Just like that. He doesn’t want to be dead, so he isn’t dead. He digs himself out of his grave and returns to kick Ty-Zor and his buddies’ asses. The movie would have ended with the money shot of Superman flying off to Krypton to go introduce himself, or rather his fists, to the rest of the family.

There were some other really weird details in the script too, like the fact that Lex Luthor was in it, but instead of the megalomaniacal genius we know, he was actually a UFO chasing CIA agent who was also secretly Kryptonian. Yes, Luthor was an alien. Who chases aliens. Even weirder still, is that the script describes that during his battles with Ty-Zor and co, Superman would be doing martial arts! Kung Fu Superman!  Just let that sink in for a bit.

Also, Brett Ratner – yeah, the guy who nearly killed the X-Men franchise with X3: The Last Stand – was originally set to direct. Ratner however clashed with producer Jon Peters (make a note of that name) about casting (everybody from Josh Hartnett to Ashton Kutcher to David Boreanaz to Jude Law to Brendan Fraser and more were considered for the lead role) and eventually left the production, and was replaced by McG. Yes, the same guy who nearly killed the Terminator franchise with Terminator: Salvation. Frying pan, fire. You know the rest.

Eventually the folks over at AICN got hold of a later draft of the script and ripped it such a gigantic new one, that it’s widely believed that this actually prompted Warner Bros to ditch everything and rather go with Bryan Singer making the much safer – and subsequently so-so – Superman Returns.

If you have the time and inclination, a draft of Abrams script can still be found online for you to read.

Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One

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After the neon, glow in the dark turd that was Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, Warner Bros wanted to reboot the franchise but move it as far as possible away from Schumacher’s camp and, well, stupid approach, so they turned to acclaimed indie filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. Aronofsky then brought in Frank Miller, the legendary comic writer who created some of the best Batman stories ever told, like The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. They even borrowed the latter story’s title for their film, only this was going to be absolutely nothing like that story, or any type of Batman tale you’ve ever heard of before.

Firstly, Bruce Wayne is no billionaire heir here. Instead, he’s an angry orphan found on the streets and raised by a big, black mechanic named Big Al. Bruce grows up working in Al’s workshop, but secretly, he is actually a borderline psychotic calling himself The Bat-Man (note the hyphen) who drives around at night in his souped up black Lincoln Continental, doling out vigilante justice to street thugs, courtesy of some baseball bats and brass knuckles. Oh and did I mention that he wears a hockey mask? Yes, for some reason Aronofsky and Miller had decided to turn Batman into Casey Jones in a town car.

The script also features a young cop by the name of Jim Gordon, as well as Selina Kyle aka Catwoman, who is now a dominatrix working at a strip club across the road from Big Al’s garage.

Eventually, Aronofsky decided to pull out of the production though, because he feared that it was starting to become Rocky. For realsies. With Aronofsky’s departure, the whole production fell apart, which is actually a good thing as that paved the way for Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer to pitch their version of a gritty Dark Knight reboot to WB.

Robert Smigel’s Green Lantern

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I don’t think I can sum up this movie better than Cracked did, so I’m just going to copy-paste their description here:

There were two things wrong with this particular version of Green Lantern: First,it would have starred Jack Black. Second, it was the kind of movie Jack Black would star in.

Yes, you read those two sentences correctly: At one point, WB were seriously going to make a Green Lantern movie as a gross-out, stoner comedy starring Jack Black. And it was going to be written/directed by Robert Smigel, the guy who created Triumph the Comic Insult Dog. If I didn’t know any better, I would have sworn it was like WB were just trying to get themselves boycotted by the fans.

This version would have seen Black as a bum furniture salesman, Jud Plato, who lucks his way into an alien power ring that can create anything he imagines. Like a green elf in a French maid’s outfit for his loser friend to have sex with. Or giant green condoms to capture street thugs in. Oh and you know how the ring is supposed to only choose people who can overcome great fear? Well Jud proves that when he wins a Reality TV competition by eating coyote brains. Oy vey.

Eventually Jud has to save the planet from a giant yellow asteroid that’s on a collision course with it, which he does by using the power ring to move Earth out of the way. Except, by moving the Earth he inadvertently causes several natural disasters that threaten to destroy the planet. Jud reckons that the only way he can fix this is to reverse time, and the only being he’s ever seen reverse time was Superman in Superman II. So Jud makes a green Superman with his power ring. Green Superman reverses time (by making the planet spin backwards natch) and saves the day, at which point Jud realizes that he could just have Superman do all the superhero stuff, while he kicks back and relaxes. So he does. The end.

Ryan Reynolds, you got off light.

When story details got out, torches and pitchfork sales skyrocketed, as was expected by everybody except Warner Bros, who eventually decided to kill the film under the endless waves of fan vitriol.

Tim Burton’s Superman Lives!

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And now we get to what is probably the most famous – or should that rather be infamous? – comic book adaptation in history: Superman Lives! (Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title). I’m sure that by now you’ve seen and rightfully laughed at the pics of Nicolas Cage – who was going to play Superman – in one of the most garish superhero costumes to ever grace the screen. But the thing is, Cage’s involvement was one of the best things about this project when you compare it to the utter insanity of some of the other choices on this film.

Directing Cage in this pic would be Tim Burton, who had earlier brought Batman to the screen to much acclaim with the gothic Batman and Batman Returns. Self admitted comic book fanboy and celebrated indie filmmaker Kevin Smith would be penning the script. So far, so good. There was just one problem, and that problem’s name was Jon Peters (remember I told you earlier to make a note of his name?).

Peters, the film’s producer, imposed several ridiculous restrictions on Smith’s screenplay: Superman was not allowed to wear the classic red and blue costume – which Peters described as “too faggy” – but had to be dressed all in black; Superman was never allowed to fly in the movie; and lastly, and definitely not least, Superman HAD to battle a giant robot spider in the finale. Yes, a giant robot spider.

Working under these hairbrained rules, Smith turned in a script that borrowed elements from the Death of Superman story, as Superman would have to face off against Doomsday, unleashed on the Kryptonian by Brainiac who had teamed up with Lex Luthor to blot out the sun, weakening the solar powered Man of Steel. Doomsday kills the powerless Superman, but Supes is resurrected by a Kryptonian robot called The Eradicator. Still without his abilities, Superman wears a suit of power armour, which is actually The Eradicator’s robot body wrapped around him, and comes back to beat Doomsday, Brainiac and Luthor.

That story idea actually doesn’t sound too bad, but that’s only until you get into some of the details. Peters wanted Brainiac to battler polar bears who were protecting Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, all in some weird scheme to try and work a Coke sponsorship into the movie (what Coke has to do with polar bears is beyond me). Also, after seeing how positively audiences were reacting to the then recent re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy, Peters wanted Smith to give Brainiac a robot sidekick which he described as a “gay R2-D2 with attitude”, while he wanted Luthor to have a space dog like Chewbacca, because they could make a toy out of him. In fact, toys were a big driving factor for Peters, who apparently called in groups of children to look at concept art of characters and provide feedback on which ones they responded to and would play with.

Burton tried to fix this trainwreck by bringing in his own writer, Wesley Strick, to rewrite most of Smith’s script, but Strick then just went and incorporated more of Peters’ ideas (instead of Brainiac and Luthor teaming up, they would now actually physically merge to form a new being called Lexiac).

Eventually in 2001, after years of pre-production and Warner Bros reportedly already spending at least $30 million on it, Burton (who described the time as “one of the worst experiences of my life”) and Cage had had enough of all the insanity and walked off, causing the whole production to collapse under delays and infighting over finding their replacements.

And Peters? Well, he would take some of Superman Lives!’ resources to next make Wild Wild West, a film about a man dressed all in black, who doesn’t fly and who battles a giant robot spider in the film’s finale.

PS: There have been so many failed attempts over the years to bring comic books to the big screen, that I could easily have done a Top 20 list instead of just a Top 10. But I’m lazy, so I didn’t. You can, however, expect a Part 2 to this in a couple of weeks.

Last Updated: March 6, 2014

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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