Exclusive Book Excerpt: How Batman vs. Superman's Development Hell Gave Way to Batman Begins
Film journalist and biographer David Hughes has long written with authority on subjects from Stanley Kubrick to David Lynch. But few writers know more about the vicissitudes of that uniquely Hollywood phenomenon known as "development hell." Hence the updated, revised edition of Hughes's book Tales From Development Hell, which arrives in store and online today. And Movieline has an exclusive excerpt that you can browse now.
Development Hell is chockablock with gossip, infighting, false starts and dirty little secrets that afflicted films both realized (Indiana Jones 4, Total Recall) and abandoned (Crusade, Crisis in the Hot Zone), with a little bit of limbo thrown in for good measure (Fantastic Voyage, The Sandman). In this exclusive excerpt, Hughes revisits the Batman franchise's tortured road back to respectability — by way of the stalled Superman franchise. Really.
Warner Bros evidently saw a team-up movie as more than just a tantalizing possibility, but a viable way of bringing the Superman and Batman franchises out of the development mire. It was soon confirmed that the studio was excited about a script entitled Batman vs Superman, written by Se7en and Sleepy Hollow scribe Andrew Kevin Walker and subsequently "polished" by Akiva Goldsman (Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, A Beautiful Mind), in which the characters would begin as allies, albeit with radically different worldviews, before facing off in a showdown brought about by Bruce Wayne’s familiar desire to avenge the violent killing of a loved one.
The story begins five years into Bruce Wayne’s life post-Batman, having put his costume back into the closet following the death of Robin. He has settled down, married a woman named Elizabeth, and is happier than ever. Over in Metropolis, however, Superman has not been so lucky in love, having been dumped by Lois Lane due to the myriad difficulties of being Clark Kent’s girlfriend. When The Joker, previously thought dead, kills Elizabeth with a poison dart, Bruce takes it hard. First, he blames Superman, because the Man of Steel saved The Joker from a fatal beating just before the murder; second, he resumes the mantle of Batman — not, this time, under any pretense of metering out justice, but for the sheer cathartic pleasure of beating up bad guys. Superman, who has been busy wooing his first love, Lana Lang, in Smallville, tries to talk Bruce out of his vengeful ways, an act which ultimately pits the two heroes against each other. Eventually, it transpires that Superman’s nemesis Lex Luthor was behind The Joker’s return, hoping that Batman and Superman would kill each other. Instead, the two heroes unite to defeat first The Joker, and finally Luthor, the man fundamentally behind Elizabeth’s death.
Opinions from Internet script reviewers were divided, either over the details of the Walker and Goldsman drafts, or the very idea of having Batman and Superman go mano a mano. Responding to an unfavorable review of Goldsman’s rewrite by Coming Attractions’ Darwin Mayflower, Batman on Film reporter "Jett" said that, while he had not read the Goldsman draft, “I very much liked Walker’s original... I thought it was a very dark and powerful script and had a very clever way of pitting Batman against Superman. Mayflower flatly does not like the squaring off of Bats and Supes... [whereas] I found it quite exciting — plus you know that they are going to end up as allies in the end. Mayflower also has a problem with Goldsman’s (who many credit for the killing of the Bat-franchise with his p.o.s. Batman & Robin script) rewrites,” Jett added. “The only reason I can come up with why WB let Goldsman do rewrites was to lighten the script up a bit. Walker’s original — in my opinion — was dark. Perhaps WB thought too much so.”
Nevertheless, the studio was sufficiently excited about the script to postpone its plan for a new stand-alone Superman film and a fifth Batman in order to fast-track Batman vs Superman for a 2004 release, with Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, The Perfect Storm) at the helm. “It is the clash of the titans,” the German-born director told Variety in July 2002. “They play off of each other so perfectly. [Superman] is clear, bright, all that is noble and good, and Batman represents the dark, obsessive and vengeful side. They are two sides of the same coin and that is material for great drama.” Petersen subsequently spoke to MTV.com about his love for the Batman and Superman films, “especially in both cases the first two. I saw them over and over again.” Batman vs Superman, he added, would be part of the lore of the films and the comics, “but it’s also different. First of all, the dynamics are different because if they are in one movie together it changes a lot of things and it gives you a new perspective on superheroes... You also have the look and feel of Metropolis, the bright golden city, and the feel of Gotham, which is a shadowy, sinister city, in the same movie. This is Superman/Batman of the time after September 11th, also. It takes place in today or tomorrow’s world.”
Unsurprisingly, the announcement of a fast-tracked Batman vs Superman movie led to a surge of speculation as to which actors might don the respective capes. “We have a script that really very, very much concentrates on the characters,” Petersen told MTV.com. “It’s really material for two great actors.” Although he had previously cited Matt Damon as a possible star, Petersen later clarified that he was merely an example of the kind of actor he was looking for. “Someone who we so far did not really think of as a big action hero, who turned out to be a great actor who can also do great action... He’s one of these guys, but there’s a lot of these guys out there.” As far as the rumor-mills were concerned, Jude Law and Josh Hartnett were apparently front-runners to play Superman/Clark Kent, while Colin Farrell and Christian Bale — the latter previously connected with the Year One role — were widely mentioned for dual duties as Bruce Wayne and Batman. (“No, that’s Bateman, not Batman,” quipped Bale, referring to Patrick Bateman, his character in American Psycho.) Barely a month after the Variety announcement, however, Batman vs Superman seemed suddenly to have fallen out of favor with the studio, leading director Wolfgang Petersen to quit the project in favor of Troy, an epic retelling of Homer’s The Iliad starring Brad Pitt.
The studio’s swift about-face was based on a number of factors. Firstly, on July 5, Alias creator J. J. Abrams had turned in the first 88 pages of a new stand-alone Superman script, designed to be the first of a trilogy. Bob Brassel, a senior vice president for production at the studio, called producer Jon Peters, urging him to read the work-in-progress. “I did,” Peters told The New York Times, “and it was amazing. In a world of chaos, it’s about hope and light.” Abrams delivered the remaining 50 pages of the script in mid-July, just as Spider-Man began its amazing assault on box office records, suggesting that light and airy, not dark and powerful, was the way to go with superhero flicks. At that point, Peters, Abrams and Brassel met in the offices of executive vice president for worldwide motion pictures Lorenzo di Bonaventura — the man behind the Harry Potter and Matrix movies, and a long time champion of Batman vs Superman — who said that he liked the script (“It had more epic ambition than earlier Superman scripts,” he said later), but that he planned to release Batman vs Superman first. According to Peters, Abrams said, “You can’t do that,” suggesting that it was akin to releasing When Harry Divorced Sally before When Harry Met Sally.
Both sides had their points: with two iconic heroes for the price of one, Batman vs Superman arguably stood the better chance in a marketplace soon to be crowded with superhero films, ranging from Hulk to Daredevil, and more sequels featuring Spider-Man and The X-Men; however, if the darker sensibility of Batman vs Superman did not connect with audiences, it could effectively kill both franchises before they had had a chance to be revived. Besides, if either Batman or Superman failed, the studio would still have the team-up movie to fall back on. As studio president Alan Horn told The New York Times, “In reintroducing these characters we wanted to do what was in the best interest of the company.” Thus, in early August, Horn asked ten senior studio executives — representing international and domestic theatrical marketing, consumer products and home video — to read both scripts, and decide which of them stood the better chance in the post-Spider-Man marketplace. “I wanted some objectivity,” Horn explained. “Why not get an opinion or two?” At the meeting, di Bonaventura argued in favor of Batman vs Superman; others, however, felt that Abrams’s three-part Superman story had better long-term prospects for toy, DVD and ancilliary sales. Besides, even if the majority had not favoured the Superman script, Horn had the casting vote. “I said I wanted to do Superman,” he told The New York Times. “At the end of the day it’s my job to decide what movies we make.”
The plan, Horn later told The Hollywood Reporter, was that Superman, the long-mooted Catwoman spin-off, and “a Batman origins movie” (presumably Year One) would revive both franchises, paving the way for a team-up movie. “I’d like to think that each character will evolve so that when we have Batman vs Superman, the meeting of the two will feel more organic,” he said. Peters, the former hairdresser and Batman producer who had toiled through the development of a Superman film for eight years, was moved to tears when Alan Horn phoned to tell him the news. “I swear I heard the flapping of angel wings when Alan was talking,” he said. Peters, in turn, called Christopher Reeve, who had played Superman in four films between 1978 and 1987, and had recently guest-starred on the small-screen Superman show Smallville, despite a crippling spinal injury he suffered in a fall from a horse. “He told me that his original idea was to do a film of Superman vs Batman,” Reeve later recalled. “They were pretty far into it, and then Jon saw that documentary that my son made about me and how five years after the injury I started to move.” According to Reeve, Peters began to rethink the idea: “‘Why should [they] have two superheroes fighting?’ The movie that Warner Bros is making now will be a much more uplifting and spiritual story.” In August, Warner Bros officially switched off Batman vs Superman’s green light. Days later, on Sept. 4, its greatest champion, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, quit after 12 years at the studio, giving credence to the widespread speculation that Horn vs di Bonaventura — an epic battle of wills between two of the studios biggest guns over two of its biggest assets — had contributed to his departure.
Where all this left the Batman franchise was unclear. Almost anyone, it seemed, was invited to apply for the vacancy of the next film’s screenwriter, and even Grant Morrison, author of one of the biggest selling graphic novels of all time, Arkham Asylum, threw his hat into the ring. “My own movie agent at Creative Artists Agency submitted a treatment I’d entitled Batman: Year Zero, which had a young Batman traveling around the world, slowly assembling the familiar components of his outfit and disguise in the year before returning to Gotham as its protector.” As a change from The Joker or the Penguin, Morrison’s villains were Ra’s al-Ghul and Man-Bat from Denny O’Neil’s widely acclaimed Batman stories of the 1970s. Although Morrison’s application was unsuccessful, the team which was assigned the restoration of the Bat-franchise evidently agreed with his approach, electing to return to Batman’s roots as part of their restoration effort.
It was in early 2003 that Warner Bros revealed the new curator of the Bat-franchise: Christopher Nolan, director of the tricksy Memento and a well-received remake of Scandinavian thriller Insomnia. “All I can say is that I grew up with Batman,” Nolan commented. “I’ve been fascinated by him and I’m excited to contribute to the lore surrounding the character. He is the most credible and realistic of the superheroes, and has the most complex human psychology. His superhero qualities come from within. He’s not a magical character.” Although Variety also reported that both Year One and Catwoman — the latter scripted by John Rogers (The Core), starring Ashley Judd (later to be replaced by Halle Berry) and directed by visual effects veteran Pitof — were also on the cards, Nolan’s untitled Batman project seemed the most likely to move forward, although it remained unclear which script would form the basis of the film.
Nolan, who knew Batman but was uncertain about his wider comic book context, turned to David S. Goyer, who scripted Dark City, The Crow: City of Angels, the comic book adaptation Blade and its sequels, and unused drafts of Freddy vs Jason, for help with the script. Ironically, Goyer, whose lifelong dream had been to write a Batman movie script, was unavailable, preparing to direct Blade: Trinity — but agreed to give Nolan some ideas pro bono. As Goyer recalls, “I said, ‘If I did do it, this is what I would do, and you can have my ideas for free.’ I talked for about an hour and spitballed a large amount of what the film is, and Chris said, ‘Wow, that sounds great.’ He went away again for a few more days, [then] I got a call saying, ‘You have to do this.’” Goyer carved out the time to write the first draft of the script.
The Nolan-Goyer Batman set out to achieve something no comic book or film had accomplished thus far: tell a definitive origin story, charting the journey from the murder of young Bruce Wayne’s parents all the way to the formation of Batman as a masked vigilante. Drawing heavily on the comic book history of the character, Nolan and Goyer filled in the blanks, working with Nolan’s regular production designer Nathan Crowley to build a Batman story from the ground up — exactly the approach which Warner Bros wanted to re-boot its biggest property. Released on June 5, 2005, Batman Begins made just over $200 million at the US box office — $50 million (and a few million audience members) short of Burton’s Batman, but a healthy start to what would, with The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) signal the return of the bat to box office dominance — not only among its comic book peers, but Hollywood in general. Sixteen years since Tim Burton’s Batman gave birth to the film franchise and Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin killed it off, the Dark Knight had returned — with a vengeance.
The updated and revised Tales From Development Hell is available today in stores and online.