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20 Superhero Movies That Couldn't Fly All The Way To The Big Screen

Features
by The Playlist Staff
July 25, 2013 2:18 PM
12 Comments
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This weekend "The Wolverine," starring Hugh Jackman as the adamantium-clawed avenger (is he ever not playing Wolverine?), will be slashing its way onto screens nationwide. But as fans know, this wasn't the original vision that Jackman and Fox had in mind. No, that version was to be helmed by Darren Aronofsky as his follow-up to his Oscar-winning "Black Swan," and we can only imagine what his take would've been on the story (based in part on the great Frank Miller/Chris Claremont run from the '80s) that serves as the foundation for this reboot. The movie's prolonged Japanese shoot was cited as the reason for his departure, but one also wonders if he would've been able to have the full creative sway he's used to.

It was enough to get us thinking about other superhero movies that didn't quite make it—movies that were stalled, for whatever reason, either creatively, financially, or a toxic combination of the two—on their way to the big screen. It's easy to forget how big and cumbersome and complicated these movies are, and how many masters they have to serve, from the comic book companies to all those people who want to license the brand for board games and action figures and collectable plates. Up until very recently, too, there was a technological wall that these properties would often run up again: how exactly do we bring these characters to the big screen in a way that's cost effective and realistic?

The following are 20 stories of heartbreak and costly mistakes, related to a myriad of comic book characters. They might not have happy endings, but their stories are still fascinating nonetheless. And who knows, maybe these will be rebooted down in one fashion or another. After all, superheroes rarely ever die.

"Silver Surfer"
Creative Team: Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski

What Went Wrong: Before “Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer” had even hit theaters, Fox commissioned J. Michael Straczynski (“Babylon 5,” "Ninja Assassin"), a comic book veteran, to pen a spin-off film that would center on the Surfer himself. It wasn’t the first time the Surfer had been earmarked for a solo vehicle, as Constantin Films spent a large part of the '90s trying to find a co-financier on the exploits of Galactus’ most powerful herald. Those attempts involved a series of approaches that found the Surfer befriending children and waitresses, in a series of scripts penned by a number of big names, including Andrew Kevin Walker (“Seven”). But the Straczynski draft probably came closest to seeing the light of day, with the character’s origin told at the same time as a story about his return home, and further conflict with his master, the world-gobbling Galactus (visualized in the "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" movie as a scary intergalactic cloud). The financial underperformance of 'Rise Of The Silver Surfer' killed plans for that project, however, robbing us of what was then to be one of the more dryly science fiction comic book stories brought to film.

Echoes And Influence: Marvel has since pledged deep space exploration with the upcoming “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” though if they had their way, they’d be doing it with the Surfer instead. Rumors circulated that Fox could be granted an extension on the rights to “Daredevil” had they let Marvel use Silver Surfer and Galactus in a future film, but if there was any truth to that, Fox would not give them up. The character remains at Fox, and there’s always the possibility Marvel might approach a solo film one day, as the character has always boasted a rich history independent of another brand’s mythos.

Batman vs. Superman
Creative Team: Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, producer and co-screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, director Wolfgang Petersen.

What Went Wrong: With Superman and Batman both on the bench during the early aughts, the Hail Mary to resurrect both franchises came in the form of this script. A dark, moody story about an already well-established Man of Steel and Caped Crusader, this actioner would have found Batman coming out of retirement to battle Superman after he was deemed responsible for the death of Batman’s fiancée. The whole thing was an elaborate ruse set up by the Joker and Lex Luthor, and the inevitable third act team-up would have found the heroes on the same side, leading into their own prospective series. The only problem being that the studio felt this was a majorly risky proposition, given that the last movie audiences had seen of these characters were in the regrettable “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace” and equally iffy “Batman & Robin.” The failure of a team-up movie, the studio argued, would potentially torpedo both franchises, and when it came down to this film versus J.J. Abrams’ proposed “Superman Flyby” script (which was envisioned as the first part of a trilogy, and yes we're getting to it), the decision proved to be a no-brainer, leading to di Bonaventura’s very public exit from Warner Bros.

Echoes And Influence: The team-up bug bit Marvel big time in 2008, when they proposed a shared universe between “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk.” But none of these films had been built on the expressed idea of universes colliding until “The Avengers.” A version of this film is slated for 2015, one that likely won’t borrow plot elements from the earlier incarnation. But it’s clear that, in proposing this idea, Warner Bros. might have been a bit ahead of their time. But how closely the forthcoming film hedges to this version remains to be seen. 

"Watchmen
Creative Team: Director Paul Greengrass, screenwriter David Hayter, production designer Dominic Watkins

What Went Wrong: A number of incredibly talented filmmakers had tried (and failed) at cracking the "Watchmen" code (among them: Darren Aronofsky, who used some strikingly "Watchmen"-y things in "The Fountain," and an ambitious version devised by original "Batman" writer Sam Hamm and mad genius Terry Gilliam). But Greengrass' version, which would have been his follow up to his stateside smash "The Bourne Supremacy," came tantalizingly close. Instead of the version that was originally made by Zack Snyder, which retained Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' comic book setting of an alternate history '80s, Greengrass would have contemporized it to Bush-era America, focusing on a kind of junky modern day realism. (Or as much junky modern day realism you could afford a film in which one character is a 50-foot-tall blue deity.) The movie was fully cast (Paddy Considine was going to play Rorschach, Ron Perlman was going to be The Comedian, etc.) and they were a couple of weeks away from breaking ground on the Pinewood Studios set in England. There was even a teaser website up for the film that featured the comic's iconic, blood-splattered happy face button as its logo. But alas, Brad Grey became the new chief at Paramount and was totally nonplussed by the work Greengrass was doing, despite the director making a desperate plea to Grey about how the movie could be a creative, commercial, and critical smash. Instead, the movie got kicked back to Warner Bros., whose DC Comics published the series initially. Greengrass blamed the movie's breakdown on "shifting corporate sands," while production designer Dominic Watkins later revealed production artwork from the film, which he described as combining comic book theatrics with "documentary style" flourishes, "with a little news reporting mixed in."  Ah, what could have been...

Echoes and Influence: Snyder supposedly used the Hayter script as the backbone for his version, although writer Alex Tse was brought in to retain its original comic book setting and generally make it more faithful to the beloved comic book series, which ultimately hedged too closely to the source material. As Watkins said, "I think the difference between Zack Snyder's 'Watchmen' and ours would've been night and day. He pretty much made the movie page-to-page from the graphic novel. Ours was definitely going to be based on the graphic novel and all the characters would've been drawn on that, but we'd have updated it somewhat."

"Fantastic Four"
Creative Team: Director Peyton Reed, screenwriters Doug Petrie and Mark Frost, others

What Went Wrong: By 2003, Fox was rolling in the dough from “X2: X-Men United” and were bit bad by the Marvel bug. Their eyes were on turning “Fantastic Four” into the next big franchise, but they didn’t realize that director Peyton Reed was interested in furthering the '60s aesthetic of his previous film for the studio, “Down With Love.” His idea was to structure the film like “A Hard Day’s Night,” making Marvel’s First Family into celebrities from the first scene on, eschewing the familiar origin story. It was always going to be a big budget movie, but the period vibe was not winning any favor with the studio. All it took was for “Down With Love” to be a non-starter at the box office, and Reed and the swinging '60s approach was scrapped.

Echoes And Influence: Fox’s two 'Fantastic Four' films went for a kid/family appeal, and the next one seems to be embracing an edgier sensibility, if rumors prove true. But the '60s superheroes aesthetic was a big reason for the success of Fox's own “X-Men: First Class,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” also had a distinct appeal from being set largely in the 1940s. Continuity likely prevents this sort of thing from happening again, unless there’s a 'Fantastic Four' that features time travel, which, considering the source material, is a possibility.

"Justice League Mortal
Creative Team: Writers Keiran and Michelle Mulroney, director George Miller, and stars Armie Hammer, DJ Cotrona, Adam Brody, Teresa Palmer, Hugh Keyes-Byrnes, Jay Baruchel

What Went Wrong: Warner Bros. seemed to want to move full steam ahead on a team-up film a few years back, hiring George Miller, hot off the surprise smash “Happy Feet,” to shepherd the project. The story has always been kept under wraps, but the film was reportedly so dark that Miller had an on-set psychiatrist working with the actors to better understand their characters. The studio never seemed fully comfortable with the concept, however, particularly as it featured a Batman completely separate from Christopher Nolan’s series of films. The casting skewed young, and the reactions from the Internet were not favorable, particularly considering Batman and Superman were played by grown men named Armie (then an unknown) and DJ. There was also speculation that the film would be partially or fully brought to life using the performance capture computer animation technology that Miller had found so striking on "Happy Feet." The intention was to film in Australia, but a bloated budget and the looming Writers’ Strike combined with the bad buzz forced the studio to axe the film.

Echoes and Influence: The studio seems very committed to doing a 'Justice League' movie, mostly due to the fact that the Marvel universe's team-up film, "The Avengers" is one of the highest grossing movies of all time. There are a number of hurdles, namely the introduction of several characters within the 'Justice League' movie (as opposed to Marvel's approach, which was getting the characters out in front in their own stand alone movie before bringing them together), and finding the right tone after both Christopher Nolan's broody Batman movies and Snyder's equally broody "Man of Steel." Still, by all accounts the studio will trot out their "Justice League" feature in 2017, after the "Batman vs. Superman" movie and a big screen version of "The Flash."

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12 Comments

  • Bill Graham | July 30, 2013 8:02 PMReply

    Yowza! What's with the animosity towards the animated BATMAN: Year One flick? This was definitely a winning flick and a solid adaptation of that material. Additionally, it was far from "crummy" or "cheap". These are pretty intense and well-funded animated films with effort put behind them by the creatives in charge. They may not take a LONG time to make, nor are they large-budget affairs, but they often have more passion and lineage than any of the big-budget flicks. It's no Mask of the Phantasm, but an entertaining read even for fans of the comic book arc.

  • Bill Graham | July 30, 2013 6:47 PMReply

    It's a shame this was written by "the staff" (as most of these are), without bylines for each entry, because I can't pinpoint who to praise, but goodness this is remarkably well done and I'm only on the first page. My only complaint is that I wish more of this stuff was link-sourced so I could easily go further down the rabbit hole of what could have been.

  • Rolando | July 29, 2013 9:50 AMReply

    I have the idea that Hollywood intentionally does not want to make good movies.
    I am sure that with the story of 'Born Again' will make it a blockbuster, a movie that everybody has to see, simply because it is the greatest superhero story ever told....

  • Andrew | July 26, 2013 5:08 PMReply

    The Green Hornet is one of the worst superhero movies ever? Hell, I think it's underrated and a lot of fun.

  • TheoC | July 26, 2013 7:40 AMReply

    Great feature, I've always loved the idea fo Supermax. I have the script somewhere too. Also General Stryker typing decapitate into his weapon X computer is a brilliantly funny move.

  • Mike Truck | July 25, 2013 9:09 PMReply

    Man, is there anything more revolting than a studio executive? I felt sick reading most of these stories.

  • loudrockmusic | July 25, 2013 5:24 PMReply

    That 'Supermax' movie would be awesome.

  • Hmmmm | July 25, 2013 4:19 PMReply

    I know it was probably never close to have ever happened but David Fincher's "Death of Gwen Stacy" Spider-Man would have been amazing (pun not intended) to watch. Or at least better than what we have right now

  • shark | July 25, 2013 4:17 PMReply

    ugh, the Peyton Reed Fantastic Four sounds like it would have been terrific. I am continually surprised every time I recall that Down with Love bombed, because it's a terrific movie.
    Also, I've decided I'm boycotting superhero movies that are not fun. Superheroes are an inherently stupid, silly concept, and grimdark broody superheroes make for tedious viewing. God, I hope Guardians of the Galaxy is good and successful, and is as absurd and fun as it appears to be. Also I hope Ant Man happens.

  • TheoC | July 26, 2013 7:42 AM

    I tend to agree, I like Down with Love but it's let down by the script. I think had he shot the script for intolerable cruelty with his Down with Love cast and aesthetic it would be a bonafide classic.

    Anything would be better than those awful Fantastic Four movies. Worst Thing Ever.

  • Rob | July 25, 2013 3:51 PMReply

    Correction: Spawn's creator is Todd McFarlane. Seth McFarlane created Family Guy.

  • thislalife | July 25, 2013 2:41 PMReply

    I remember hearing about Batman Triumphant back in the day and it sounded wild. Apparently Scarecrow was going to be much more physically intimidating, so much to the point where he killed Robin with his scythe in an epic battle.

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