Batman Begins revitalized a franchise after several botched attempts to reinvent Batman.
Joel Schumacher’s “bat nipples” momentarily killed the Batman film franchise. “I think that will be on my gravestone,” the infamous director said of “bat nips” in a 2015 interview. “It’s how I’ll be remembered.” Batman fans are notorious for honing in on minor details, but those perky nips and rubber butt close-ups became shorthand for the critical disappointment that was Batman & Robin.
From a commercial standpoint, the numbers told a different story. With a big opening weekend and strong merchandise sales, the film at least warranted talk of a Batman 5. Titled Batman Triumphant, and elsewhere Batman Unchained, the planned sequel fizzled as rumors of Clooney and Schumacher returning, Madonna playing Harley Quinn, and Nic Cage or even Howard Stern to assume the role of Scarecrow… scared the shit out of just about everyone in Hollywood. With another potential disaster averted, Warner Bros. and the Dark Knight entered the new millennium with the hopes of resurrecting the lost franchise that started in earnest with Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989.
It took several re-written scripts, the rise and fall of a futuristic Batman, a botched team-up with Superman, and a teen-centric TV pilot before the Dark Knight finally got his origin story told with 2005’s Batman Begins. Before Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale brought in a haul of $375 million worldwide, launching the modern era of superhero films, the turn of the century proved the Dark Knight was darkest just before the dawn.
“How did we get here? How did it all come to this?” – Opening line of Bruce Wayne, a proposed television pilot from the early 2000s.
In the early 2000s, X-Men and Spider-Man kicked off the era of superheroes films that bridged the gap between Batman’s box-office reign in the ’90s and Marvel’s cinematic universe. With 20th Century Fox and Sony on the cusp of a summer blockbuster goldmine, Warner Bros. had Batman and Superman, the two most bankable icons in comics, on the shelf.
“When I was looking for what to do next, one of the things I heard about was that Warner Bros. were looking to restart Batman,” Nolan said in a 2005 interview with The Guardian. “After the success of Spider-Man, they felt they ought to get their big guys off the bench. The great part was that they wanted to refresh and invigorate the franchise, but didn’t have any specific concepts and were essentially looking for someone to come in and tell them what to do.”
By the time Nolan was signed on, it’s likely that Warner Bros. grew tired of offbeat concepts to separate the caped crusader from Schumacher’s previous two installments.
The quick fix was to reboot both Batman and Superman with one film. Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en and Sleepy Hollow) pitched a Batman vs. Superman film long before the concept was a twinkle in Zack Snyder’s eye. Walker’s script, which was eventually rewritten by Batman & Robin writer Akiva Goldsman, was a far different take on the heroes than we’ve seen on screen.
In Batman vs. Superman: Asylum, Bruce Wayne’s Batman days are long behind him. He’s a broken man who lost the love of his life and believes it is at the hands of The Joker. When Bruce sets out on a path for revenge, Clark Kent, his best man, tries to stop him, causing a rift between the heroes. Eventually, Bruce and Clark learn Lex Luthor is behind the murder and team up to stop the baddie. We wrote much more about this project and how close it came to the screen right here.
Focusing on heroes that have been active (or in Batman’s case, inactive) for years, Batman vs. Superman Asylum was a way of allowing the audience determine whether it is a continuation of the characters’ previous cinematic adventures, a narrative technique they would use again for Superman Returns. Warner Bros. was simultaneously developing a Superman solo film, Superman: Flyby, with a script by J.J. Abrams. While Flyby ended up “winning” the development race and got well into pre-production, that never materialized, either.
Around the same time, another reboot without rebooting project focused on bringing the popular Batman Beyond animated series to the big screen. Co-creators Paul Dini and Alan Burnett penned a live-action version set to take place nearly 40 years in the future. On Kevin Smith’s Fatman on Batman podcast, Dini said the first draft went in and needed some work, then “basically everybody decided it was better, rather than spend a lot of time on this, let’s just table it.”
Both Batman Beyond and Batman vs. Superman: Asylum would have sidestepped the problem of the reboot, a word that wasn’t widely used in Hollywood at the time. But as talks of a futuristic Batman were shelved, Warner Bros. attention turned to an adaptation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. The 1987 story arc is a stripped-down version of Batman’s origin and one of the most influential Batman comics ever produced. Its influence on later Batman screen projects like Batman Begins is profound, from an inexperienced Bruce Wayne/Batman, to the mob ruling Gotham and the rise of an incorruptible Jim Gordon through the ranks of the GCPD.
But adapting Year One proved difficult. There were rumors that the studio eyed Lana and Andy Wachowski to write a Matrix-inspired draft, but they instead went to work on The Matrix sequels. Then there was the Joss Whedon version of Year One that introduced a new villain outside of the Batman canon. Years later, Whedon mapped out how he would have handled young Bruce’s backstory:
“[Bruce is] like this tiny 12-year old who’s about to get the shit kicked out him. And then it cuts to Wayne Manor, and Alfred is running like something terrible has happened, and he finds Bruce, and he’s back from the fight, and he’s completely fine. And Bruce is like, “I stopped them. I can stop them.’ That was the moment for me. When he goes ‘Oh, wait a minute; I can actually do something about this.’ The moment he gets that purpose, instead of just sort of being overwhelmed by the grief of his parents’ death.”
The project seemed to have the most traction when Miller himself took a shot at the screenplay along with Darrenn Aronofsky, who was a sought-after name in Hollywood coming off Pi and Requiem for a Dream.
“The Batman franchise had just gone more and more back towards the TV show, so it became tongue-in-cheek, a grand farce, camp,” Aronofsky said in an interview. “I pitched the complete opposite, which was totally bring-it-back-to-the-streets raw, trying to set it in a kind of real reality — no stages, no sets, shooting it all in inner cities across America, creating a very real feeling. My pitch was Death Wish or The French Connection meets Batman.”
Aronofsky described his screenplay as Serpico meets Taxi Driver, “infusing the [Batman] movie franchise with a dose of reality,” he said, “we tried to ask that eternal question: ‘What does it take for a real man to put on tights and fight crime?’”
The Aronofsky/Miller draft had aspirations of creating a world not all that different from what became Nolan’s Batman universe. However, the screenplay was a major departure from the Year One comic with Bruce Wayne fleeing the Wayne fortune to live as a nightmare-tormented garage worker after witnessing the murder of his parents as a child. There’s no Alfred in this screenplay, just “Little Al” – a “gigantic, early middle-aged black man” who works in a garage and becomes a father-figure to a young Bruce.
While Aronofsky was happy with the script, he knew it was something that would probably never get made. “If you release a film like that, every four-year-old is going to be screaming at their mother to take them to see it, so they really need a PG property,” he said in an excerpt from David Hughes’ book Tales from Development Hell.
“There was a hope at one point that, in the same way that DC Comics puts out different types of Batman titles for different ages, there might be a way of doing [the movies] at different levels. So I was pitching to make an R-rated adult fan-based Batman — a hardcore version that we’d do for not that much money.”
The film version of Batman: Year One wasn’t to be, but clearly this flirtation with a detailed Batman origin story had an impact on the studio, and they weren’t done trying to explore Batman’s early days…one way or the other.
Gotham Before Gotham
The race to get the Dark Knight rebooted took an unconventional turn when Tim McCanlies waged a studio war he’d eventually lose. The screenwriter, best known for The Iron Giant and Secondhand Lions, penned a pilot episode for a television series titled Bruce Wayne, which would follow a teenage Bruce on his journey to becoming Batman.
This was during the same time Aronofsky’s Year One script was making the rounds. What ensued was a power struggle between Warner Bros. features and television to find the right fit for the Batman property. There were rumors of HBO’s interest in the Bruce Wayne pilot, but The WB (now the CW) was hot for the project after debuting Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek, both of which were massive hits with teen audiences.
From an excerpt of Gary Collinson’s book Holy Franchise, Batman!, the Gotham City McCanlies wanted to create doesn’t sound all that far off from one that finally landed on the small screen with Fox’s Gotham:
Envisioning the show as running for five or six seasons, McCanlies produced a show bible and planned to introduce a host of additional characters as the series progressed, such as the temperamental comedian Jack Napier (the future Joker), medical student Harleen Quinzel, psychology professor Dr Jonathan Crane, con-man Edward Nygma, mobsters Carmine Falcone, Rupert Thorne and Oswald Cobblepot, and a “strange” farm boy from Smallville, Kansas, called Clark Kent.
Eventually Warner Bros. features won out, and the search for the right Batman big-screen reboot continued. McCanlies’ Bruce Wayne project faded, but not before spawning the WB’s Smallville.
“Smallville started out as a backdoor pilot in the Bruce Wayne bible,” McCanlies said in an interview. “It was actually doing an episode called “Smallville” where a young Clark Kent comes to Gotham City. It’s like a newspaper convention and Bruce tries to get rid of him and lose him and he can’t. Everywhere he turns, Clark’s right there. The idea was always to do a Smallville pilot.”
Citing creative differences, McCanlies and Warner Bros. eventually settled on a financial agreement when Smallville was greenlit over the Bruce Wayne pilot. They paid McCanlies off “handsomely,” he said, and Smallville became a flagship show for WB and eventually the rebranded The CW.
“I told them what Smallville should not be is a Dawson’s Creek-esque 23-year-old underwear models preening and pretending to be high school sophomores and who’s sleeping with whom. And they said, ‘That’s exactly what we want to do.’”
Funny enough, the Superman connection would rear its head one more time.
Save us, Christopher Nolan
While Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer’s Batman Begins screenplay borrowed elements from Batman: Year One, it was also heavily influenced by Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie (1978). Christopher Nolan told THR that he set out to sort of create a “1978 Batman,” an origin story where “the world is pretty much the world we live in but there’s this extraordinary figure there, which is what worked so well in Dick Donner’s Superman film.”
With adult concepts and new liberties taken from comic history, these unrealized Batman scripts were unlikely to be anything more than standalone films aimed at an older audience. For the sake of Gothamites everywhere, Batman’s time in development purgatory was the best thing to ever happen to the big-screen version of the Caped Crusader. The near decade of Batman’s absence from movie theaters was the buffer Warner Bros. needed to distance the excesses of the Schumacher’s films from Nolan’s more grounded Dark Knight universe, finally settling on a tone that captures the more appropriate concepts touched on in earlier projects while still making the franchise wildly profitable and entertaining for adults and kids alike.
Reflecting back on starting the franchise, Nolan told THR that he didn’t have intentions of a reboot. “I don’t even know who was first banging around the term ‘reboot’ or whatever, but it was after Batman Begins, so we didn’t have any kind of reference for that idea of kind of resetting a franchise,” Nolan said. “It was more a thing of, ‘Nobody’s ever made this origin story in this way and treated it as a piece of action filmmaking, a sort of contemporary action blockbuster.'”
We’re celebrating the anniversary of Batman Begins because, and we can’t put it in simpler terms, it’s a good movie. Not a good superhero movie, but a crime epic, a contemporary action blockbuster as Nolan said, only to be outdone by its sequel. Batman Begins was one of the few superhero movies that demanded that the genre be taken seriously. Dawn came for the Dark Knight, and it was well worth the wait.
You can find Chris Longo in the Bat Cave, or on Twitter.