Comics on Film: Could 'Batman Unchained' Have Saved Superhero Movies in the '90s?

Comics on Film: Could 'Batman Unchained' Have Saved Superhero Movies in the '90s?

Jun 22, 2015

 
Joel Schumacher is a name that lives in infamy with Batman fans around the world. Although the director of A Time to Kill and The Phantom of the Opera was primarily known for crafting darker movies in the mid-1990s, things changed when he was given the keys to the kingdom of DC Comics' Dark Knight.
 
After the somewhat polarizing reception to 1992's Batman Returns, Warner Bros. wanted to take the franchise in a bit of a different direction. Previous series director Tim Burton would transition into a producer capacity for the upcoming third film, and Schumacher was selected to direct what ultimately became 1995's Batman Forever. That film was the series' biggest financial success up to that point, so it didn't surprise anyone that the follow-up had both been placed on the fast track and would also feature the return of Schumacher to the director's chair.
 
It all started with Batman & Robin...
 
The film that became Batman & Robin may not have been doomed from the very beginning, but there were several elements that certainly set it back. The studio handed down a directive to make the film more family-friendly, which infiltrated nearly every aspect of the production. Kenner Toys was even brought in to assist in the design of props and set pieces, including the film's new Batmobile.
 
Batman & Robin was far more of a critical failure than a commercial one, and the end result was that the film would cause the Batman franchise to lay dormant until a new creative team and a young, visionary director would revive it in 2005 by taking things in a fundamentally different direction.
 
Still, before it was known that Schumacher would leave the franchise after the release of Batman & Robin, he was actively developing his follow-up, which was envisioned as a darker, character-driven piece that would culminate with a scene showing Batman confronting all of his cinematic foes, including the Joker from 1989's film.
 
Would it have been enough to save this incarnation of the Batman film franchise, though?
 
 
 
 
Batman Unchained -- The Joel Schumacher-directed Batman movie we never got
 
In a recent piece by The Hollywood Reporter, key production personnel have come forward to discuss exactly what was being planned as a follow-up to Batman & Robin by Schumacher, and the ideas are very interesting. Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was just an idea in the minds of Kevin Feige and Jon Favreau, Schumacher seemed to envision a moment of fanboy ecstasy unlike any other in comic-book cinema at the time, all made possible by a trademark weapon from one of Batman's most fearsome enemies.
 
According to Schumacher and screenwriter Mark Protosevich, the film would've been entitled Batman Unchained. It would've returned George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell to the roles of Batman and Robin, respectively, but Alicia Silverstone's Barbara Wilson/Batgirl character was not included.
 
According to Protosevich, he pitched a more serious direction to Schumacher, who reacted very enthusiastically. Schumacher himself has always maintained that his second Batman film was supposed to be darker and more psychologically complex, but pushback from Warner Bros. ultimately resulted in Batman & Robin becoming the film that it did.
 
Protosevich's script reportedly included Harley Quinn and the Scarecrow, with Harley taking on a life of her own as the Joker's daughter (a role fulfilled in some iterations of the comics by Duela Dent) since the Joker was killed years before in the climax of Batman.
 
Schumacher even claimed that he visited the set of John Woo's Face/Off to ask Nicolas Cage to play the Scarecrow, while Courtney Love was reportedly in consideration for Harley.
 
 
 
The story revolved around Harley discovering her true parentage, which sets her on a vengeful path towards the Dark Knight. Scarecrow eventually discovers Batman's secret identity, who reacts by teaming up with Harley in an effort to drive him insane and send him to Arkham Asylum.
 
And this is where things get interesting...
 
The screenplay called for a climax that involved the Scarecrow assaulting Batman with his famous fear toxin, which drives the Batman into a hallucinatory state in which he's placed on trial. The jury is comprised of all of his previous cinematic enemies from the Burton/Schumacher era: Danny DeVito's Penguin, Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman, Jim Carrey's Riddler, Tommy Lee Jones' Two-Face, and possibly the recently vanquished villains from Batman & Robin.
 
The kicker, of course, is that Jack Nicholson's Joker from Tim Burton's original film would be at the end of this star-studded gauntlet.
 
 
 
According to the report, the studio was entirely onboard with getting everyone back for this scene, and would've been entirely willing to put up the money to get everyone back in their iconic makeup -- including (and perhaps especially) Nicholson -- in a scene that would've definitively tied together all of the previous films.
 
The, the death knell of the project came as Protosevich was wrapping up his first draft in June of 1997: the release of Batman & Robin. This was a perfect storm of negativity that would ultimately lead to the studio abandoning plans for a fifth installment of the series in its current form, and the one that ultimately led to the creation of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy.
 
 
Would Batman Unchained have saved Schumacher's Batman?
 
Given the facts at hand about what Batman Unchained would've looked like, it's the opinion of this Bat-fan that Unchained could've had a profound effect on the state of Batman cinema if it had the opportunity to be released after Batman & Robin.
 
The idea of a superhero all-star film -- even if it would have been for only one major scene -- likely would've caused a lot of excitement from people that had enjoyed the previous entries in the series, and would've been unlike anything audiences had seen from superhero movies up to that point.
 
It would've been particularly potent for this film series, since the Burton/Schumacher films always seemed to focus more on the villains than on Batman himself. This would've been a very interesting opportunity to kill two proverbial birds with one stone: you can literally go inside Batman's head to give greater focus to his character and the sum of his experiences in the film series up to that point, while also providing an incredible moment of fan service to the high-profile villains that had appeared in all of the previous major Batman films.
 
Still, its difficult to imagine a world where Batman Unchained exists, since it was the failure of Batman & Robin that directly led to Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, the popularization in Hollywood of rebooting franchises, as well as the creation of, arguably, the most critically acclaimed example of superhero cinema yet produced in 2008's The Dark Knight.
 
Still, though, this scenario is endlessly fascinating, and really fun to think about. It just wasn't in the cards.
 

Chris Clow is a geek. He is a gamer, a comic book expert and former retailer, the Junior Editor at GeekNation.com, and a freelance contributor to The Huffington Post and Batman-On-Film.com. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

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