Last month in Hall H of the San Diego Convention Center, film and comics fans were taken by storm with an announcement made by Man of Steel director Zack Snyder at the tail end of the Warner Bros. panel. Snyder, having just come off the commercially successful reinvigoration of Superman, seemed excited as he trotted out actor Harry Lennix to read from a particular comic book that fans know very well. In his baritone, Lennix read from the climactic pages of The Dark Knight Falls, the fourth and final issue of the seminal graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, words uttered by the Batman as he defeated Superman in a fateful battle.
With that, a logo emerged on the screen of the familiar Superman "S shield" as seen in Man of Steel, slowly and ominously surrounded by a black bat. Finally, after so many years of dancing around the possibility as long as many can remember, Warner Bros. announced that Batman and Superman will meet on film for the first time in 2015.
Although, this was not the first time they attempted it.
The Deaths of the Batman and Superman Franchises (1987-1997)
At the beginning of the 21st century, the Superman and Batman film franchises were in a state of flux, having both come off of seriously damaging critical (though, in one case, not exactly commercial) flops. It’s pretty safe to say, though, that Superman was in a bit of a worse place than the Dark Knight.
By 2001, the last Superman film made was 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, a cheap, embarrassing vehicle that proved to be the swan song for Christopher Reeve’s legendary portrayal of the Man of Steel. After the Salkinds (producers on the first three Reeve films) sold their option for a fourth outing to Cannon Films, a story was conceived about Superman ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
Reeve took an immediate interest in the subject matter and agreed to return to star in addition to helping formulate the story, and with him he brought Gene Hackman as archenemy Lex Luthor. After Cannon reportedly cut the budget from $35 million to about $17 million, the special effects work and heavily reedited final cut put the franchise in the dirt for nearly 20 years.
Also by 2001, the last Batman film made was 1997’s Batman & Robin, a sequel to the very successful Batman Forever. Although Warner Bros. enjoyed record box office numbers with its third major Batman film (which took $336 million on a $100 million budget in 1995), the studio handed down a directive to returning director Joel Schumacher that the appeal of the franchise needed to be broadened to families, in an effort to break even more records the next time around.
Schumacher took the directive and ran with it, drawing a great deal of inspiration from the tone of the 1966 Adam West television series, encouraging his actors to campily embellish their dialogue (with actor John Glover recalling that Schumacher told them through the megaphone before a take, “Remember everybody, it’s a cartoon!”), and even bringing in Kenner toys to advise on the designs of props and vehicles.
The result was a critical disaster, though not a commercial one as so many people claim it to be. While it wasn’t the hit that Batman Forever was, Batman & Robin still took in $238 million worldwide on a $140 million budget, before even going into the toy sales generated by the film’s assaulting merchandising campaign (I know, I was nine). Nonetheless, it’s complete and utter critical failure has often earned it the moniker of one of the worst films ever made, and would prove to hibernate the Batman franchise for eight years.
Batman vs. Superman – Round 1 (2001-2003)
Fast-forward again to 2001: Warner Bros., anticipating revivals for the two flagship DC Comics characters, had enlisted very different creative teams for the characters’ solo franchises. Director McG (Charlie’s Angels), and eventually J.J. Abrams, had both experienced creative and logistical difficulties in trying to bring their visions of the Man of Steel to the screen. On the darker side of things, director Darren Aronofsky was working with comic book scribe Frank Miller in reimaging the Batman mythos for a film entitled Batman: Year One, the script of which bore very little resemblance to Miller’s highly celebrated comic book story of the same name.
Then, into Warner Bros. walks a writer named Andrew Kevin Walker. A screenwriter with credits like Se7en and Sleepy Hollow to his name, Walker pitched the idea of a Batman and Superman team-up film to the studio. What the studio likely saw was a rare opportunity to kickstart two ailing franchises at the same time, as well as to create an undoubtedly interesting (if somewhat formulaic) superhero film that deconstructed the characters to a degree before building them both back up.
Set five years after Batman’s retirement and after enduring the deaths of original Robin Dick Grayson, Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, Bruce Wayne is finally settling down with a new fiancée. In Metropolis, Clark Kent is enduring marital difficulties with Lois Lane, but happily serves as Bruce’s best man at his wedding. Things quickly go sour while on the honeymoon when Bruce’s new wife is murdered by the Joker. When plotting his revenge against his longtime foe, Bruce is confronted by Clark, who tries to stop him from seeking revenge. It doesn’t go very well.
As a result, Bruce’s feelings boil to the surface, and in rage he blames Clark for his wife’s death. This leads to a confrontation that spans through Gotham, Metropolis, Clark’s home town of Smallville, and beyond. Eventually, the entire plot is revealed to have been orchestrated by Lex Luthor, who has sought the simultaneous destruction of both heroes before they put aside their differences to stop Luthor and bring him to justice.
Warner Bros. lapped the concept up, commissioning rewrites from screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and eventually hiring Wolfgang Peterson (Outbreak, Air Force One) to direct. The film was actually green lit by the studio to go into production in 2003 for a 2004 release, and the Internet went mad over potential casting rumors. Some of the ones I remember hearing most consistently were Josh Hartnett for Superman and Colin Farrell for Batman.
The Match Is Delayed – Until 2015
Rather unexpectedly, though, within a month of the green light for the potential double reboot, Petersen left the film to direct 2004’s Troy. After that, things fell into disarray for the heroes known collectively as the “World’s Finest.”
After this, Warner Bros. has only made passing references to the possibility of such a film (like the indeterminate future’s Times Square banner for the film in 2007’s I Am Legend). While the failure of the team-up ultimately led to the production of both Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, only Singer seemed enthusiastic about the possibility of bringing both heroes together on film. When Superman Returns underperformed in 2006, and Nolan showed absolutely no interest in cross-pollinating his Batman with anything, expectations for such a possibility dwindled before fading out completely.
I think you know the story from there. Man of Steel hits pretty big at the box office, resolidifying his status as a top-tier superhero. Batman comes off of three massively successful films in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, saving the Caped Crusader from the obscurity of his 1997 film. Both heroes are back in peoples’ minds, and Warner is now ready to pull the trigger on a team-up never before seen in official live action. When that film hits in 2015, it will definitely be a cinematic event, and certainly a defining one for comic book and superhero fans the world over.
Please, Warner Bros. and Mr. Snyder: do not screw it up.
Hot Buy This Week – Extreme Edition
Have you ever heard of Hot Toys? If not, you should definitely look them up. The Hong Kong-based toymaker often comes out with truly astonishing 1/6th-scale action figures and vehicles that have a level of detail often indistinguishable from the real things in photos, and that applies to both its figures and its vehicles.
The caveat is that these collectibles are definitely not cheap, but they're almost always jaw-droppingly awesome. The company's most recent jaw-dropper? Its 1/6th-scale 1989 Batmobile, as featured in the Tim Burton Batman films.
Not only does it light up on the headlights, afterburner and tail lights, but Batman's cockpit instruments also light up. It comes equipped with several of the Batmobile gadgets seen in both films, like the side grappling hooks and top machine guns from Batman, and the pelle -launcher and stilt killer from Batman Returns. At $630, it better be awesome, but no words can do it justice. So, I've included this in-depth video review in HD resolution just so you can see how incredible a "toy" this really is.
That does it for this week’s edition of Comics on Film! Be back here in seven days when we examine another aspect of our four-color characters making the jump to celluloid. What would you like to see out of this column? Another look back at history? An idea of things still to come? Leave a comment below and let us know.
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.com, The Huffington Post, Batman-On-Film.com and ModernMythMedia.com. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.