Comics on Film: The Biggest Superhero Movies That Almost Never Happened

Comics on Film: The Biggest Superhero Movies That Almost Never Happened

Jun 11, 2014

With all of the recent news surrounding Edgar Wright’s recent departure from Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man, some people seem to be predicting doom for the Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas-starring vehicle. This is premature since cameras have yet to even roll on the film, along with consideration of Marvel Studios’ largely solid track record thus far. Rick Marshall made a great case in this week’s Geek Beat for why fans shouldn’t overreact to the news as it relates to the film, because, chances are, what we’ll ultimately get will be entertaining in that singular Marvel fashion.

Of course, though, it’s difficult for fans not to at least partially lament the loss of an exceptional writer and director like Wright on a Marvel Studios superhero project, especially one as “out of the box” as Ant-Man. He left because he felt that his creativity was being compromised, and considering how many other directors often get taken for a ride by major studios, there’s a lot to admire in a creator standing up for his vision, and walking away when he knew it wouldn’t coincide with that vision.

That being said, director shuffling is nothing new to superhero movies, and there are likely equal amounts of instances in which a change in director have both helped and hurt a film based off of comics characters. Here are five such instances of this happening, both good and bad.


5) What Would Become Batman Begins

After the critical flop that was 1997’s Batman & Robin, the once mighty franchise had fallen into development hell. While, initially, it was believed that Joel Schumacher, George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell would be returning in a fifth Batman film and development would be underway for release in 1999. Then, Batman & Robin came out, and Warner Bros. languished through a number of different Batman projects that all failed to launch.

Schumacher, apparently feeling a degree of guilt and responsibility to give Batman fans a dark take on their beloved character, approached Warner Bros. in mid-1998 to adapt Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One comic book arc as a feature. Warner Bros. passed, but sat on that idea, while also encouraging development with writer Paul Dini and director Boaz Yakin for an adaptation of the Batman Beyond animated series. Director Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller himself would also pitch their own Year One idea to the studio, but all the efforts were eventually passed over.

Writer Lee Shapiro also pitched a back-to-basics sequel featuring the Scarecrow, Man-Bat and Robin’s evolution into Nightwing, but this was also eventually dropped in favor of a pitch by British up-and-comer Christopher Nolan.

Guess what happened next?


4) Superman II

The late 1970s production of the massive Superman project was envisioned as two movies, with part two directly following part one, and with both to be shot at the same time. Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and their partner Pierre Spangler hired American director Richard Donner to direct the massive project after being impressed with his tense horror film The Omen. When the massive production ran into time delays and cost overruns midway through development, the Salkinds had to make a choice. Already in the proverbial “can” by this point was the entirety of film one, and about half of film two. In order to recoup their costs as quickly as possible to finance the rest of the production, the producers suspended the remaining scenes for part two, electing to focus all of the team’s efforts on completing and releasing film one to the public by the end of 1978.

Throughout his time on the production, Donner’s relationship with the producers had grown incredibly tense. For most of the production, Donner had been fighting a desire by the producers to make the film campier and trendier, elements he and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz had already worked hard to try and expunge from the story. After the release of Superman in 1978, production was about to recommence to finish filming the rest of Superman II, but the producers had made a decision: they’d fire Donner, and bring on a more amenable director, Richard Lester, to finish it out.

There was a problem, though. In order for the Director’s Guild of America to recognize Superman II as a solely Richard Lester film, the director would’ve had to complete over 50% of the finished product. This problem was compounded by the leaving of Gene Hackman, who walked off the project in protest of Richard Donner’s firing. The film we now know as Superman II is very different from the film we’d have gotten under Donner. All of the scenes in which Gene Hackman appears in the film were directed by Donner, and others requiring him were used using existing footage and a voice-over artist. Also, in order to avoid paying box office dues to Marlon Brando for his role as Jor-El, his scenes for Superman II were cut and reworked with Susannah York as Lara.

Superman II was a successful sequel, but the finished product is decidedly campier in spots than the original. Thankfully, after an unprecedented fan writing campaign in 2006, Donner’s vision was partially restored for the release of Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut.


3) Thor: The Dark World

The first instance of Marvel Studios’ director woes, the sequel to 2011’s Thor had been openly discussed as a Kenneth Branagh film right up to a month after its release. Too much time required of an effects-heavy blockbuster was cited as a reason for Branagh’s departure, but it was odd that his open enthusiasm in returning to for a second film would ultimately not come to pass. In October of 2011, Marvel officially confirmed that director Patty Jenkins (Monster, pilot of AMC’s The Killing) would be directing the as-yet-untitled Thor 2, and it was largely believed that Jenkins’ hiring was one of the ways in which Marvel Studios had resecured Natalie Portman for her role from the first film as Jane Foster.

Perhaps similarly to the fashion in which Wright exited Ant-Man, Jenkins officially left the Thor sequel in December of 2011, barely two months after she was announced as director, citing “creative differences.” Various unconfirmed reports surfaced later saying that Portman, who had just given birth to her first child, wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about returning to play Jane Foster, but her suggestion of Jenkins and the director’s ultimate hiring helped make her enthusiastic about the project. After Jenkins left, Portman was reportedly very angry at Marvel, but as we know, eventually Alan Taylor was hired, Portman did in fact return, and Thor: The Dark World was released in November of 2013.


2) Green Lantern

The film that eventually became 2011’s Green Lantern was in the hands of several different creators since the late 1990s. While rumors abounded in the early 2000s that it would be a comedy starring Jack Black, nothing ever came of that and instead writer-actor Corey Reynolds had pitched a Green Lantern trilogy starring himself as the John Stewart iteration of the character with enthusiastic results from Warner Bros. Apparently, Reynolds is a fan of the characters, and over the course of his trilogy had intended to introduce characters like Hal Jordan and the Justice League.

Reynolds reportedly turned in his first script for a film called Green Lantern: Birth of a Hero in 2007, but the studio later decided to go in a different direction. Writer-director Greg Berlanti and cowriters Michael Green and Marc Guggenheim had successfully pitched an origin story starring the Hal Jordan character in 2007, with Berlanti slated to direct.

Due to Berlanti’s commitment on a film called This Is Where I Leave You, he had to abandon the director’s chair in 2009. From there, Martin Campbell was hired to create from Berlanti, Green and Guggenheim’s script. Green Lantern was released in June of 2011, and became a critical and commercial flop, failing to earn back its $200 million production budget with a worldwide total of $219 million.


1) Watchmen

For years comic book creators, fans and studios alike had called Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ seminal Watchmen “unfilmable.” As one of the most celebrated comic book series of all time, though, studios were excited at the prospect of defying the odds and making an adaptation of Watchmen a reality, but that enthusiasm was often met with the stark reality of the material’s difficulty. Producer Lawrence Goldman had acquired the rights to Watchmen for 20th Century Fox with Joel Silver as producer, and when Alan Moore declined to write a screenplay, writer Sam Hamm (Batman) was enlisted to write instead. After Hamm’s first draft was turned in, the film went into turnaround by 1991.

Silver and Gordon then saw a number of studios and directors involved over the years trying to coalesce the project into a film. Moving to Warner Bros., the producers hired Terry Gilliam to develop it, who brought in his own screenwriter. When that didn’t work out, the project was moved to Universal, and producers hired David Hayter to write and direct it. This culminated in Hayter and the producers leaving Universal over “creative differences,” and after an unsuccessful attempt at independent development, Hayter left the project as director.

Now at Paramount, the producers hired Darren Aronofsky to helm Hayter’s script, but Aronofsky eventually lost interest and developed The Fountain instead. Paramount then replaced him with Paul Greengrass, and negotiations with principal actors and preliminary design work began. After a power reorganization at Paramount, though, Watchmen was again placed into turnaround in the mid 2000s.

This eventually led to Warner Bros. reinvolvement with the film, and after rights issues were settled with Universal and Paramount, Warner Bros. began to develop the film in earnest. Alex Tse was hired as screenwriter, Zack Snyder was hired as director, and the film was ultimately released to a polarized, but mostly positive reaction from critics, but an ultimately modest (but technically successful) box office run.


As you can see in these five cases, sometimes the creative change can be both a new lease on life for a film, or a death sentence. While it’s unlikely that Marvel Studios would let Ant-Man fall into disarray, it’s always best to remember these instances of the past, so that the superhero film can continually improve. We’ll just have to see where Ant-Man ultimately lands when it’s released to the public.


Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and former retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.comThe Huffington Post, and You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.




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