Fall and Rise of the Dark Knight
Batman was in trouble. Big trouble. The kind of trouble that could have spelled his doom. After defeating the likes of such colorful characters as the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, Two-Face, the Riddler, Bane, Poison Ivy, and Mr. Freeze on the big screen, Batman's days as a box office superstar seemed numbered in the wake of director Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin. Though it managed to turn a healthy profit, Batman & Robin earned only a fraction of what Batman made and it was nearly universally panned by critics and fanboys alike for its overly campy tone and the ridiculous modifications to Batman's suit (seriously, Bat-nipples?).
Fast-forward to 2012 and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises is one of the most highly anticipated movies of the year. By taking a more realistic, grounded approach to Batman, his villains and the world they inhabit, Nolan reinvigorated the franchise and set the bar high for other comic book adaptations to follow. In the second part of our series dedicated to David Hughes' new book, Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made?, we take a look at the Bat-movie that might have been before Nolan came into the picture — when Warner Bros. contemplated handing the franchise over to a young filmmaker named Darren Aronofsky, who attracted the attention of Warners with his stunning feature debut Pi... And kept the studio's attention by suggesting that Tokyo double for Gotham City and that Clint Eastwood play the Dark Knight.
Despite the criticism leveled at Batman & Robin, Warner Bros. almost went ahead with a fifth Batman movie, even entertaining the notion of giving Schumacher another shot at the franchise. To his credit, Schumacher decided to abandon camp in favor of grit, looking to comic book visionary Frank Miller's acclaimed Batman: Year One mini-series for inspiration for his third Batman movie. In Year One, Miller introduced us to a young Bruce Wayne who has the training to become Batman, but not the experience, and re-introduced James Gordon as more of a maverick cop than a milksop. Warners apparently loved the idea of retelling Batman's origin, but not enough to risk giving Schumacher the helm again, and approached Aronofsky in the summer of 1999.
Aronfsky had worked with Miller previously and approached the writer-artist about collaborating on an adaptation of Year One that would be along the lines of "Death Wish or The French Connection meets Batman." Writes Hughes:
The studio was intrigued enough to commission a screenplay, in which Aronofsky and Miller took many liberties, not only with the Year One comic book, but with Batman mythology in general. For a start, the script strips Bruce Wayne as his status as heir apparent to the Wayne Industries billions, proposing instead that the young Bruce is found in the street after his parents' murder, and taken in by 'Big Al', who runs an auto repair shop with his son, 'Little Al'. Driven by a desire for vengeance towards a manifest destiny of which he is only dimly aware, young Bruce (of deliberately indeterminate age) toils day and night in the shop, watching the comings and goings of hookers, johns, pimps and corrupt cops at a sleazy East End cathouse across the street, while chain-smoking detective James Gordon struggles with the corruption he finds endemic among Gotham City police officers of all ranks.
Bruce's first act as a vigilante is to confront a dirty copy named Campbell as he accosts 'Mistress Selina' in the cathouse, but Campbell ends up dead and Bruce narrowly escapes being blamed. Realising that he needs to operate with more methodology, he initially dons a cape and hockey mask — deliberately suggestive of the costume of Jason Voorhees in the Friday the 13th films. However, Bruce soon evolves a more stylized 'costume' with both form and function, acquires a variety of makeshift gadgets and weapons, and re-configures a black Lincoln Continental into a makeshift 'Bat-mobile' — complete with blacked-out windows, night vision driving goggles, armoured bumpers and a super-charged school bus engine. In his new guise as 'The Bat-man', Bruce Wayne wages war on criminals from street level to the highest echelons, working his way up the food chain to Police Commissioner Loeb and Mayor Noone, even as executors of the Wayne estate search for their missing heir. In the end, Bruce accepts his dual destiny as heir to the Wayne fortune and the city's saviour, and Gordon comes to accept that, while he may not agree with The Bat-Man's methods, he cannot argue with his results.
Aronofsky's vision of Batman would never come to pass, however. Though obviously interested in distancing the franchise from Batman & Robin, Warners was not prepared for a Dark Knight as dark as the one Aronofsky intended.
Of his own approach, Aronofsky admits, "I think Warners always knew it would never be something they could make. I think rightfully so, because four year-olds buy Batman stuff, so if you release a film like that, every four year-old's going to be screaming at their mother to take them to see it, so they really need a PG property... Nevertheless, he adds, "Warner Bros was very brave in allowing us to develop it, and Frank and I were both really happy with the script."
After Warners passed on Aronofsky's take on Batman, the franchise returned to Development Hell, where it would linger — weathering rumors of a Matrix-style Batman movie with Keanu Reeves in the Bat-suit — until Nolan's arrival on the scene in early 2003. The rest, as they say, is (movie) history.
Next page: Ridley Scott's Dead Reckoning (aka The Train, aka ISOBAR) kept the director of Alien and Blade Runner away from science fiction for decades.