It turns out that Warner Brothers wanted to do a ‘Batman’ movie years before Tim Burton’s 1989 classic. With a script by Bond scribe Tom Mankiewicz who had also contributed to the first two ‘Superman’ movie scripts, the studio announced plans for a ‘Batman’ movie in 1980, the same year ‘Superman II’ arrived in theaters. At the time, WB hoped to release ‘Batman’ in 1983 but the project languished.
Sometime after the release of ‘Gremlins’ in 1984, the studio approached Joe Dante to tackle Mankiewicz’s script. At this point, the ‘Superman’ movies had started to fizzle out, starting with ‘Superman III’ in 1983, ‘Superman IV: The Quest For Peace’ in 1987, plus the largely unrelated ‘Supergirl’ in 1984. Perhaps WB hoped to enlist ‘Batman’ to replace the flagging ‘Superman’ brand.
Unfortunately, Dante grappled with the idea and ultimately felt he wasn’t the right person for the job. By the time Burton signed on to direct the movie that did get made, Mankiewicz’s script was outdated and discarded in favor of a new ‘Dark Knight’-influenced script by Sam Hamm.
So what would the movie that didn’t get made have been like?
Dante recently gave an interview spanning his career and when asked about this aborted project said this:
Well, the Batman that I was going to do would have been completely different from what they ended up making. This was right after Gremlins, and Tom Mankiewicz, who had written a lot of James Bond movies, had done this take on Batman which was certainly not Chris Nolan-dark, was certainly darker than the TV version. It started with his parents being killed, and it was a revenge story. But it was very outlandish, had a lot of giant props in it. The Joker was a major character in it. I wanted to hire John Lithgow for that part because I had met him on The Twilight Zone movie. And for whatever reason, I started to gravitate more towards The Joker than towards Batman. And I actually woke up one night and I said to myself, “I can’t do this movie—I’m more interested in The Joker than I am in Batman, and that’s not the way it should be.” So I went and told them that I couldn’t do it, and they looked at me like I’d completely lost my mind. But in the end, I think I was not the right guy to do the movie… And that’s the way it should be, you should find the right people to do the job. And I don’t regret not doing Batman, in the sense that I’m not sure what it would have ended up being like. But I certainly can’t say it was a major career-booster, my decision not to make it.
One thing is for sure, it’s admirable that Dante chose to not make this movie– which would have surely been a huge financial success– because he simply wasn’t feeling it. It’s incredibly ironic that one reason he cited is that he was more interested in The Joker than Batman, because in the two ‘Batman’ movies with The Joker, Burton’s 1989 film featuring Jack Nicholson and 2008’s ‘The Dark Knight’, for which Heath Ledger won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, The Joker actually DID upstage Batman.
That begs the question of how John Lithgow may have worked in the role. At the time, he had already proven quite intense and versatile in movies like ‘Blow Out’, ‘The World According To Garp’, ‘Terms of Endearment’ and of course ‘Footloose’. As Dante mentioned, they met while working on ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’ in which Lithgow was featured in the film’s most famous scene ‘Terror At 20,000 Feet’– you know, the ‘There’s a man on the wing of this plane!’ part.
As for the rest of Mankiewicz’s script, it would have in one way emulated ‘Superman: The Movie’, with the first hour devoted to Batman’s origin, complete with Joe Chill as the assassin, a training montage, then it would have followed him on his first night on patrol. As Dante noted, the script called for the Batcave to be adorned with giant props, including the T-Rex robot and giant penny, comic readers are familiar with. In addition to The Joker, The Penguin was also a major villain as was Rupert Thorne. Silver St. Cloud served as Bruce’s love interest, and the film would have also depicted Robin’s origin, which essentially comes straight out of the comics, except in this script, The Joker is his parents’ killer. (Damn, this would have been a loooooong movie.)
Unfortunately, the ending of the movie is sillier than anything in any of the existing ‘Batman’ movies and that includes Schumacher’s! (Those giant props come into play.)
But like I said, it’s good that Dante backed out on his own. Too often I’ve heard directors who make super hero projects say things along the lines of “I started thinking about how I could make this character work for ME.” If you don’t get the character as they are, you’re not the one for the job.
But are there any elements from this version that you wish had made it into an existing movie? What do you think of Dante’s choice of John Lithgow as The Joker?