Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a world that doesn’t have Christian Bale playing Batman… okay, that would probably look like the weird and wacky ’60s when Adam West was prancing about in gray tights… or maybe the adventurous ’80s and ’90s when Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney all took turns at slipping into black latex bat suits, a few of which sported nipples.
Alright, here’s a better example: what about a world in which Robert Downey Jr isn’t everyone’s favorite walking tin can, Iron Man. A world even crazier than the ’60s, in which Tom Cruise plays Tony Stark, Sylvester Stallone is Clark Kent, Edward Furlong is Peter Parker and Bill Murray is Bruce Wayne.
It’s a world where (speeding) bullets cannot be dodged, and those not-so-super bits of casting are a reality – and lead to even bigger train wrecks than those involving powerful locomotives.
Call it Bizarro World if you want, but each of those castings I just mentioned almost came to pass. Along with some other notable near-misses, we here at Screen Rant explore the (sordid) casting history of some of today’s hottest superhero franchises:
Tom Cruise as Iron Man
It’s obviously hard to fathom now, with RDJ slipping so perfectly into the role of Tony Stark, but it probably seemed ridiculous to some back in early 2007 when it was announced that the once down-on-his-luck Robert Downey Jr would be playing Marvel’s suave, self-made superhero, Iron Man.
Particularly when – despite a seemingly on-again, off-again relationship – it was long believed that Tom Cruise would not only eventually star as Stark, but also co-produce the character’s first foray onto the big screen. Cruise’s connection to an Iron Man movie goes back to just after the turn of the century, and intensified after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man helped inject a new lease on life into the superhero genre.
Marvel Studios executive Kevin Feige was quoted as saying in 2004:
“There have been discussions (with Cruise) over the last several years and there are a number of factors involved. All we know is that we’re putting all the pieces in place and then we’ll find the best Tony Stark that we can get.”
Apparently Cruise finally lost interest in being apart of Iron Man due to the script at the time. It is not known whether it was the draft that centered around Stark’s father, Howard, turning out to be the villain of the piece. Said Cruise:
“I don’t know. It just … they came to me at a certain point and … when I do something, I wanna do it right. If I commit to something, it has to be done in a way that I know it’s gonna be something special. And as it was lining up, it just didn’t feel to me like it was gonna work.”
Once Marvel settled on a director in Jon Favreau- and a decent script – Favreau overlooked such actors as Clive Owen and Sam Rockwell for the lead role, stating that Downey Jr could make Stark “a likable asshole.” And RDJ delivered. Cruise, on the other hand, may have made Stark just an asshole. Sorry Tom.
Bill Murray as Batman
It is considered folklore, but back when it was a big deal: Michael Keaton being cast as Bruce Wayne in Tim Burton’s Batman caused such outrage among comic book fans, that 50,000 protest letters were sent to Warner Bros. The studio may have gotten 100,000 if Bill Murray had filled the role, as was a strong possibility for some time. It was all a symptom of the mixed-up mid-’80s, about the time when someone thought it would be a good idea to have Richard Pryor play a super-villain (in Superman III).
The Murray Batman was going to be similar in style to the campy Adam West TV show of the ’60s, but the project was eventually met with a big “Kapow!” and Warner Bros. made the right choice in hiring Tim Burton, fresh from the surprise success of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, who took the film in a completely different direction – towards box-office gold.
Every man and his dog was said to be in the running for the role of Burton’s Billionaire with the bat fetish - most notably Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin – but Keaton won out, and won over the fans with his dark and disturbed portrayal of the victimized vigilante. Murray himself was glowing in his praise of Keaton.
“I would have been a fine Batman. You know, there have been a number of Batmen. I like them … I thought Mike Keaton did a great job as Batman. It’s obviously… it’s a great role.”
Jake Gyllenhaal as Batman
Speaking of dark and disturbed, Jake Gyllenhaal had played just that as the title character in cult-hit Donnie Darko. He was looking for an upgrade when he tried for the prize part of Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s Batman reboot, Batman Begins. He was said to be writer David S. Goyer’s first choice before screen-testing.
Gyllenhaal was one of the final eight actors to audition for the part, the others being Canadian Joshua Jackson, fellow Americans Eion Bailey and Billy Crudup, along with European actors Cillian Murphy, Henry Cavill, Hugh Dancy and Christian Bale, who Nolan pushed for and got, despite the actor being a real-life stick figure after appearing in The Machinist.
While Bale got the spoils, Murphy impressed Nolan so much he cast him as Dr Jonathan Crane, aka The Scarecrow. The closest that runner-up Gyllenhaal got to being involved in a Batman movie was having his sister Maggie star in The Dark Knight. Jake Gyllenhaal was apparently in talks to play DA Harvey ‘Two-Face’ Dent in that sequel, but was again overlooked, this time for Aaron Eckhart – thankfully.
While he has matured in the years since trying out for Batman Begins, and has packed on considerable muscle for the upcoming The Prince of Persia, back then Jake Gyllenhaal was certainly more suited to a Peter Parker/Spider-Man-type superhero. Of course, he just missed out there too after Tobey Maguire was able to recover from a back injury just before filming Spider-Man 2.
Scott Leva as Spider-Man
Long before Tobey Maguire became a household name by playing the neighborhood’s friendly Spider-Man in three movies, Scott Leva was the man most likely to don the webs and mask. “Scott who?” you ask.
Leva was a professional stuntman – still is – and was the front-runner to play the web-slinger when the increasingly cash-strapped Cannon Films was desperately trying to develop a Spider-Man movie in the late ’80s. Leva had even appeared in promotional photos for Cannon, wearing the Spidey suit.
A Spider-Man movie had been in development for a number of years, first with Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and then Joseph Zito (Invasion USA) in the director’s chair, before ongoing budget cuts by Cannon meant ongoing slashes to the script. Zito, who Cannon had replaced Hooper with, ultimately dropped out because of the film’s cheaper and cheaper handling. Albert Pyun (The Sword and the Sorcerer) replaced him.
Leva apparently read all drafts of the script, including the early one by Ted Newsom and John Brancato, which was an origin story with Otto Octavius initially a mentor to Peter Parker who becomes Spider-Man’s enemy Doc Ock after a ‘cyclotron accident’ transforms both characters. Leva told Starlog in 2002:
“It (the script) was good but it needed a little work. Unfortunately, with every subsequent rewrite by other writers, it went from good to bad to terrible.”
While Cannon – which also produced the massive flop Superman IV: The Quest for Peace – eventually gave up trying to get its Spider-Man movie made (and eventually went out of business in 1993) Pyun went on to make one of the worst superhero movies of all-time, Captain America (1990), which starred Matt Salinger.
Edward Furlong as Spider-Man
You can thank financial issues for denying us the chance to see Eddie Furlong in the red and blue spandex in the mid-90s – not to mention Arnold Schwarzenegger as Doctor Octopus. Getting Spider-Man to the big-screen became even more of a tangled web after the collapse of Cannon. The rights ended up at Carolco Pictures, at the bequest of James Cameron, who wanted to write and direct a big blockbuster.
Carolco produced Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and then planned to collaborate with Cameron again on Spider-Man. Cameron’s initial reworking of an existing script again featured arch-nemesis Doc Ock as the adversary. Having worked frequently together, Schwarzenegger was Cameron’s first choice for the villain, and Furlong (the original John Connor) was strongly considered for the hero.
Cameron also wrote a more adult ‘scriptment’, with Electro and Sandman replacing Doc Ock. Cameron’s bid to make Spider-Man is featured in the Rebecca Keegan book, The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.
In 1996, Carolco followed Cannon into that big studio heaven in the sky and left the Spider-Man movie in development hell. The company’s collapse proved the deathknell for Cameron’s vision for the web-slinger, though parts of his script did make it to Sam Raimi’s adaptation almost a decade later.
Cameron managed to jump ship and make Titanic. Schwarzenegger and Furlong didn’t fare so well. While Arnie had the dubious honor of playing Mr Freeze (in Batman and Robin), Eddie simply went cold and his career faded. Though he will be seen alongside Seth Rogen in the upcoming The Green Hornet.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Spider-Man
MGM got its hands on the Spider-Man rights from Carolco, but following much legal wheeling and dealing, traded them to Sony Pictures in 1999 for the James Bond rights. Maybe MGM thought it was a poisoned chalice?
Sony got to work right away on making Spider-Man via Columbia Pictures, using Cameron’s script treatment, but not the director himself. The company also wanted to get its hands on the star of Cameron’s record-smashing Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio, for the prize role of Peter Parker. Freddie Prinze Jr and Jude Law were also believed to be early contenders.
In the end, only Cameron’s idea for ‘organic web-shooters’ survived the many rewrites by David Koepp and then Scott Rosenberg, and DiCaprio’s body of work remains bereft of a superhero role. Self-confessed “Spider-Man nut” Sam Raimi was hired to direct, and Scott Speedman, Jay Rodan and James Franco were among those who tested for the lead.
Raimi ultimately got his man Tobey Maguire, despite the studio’s initial reluctance to cast him because of his small stature. Maybe they had reservations about the actor after watching Wonderboys and seeing him in bed with another future superhero, Robert Downey Jr?
The rest, as they say, is history – and, despite a dodgy third entry, Raimi and Maguire’s Spider-Man trilogy is the most successful superhero franchise in history (so far). Tell me again, why are they planning a reboot?
Dougray Scott as Wolverine
Not far behind the Spider-Man franchise is X-Men, which really paved the way for the superhero genre in the 21st century after Batman and Robin ripped it to shreds at the end of the 20th. However, would X-Men have been such a success without Hugh Jackman anchoring the role of Logan, aka Wolverine?
Dougray Scott, the Scottish actor, was actually hired to play the Canadian wildman with the super-sideburns when director Bryan Singer was assembling his mutant team for X-Men in 1999. Scott was ultimately forced to pull out just as they began filming, due to scheduling conflicts with Mission: Impossible II.
In stepped the multi-talented Jackman, who grabbed the film by the scruff of the neck and got himself a Hollywood career, including his own spin-off film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Jackman talked about taking over from Scott during a 2003 interview:
“I have spoken to him, I didn’t quite have the guts to say thank you, I kind of apologized more to him … he said ‘Ah, that’s Hollywood, these things happen’.”
Legend has it that before Scott and Jackman were cast, Gary Sinise, Russell Crowe, Viggo Mortensen, Aaron Eckhart and even Jean-Claude van Damme were also considered for the role of Wolverine, while Fox Studios reportedly wanted Keanu Reeves (shows what they know).
Jim Caviezel as Cyclops
While Patrick Stewart was understandably the only actor considered for the part of wheelchair-bound Professor Xavier in Bryan Singer’s X-Men, the early contenders for the role of Scott Summers (aka Cyclops) were said to be Thomas Jane, Johnny Lee Miller, Eric Mabius, Owen Wilson, Edward Burns, Edward Norton and Jude Law, with Jim Caviezel actually winning out.
However, much like Dougray Scott, Caviezel was forced to drop out due to a prior engagement – Frequency with Dennis Quaid. The role of Cyclops then went to James Marsden, and with it, platform shoes so Marsden wouldn’t look so short in comparison to the likes of Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) and Tyler Mane (Sabretooth).
Caviezel probably didn’t miss much – and may have been the one who dodged the bullet – considering that Scott Summers/Cyclops’ involvement in the X-Men series diminished more and more with each film, though his lack of screen-time in X-Men: The Last Stand was the result of Marsden’s own decision to switch comic book camps – from the Marvel universe to DC – to play Lois Lane’s fiancee in Superman Returns.
Ironically Caviezel would eventually play a ‘superhero’ of another kind – Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which in turn led to director Bryan Singer to disqualify him from the race to play the Man of Steel in Superman Returns. Apparently Singer didn’t want Jesus playing Superman.
Caviezel said as much in a recent interview:
“I first saw Superman with Christopher Reeve and I just thought that he set the standard there. The first one, the (Richard) Donner film, was amazing. But (Caviezel’s involvement in Singer’s new Superman) just never came to be … I think that by playing Jesus made them stay away from that, as there was too much attention drawn to it.”
Nicolas Cage as Superman
Superman took a long time to make his ‘return’ after the shambolic Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. A decade before Christopher Reeve-lookalike Brandon Routh became the Man of Steel for Bryan Singer’s sentimental second coming, Superman Returns, Nicolas Cage was set to slip into the red undies – or black ones – for Tim Burton.
As soon as Warner Bros. finally took full control of the rights to Superman movies in 1993, the studio planned a grand ‘re-conceiving’, Batman-style. Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma) was among a number of screenwriters hired by heavyweight producer Jon Peters to try and take Superman to never-before-seen heights (from a theatrical perspective).
Smith’s unique take, titled Superman Lives – which featured Supes wearing a black ‘Eradicator’ suit and battling the ominous pairing of Brainiac and Doomsday – ultimately lured Tim Burton to direct and Cage to star – though Smith allegedly wanted his old mate, Ben Affleck.
Burton eventually had Wesley Strick (who penned the A Nightmare on Elm Street remake) re-write Smith’s work – much to Smith’s chargrin – with Superman now confronted by a strange Brainiac-Lex Luthor amalgamation called Lexiac; however the studio scrapped that script, and then another one by Dan Gilroy, before eventually scrapping the entire flailing project to focus on Wild, Wild West. Judging by this 2000 interview, Burton was the one left annoyed, and rightly so.
“… I think, and this is only my opinion of course, that it wasn’t filmed because it was going to be an expensive movie, and they were a little sensitive because they were getting a lot of bad press that they had screwed up the Batman franchise … If they’d just allowed us to make the film, I think that we could have done something interesting. They made a choice. They had this, Superman, and Wild, Wild West, and they opted for that and canned this one. It’s frustrating. I like to be positive, but I really feel that I wasted a year of my life. That’s a terrible feeling.”
Cage was like a bride left at the altar: all dressed up (during a costume fitting) with nowhere to fly, and forced to fulfill a goal of playing a superhero by becoming B-grade Marvel hot-head Ghost Rider in 2007. Burton, on the other hand, has steered clear of the genre he helped mold with Batman in 1989, settling on a career filming Johnny Depp in bad makeup and crazy wigs.
Will Smith as Superman
Producer Jon Peters had wanted a black-suited Superman – and giant spiders – when Kevin Smith was writing the script for the mooted reboot in 1997. Peters also flirted with the possibility of a black-skinned Clark Kent a couple of years later while still trying to get Superman – any Superman – off the ground, going as far as approaching Will Smith about the role.
Apparently director Bryan Singer also sought Smith out more recently before making Superman Returns. In the end, Will Smith was never going to court such a controversial, albeit very interesting, move.
“The last Superman I got offered, the script came, and I was like, ‘There is no way I’m playing Superman!’ Because I had already done Jim West (Wild, Wild West) and you can’t be messing up white peoples’ heroes in Hollywood. You mess up white peoples’ heroes in Hollywood, you’ll never work in this town again!”
Ironically, Smith also turned down the role of Neo in The Matrix so he could appear in the commercial flop Wild, Wild West. Smith eventually went on to play Superman an alcoholic with superhero capabilities in the underwhelming Hancock.
Josh Hartnett as Superman
With Superman struggling to take off and Batman beaten to a pulp critically after the disastrous Batman and Robin, Warner Bros. looked at making a two-for-the-price-of-one Batman vs Superman blockbuster in the early ‘Naughties.’
McG (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator Salvation), and then Wolfgang Petersen (The Perfect Storm, Troy) were attached to direct an Andrew Kevin Walker script that included Clark Kent being best man at Bruce Wayne’s wedding, before the two go toe-to-toe over their differing values.
The studio had apparently wanted rising star Josh Hartnett for the Man of Steel – and Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader – but really upped the ante to get their (Super)man when the entire ‘versus’ concept was scrapped and attention turned to a screenplay by J.J. Abrams called Superman: Flyby, an origin story with a controversial difference that also deals with Superman’s death, a ‘Kryptonian heaven,’ and Supes’ subsequent resurrection.
The rugged Hartnett, viewed as the next big thing, was allegedly offered $100 million to appear in a planned trilogy, but that was believed to be the sticking point. Usual suspect Jude Law was also in talks. Brett Ratner, who was signed to direct, said in 2003:
“No star wants to sign that, but as much as I’ve told Jude and Josh my vision for the movie, I’ve warned them of the consequences of being Superman. They’ll live this character for 10 years because I’m telling one story over three movies and plan to direct all three if the first is as successful as everyone suspects.”
Ashton Kutcher as Superman
While Warner Bros. tried to push forward with Abrams and Ratner’s Superman, a cavalcade of well-known actors young, tall and dark-haired, put their hand up for the lead role. Among them were Brendan Fraser, David Boreanaz and Ashton Kutcher, who all auditioned.
Rumored to be the front-runner after a “very, very good” screen-test, Kutcher eventually ‘punk’d’ Ratner and producers when he decided to drop himself from the race, after being spooked by the alleged ‘Superman curse.’
“… I think there’s a bit of a curse behind that role – the things that have happened to people. Also, I think once you’ve played that role then you’re just forever known as Superman. It’s kind of hard to play other things. I have a lot of other characters I’d rather play.”
Ratner soon dropped out of the project too, leaving McG to jump back on board and pick up the Superman slack. Still using Abrams’ galaxy-spanning script, McG looked to cast an unknown as the Man of Steel, and shot test footage with TV stars Jason Behr (Roswell), Henry Cavill (The Tudors) and Jared Padalecki (Supernatural).
In the end, McG was spooked himself – not by the dreaded curse but by the flight to Australia, where Warner Bros. wanted, and eventually got, its new Superman film shot. Bryan Singer braved the travel, and with him came an adequate actor to fill the big red boots, Brandon Routh.
Sylvester Stallone as Superman
While Brandon Routh was a worthy replacement, Christopher Reeve was THE perfect Clark Kent/Superman, with producer Ilya Salkind fortunately taking the unknown actor route in order to cast his lead in his Superman: The Movie.
Directed by Richard Donner, Superman was the first big-budget, big-screen superhero movie and attracted some big names. The biggest – Warren Beatty, Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds – were said to have knocked back offers to star as Superman early on in development; but rising stars were knocking down Salkind’s door to audition. They included Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nick Nolte and Sylvester Stallone, who threw his hat into the ring after the success of Rocky.
Stallone apparently lobbied hard for the part and could’ve been Superman – until he received a big right hook from Marlon Brando, who had already been signed to star as Jor-El, the father of Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman. Brando didn’t want the Itallion Stallion playing his son.
Salkind – the man who first gave Superman cinematic life and ultimately ended it with Superman III and IV - said just last month at the Wizard World Anaheim Comic Con that it would have been “a little bit difficult to imagine” Stallone in the role:
“After meeting a lot of actors, such as Jon Voight – we even met Neil Diamond, don’t ask me why - I knew in my heart of hearts it had to be an unknown.”
Thank god his heart of hearts was making the decision – the world would be a much sadder place if it had never known Reeves as the Man of Steel.
John Krasinski as Captain America
It was only recently that John Krasinski was the surprise favorite to claim the most sought-after superhero role since Superman Returns – that of Steve Rogers in The First Avenger: Captain America.
Apparently the part “was his to lose” after impressing producers during two screen-tests, and Krasinski sat ahead of Channing Tatum, Ryan Phillippe, Mike Vogel and Garrett Hedlund. Chris Evans, of course, eventually leapt over all of them (without even auditioning) to claim the last of Marvel’s ‘Big Four’ and also book his spot in The Avengers.
Evans has had few detractors since he won the coveted role of Rogers, and with good reason. He has that rare ability to seriously act and also buff up big-time, Captain America-style.
Locking Krasinski in as the Cap would have been an adventurous move, given his comedy background – most notably starring as Jim in The Office - but so was casting Michael Keaton as Batman and Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man. Krasinski has a genuinely likable quality, and also just happens to stand six-foot-three. But could he have played the ultimate military tough guy?
Like many before him, Krasinski is left to wonder what might have been…
So that is our list of the actors who almost were superheroes. What did you think? Did we leave anybody out? Sound off in the comments.