The 2000s have undoubtedly been the millennium of the superhero, with capes and masks dominating the pop culture scene like never before. Record-setting box office numbers, overlapping franchises, the list of achievements goes on and on. We’ve come a long way since the days of Richard Donner and Tim Burton, who broke down the stigma of silliness and provided a mainstream venue for smashes like Superman (1978) and Batman (1989). Regardless of the profound success of the genre, however, directors pursuing high-concept adaptations have continued to be shelved or completely discouraged and cut off at the ankles. Even a guy like Quentin Tarantino, in his mid-’90s prime, gave up on the idea of a Luke Cage movie starring Laurence Fishburne; a tragedy the comic book world is still reeling from, no doubt.
But Tarantino isn’t the only casualty of this occurrence. In fact, he comes up short of even cracking the list when it comes to filmmakers who’ve flirted with comic book magic and wound up with a disappearing act of a project. Some have since gone on to find further success within the genre, while others never again cared to venture into a universe of Kryptonite and Gotham-ites.
Here are Screen Rant’s 15 Directors Who Almost Made Superhero Movies.
15. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Sandman (2013-15)
A special case of a director being unproven while simultaneously praised for their interest, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s involvement with the Sandman series has been nothing if not interesting. Confirmation of this complex tale dates back to 2013, right around the time of Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut Don Jon, which established the actor as a certified presence behind the camera. Regardless, Neil Gaiman’s 75 issue comic was a daunting task to undertake, and the inclusion of Dark Knight co-writer David S. Goyer proved beneficial to the idea that JGL was the right man for the job.
Jumping forward a few quiet years, and such opinions have changed — most notably, from the man himself. Gordon-Levitt left the project just a few weeks ago due to what he termed as “conceptual differences” with New Line Cinema, who were unsure of his spacey, ethereal take on the source material. Fans are currently in the process of accepting such news, but the disappointment over his departure says much about the passion he brought to the table. Perhaps such dedication could find another superhero in the near future.
14. Wolfgang Petersen – World’s Finest: Batman vs. Superman (2001-02)
Billed under the glamorous header of “World’s Finest,” Batman vs. Superman seemed like a very real possibility when Warner Bros. gave the green light in late 2001. Unfortunately, in the wake of 9/11, the studio developed cold feet regarding the film’s darkened tone, and Batman & Robin writer Akiva Goldsman was brought in to add some “humor” to Andrew Kevin Walker’s script. Within eighteen months, the project was shelved for good, squashing any rumors for potential stars John Travolta and George Clooney.
The biggest loss, besides Walker’s gloriously grim script, was the talents of director Wolfgang Petersen, who was slated to begin production in 2002. Blending emotive tones and epic scales had become his career-defining trait through films like Das Boot (1981) and The Perfect Storm (2000), and the mainstream connoisseur seemed an ideal choice to craft a commercially super film. Instead, he migrated to superheroes of Greek origin with Troy (2004) — a glistening showcase of action that would’ve no doubt made it’s way into World’s Finest.
13. Ivan Reitman – The Batman (1985)
Some of the ideas on this countdown elicit intrigue from either the brilliance or the blatant oddity that back their very existence. Ivan Reitman’s 1985 project The Batman definitely falls under the latter category. Fresh off the worldwide success of Ghostbusters (1984), the comedy specialist was approached to helm an origin story on The Caped Crusader starring none other than Bill Murray. To make matters more bizarre, the script, written by Superman scribe Tom Mankiewicz, emphasized gritty mystery along with a supposed cast of David Bowie as The Joker and Eddie Murphy (?!) as Robin.
Nine rewrites later, coupled with the deaths of the director’s preferred Alfred (David Niven) and Commissioner Gordon (William Holden), the film fell apart. Reitman would return to goofball territory for the rest of his career, while Burton raked in the glory of an off-kilter adaptation a few years later. Yet the fascination behind Reitman’s project remains — if for nothing else, the sheer audacity of his vision, and the potential of such bizarre circumstance.
12. Joss Whedon/Michelle MacLaren – Wonder Woman (2007/2015)
Joss Whedon knows a thing or two about fierce female heroes. From Buffy The Vampire Slayer to Zoe Washburn in Firefly, the astute writer/director has compiled a resume that would seem a slam dunk when discussing potential Wonder Woman adapters. Whedon evidently thought so, and drew up a script in 2007 that envisioned Diana of Themyscira as a globe-trotting, Lara Croft type steadied by eternal love interest Steve Trevor. The studio wasn’t having it, but Whedon would go on to revolutionize the superhero genre with The Avengers and its sequel, Age of Ultron, so he’s doing just fine.
A similar attempt at adventure-based content arrived through Michelle MacLaren — who, when appointed to direct the upcoming Wonder Woman film, name-dropped Braveheart (1995) as a point of reference. In seeking a more character-based origin story, however, DC Studios parted ways with the acclaimed TV director (Games of Thrones, Breaking Bad) and handed the reins over to Patty Jenkins to fulfill their 2017 release date. Given the pedigree of the filmmakers behind these failed pitches, Jenkins and company have supersized shoes to match moving forward.
11. Joe Carnahan – Daredevil (2011-12)
The internet was set ablaze in 2012 when Joe Carnahan released his Daredevil sizzle reel as means of reclaiming Marvel’s lost interest. Comprised of both an NC-17 and PG-13 edit, the two-minute clip tossed wild violence and a moody ’70s atmosphere at a studio that lacked motivation in funding a flopped franchise (condolences, Ben Affleck). In direct contrast to the 2003 version, Carnahan’s proposed trilogy, discussed in further detail here, was to be a salacious nod to Daredevil’s heyday, inspired in equal parts by popular music and Frank Miller’s seminal story arc.
Gradually, the anticipation behind this killer concept fell by the wayside. Marvel’s wildly popular Daredevil series took audiences by storm, and officially put the nail in Carnahan’s conceptual coffin before it was even opened. He’s since tackled survival flicks (The Grey) and TV conspiracies (The Blacklist) with relish, but the filmmaker still has Daredevil on the brain. Perhaps one day, the world will finally get to see his vision realized.
10. Tarsem Singh – Constantine (2001-02)
For whatever reason, Tarsem Singh dropped out of directing Constantine in 2002. The sudden decision not only set back production by years, but translated to a series of lawsuits on the part of Warner Bros. Pictures. Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games) ultimately stepped in to helm the film with recast actor Keanu Reeves, but the results proved mildly pleasant at best. Constantine has since become a dated relic of 2000s CGI – a far cry from the visually expansive franchise that could’ve been crafted upon Tarsem’s flamboyant canvas.
Initially conceived as a visual dream of flourishes and demonic battles, the Indian auteur understood what made his source material tick. The trademark blend of elegance and machismo that backed cinematic buffets like The Cell (2000) and The Fall (2006) was stunning, brilliantly showing what Constantine’s realities would’ve looked like drenched in analog warmth and digital chilliness. With Nicolas Cage set to star as the titular DC hero, it’s truly unfortunate that such a world was never realized on the big screen. At the very least, it would’ve been a better career choice for the actor than Ghost Rider (2007).
9. The Wachowskis – Plastic Man (2008-Present?)
Plastic Man is one of comic book lore’s sillier heroes, so it only seems fitting that the struggle to get a film version made prove equally as wacky. Initially spoken of in 1996, the Wachowskis placed Patrick “Eel” O’Brien’s origin story on the back burner while they rewrote the movie rulebook with The Matrix (1999) and it’s subsequent sequels. It would take the horrible reception to 2008’s Speed Racer before rumors resurfaced of the world’s most flexible superhero — this time, with Neo himself, Keanu Reeves, slated to star.
The sheer visual possibilities behind a Wachowski-made Plastic Man are infinite, with one not having to wander too far to imagine an elongated Keanu fighting comedic crime. Unfortunately, nothing has since materialized or even been spoken of. The siblings have dabbled in everything from quasi-dimensional storytelling via Cloud Atlas (2012) to outright space opera in Jupiter Ascending (2015), yet those eagerly awaiting news of Plastic Man’s progression have been sorely disappointed. Perhaps the project has been returned to the back burner for another period of gestation. At this point, that’s all we can hope for.
8. J.J. Abrams & McG – Superman: Flyby (2002-04)
The bad taste of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987) lingered so strongly with viewers that it ruined all other reboot attempts for the next fifteen years. It was a daunting hurdle that many filmmakers were unable to bypass (some of whom can be found elsewhere on this list). Yet, almost as if a sign of things to come, TV producer J.J. Abrams managed to sell Warner Bros. on a script titled Flyby, documenting the early years of Kal-El and his eventual battle against evil cousin Ty-Zor. At a thick 120-plus pages, it was unabashedly nostalgic, with the utmost attention to Superman history.
Complete with concept art, casting rumors (which included current Superman Henry Cavill), and assigned director McG (Terminator: Salvation, several other terrible movies), Flyby was by all accounts a reality come 2004. But almost as soon as it had arrived, monetary limits and Abrams’ supposedly “unfilmable” rewrites left the project upon the very shelf it had worked so hard to get off of. The Quest for Peace would instead be followed-up with the mediocre Superman Returns (2006), proving good doesn’t always triumph against evil in Hollywood.
7. Terry Gilliam/Paul Greengrass – Watchmen (1980’s/2005)
Terry Gilliam’s history of unrealized projects have become as famous as his actual resume, and a late ’80s attempt to adapt Watchmen proves no exception to the trend. Brought in by producer Joel Silver to craft a two-and-a-half hour epic starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dr. Manhattan, lack of funds and what Gilliam deemed an “impossible story” left things frozen until director Paul Greengrass hopped aboard in 2005.
Still, the process of adapting Alan Moore’s hallowed graphic novel continued to plague the planning stages. Working in close collaboration with production designer Dominic Watkins, the plan was to reinvent the Cold War comic for modern-day climates, matched by a languishing mood that predated Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Concept art from these sessions can be found all over the internet, with each supporting what the director felt was “a bold reimagining” of the dense story arc. That both men failed to get their adaptations made isn’t so much the surprise, but rather that Zack Snyder actually pulled it off a few years later.
6. Tim Burton – Superman Lives! (1996)
When Warner Bros. parted ways with Tim Burton after the adult-oriented Batman Returns (1992), it seemed pretty safe to assume that the director would never again dabble in superhero happenings. Then came word of Superman Lives, and all predictable bets were off. A screenplay by up-and-comer Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) refitted Krypton’s only son under the idea he be unaware of his origins, and, as a result, a psychological mess. Burton not only loved the script, but lobbied hard for a movie that barely made it off the ground.
It’s tough to decipher what the oddest aspect of the project was: Nicolas Cage as Superman or the idea that Krypton’s only son would start the story off in therapy. Burton’s trademark flair for the sullen and pale were galaxies away from the typical Kryptonite brights, but that’s not to say it wouldn’t have made for a fascinating contradiction. At the very least, a recent documentary on the film’s production provides some much desired insight for hardcore fans, or simply those with a morbid curiosity.
5. Edgar Wright – Ant-Man (2006-15)
Edgar Wright’s talent had been proven in gems like Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007), so the idea of handing him the keys to a Marvel franchise was met with immediate excitement in 2006 — long before the studio became the toast of the town. Wright, as co-writer/director, found much to work with in Ant-Man’s character, emphasizing the singularity that he had come to embody so well in his own work. Production dragged on for roughly a decade, but it wasn’t until the film’s impending production that Wright decided to call it a day.
The news came as a shock to fans everywhere. Citing a lack of creative differences in the wake of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, Wright faced the usual cause of contrasting opinion: studio brass. Whether a response to the commercially cumbersome expectations or a true case of clashing artistic views, the director’s leftover work and producer’s credit still carried enough flavor to make Ant-Man a highly enjoyable watch.
4. Robert Zemeckis – The Shadow (1980-84)
Harkening back to the glory days of radio, Walter B. Gibbon’s crime fighter The Shadow was near and dear to the hearts of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. So much so, in fact, that the filmmakers sculpted a script around the masked icon and planned to shoot it for Universal Pictures in the early ’80s. The success of Romancing The Stone (1984) swayed creative directions, however, and provided the duo with enough pull to put their passion project into production: a film by the name of Back to the Future (1985).
By the time the Delorean dust had settled, Zemeckis and Gale were the biggest thing in Hollywood, and the quick succession of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) along with two Back to the Future sequels kept The Shadow from ever seeing the light of day. Given the quality of work in it’s place, the delay was forgivable. But given the underwhelming response to Russell Mulcahy’s 1994 adaptation, it makes one wonder what could’ve been.
3. James Cameron – Spiderman (1992)
Fresh from the universally adored Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), special effects savant James Cameron was struck with the idea of making an adult-oriented Spiderman movie. Integrating comic book villains Sandman and Electro through thinly veiled aliases, the director created a world of raunchy nihilism, evidenced by a script that has Peter Parker giving pulp worthy codas of narration. The high levels of sexual content between Peter and Mary Jane was another odd touch, though the Brooklyn Bridge sequence does explain the origins of Titanic’s famous backseat exchange.
It’s tough to nail down just how jarring such a film would’ve been in the early ’90s, paired with a stripped down budget and hallucinatory montages meant to evoke Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Sandwiched in between T2 and fellow success True Lies (1994), this R-Rated Spiderman could’ve opened a new lane for superheroes on screen — or it could’ve tanked into smutty oblivion as one of more divisive adaptations ever made. It’s a project that one wishes they could see just once, even though it was probably better off unmade. At the very least, we might’ve gotten to see Leonardo DiCaprio in tights, and of course, a sweet Bill Paxton cameo.
2. Darren Aronofsky – Batman: Year One (2001) / The Wolverine (2013)
Over the last decade, director Darren Aronofsky has proven second to none in character studies that purge and stun. Be it The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008) or Black Swan (2010), his attention to detail has led to content not for the faint of heart; but rather, the brave of soul. Which, as it seems, was one of the reasons DC approached him in 2001 to adapt Frank Miller’s graphic novel Year One. Seeking a distinct change-up from the cheeseball factory that was Batman & Robin (1997), the studio ultimately opted out of Aronofsky’s hardened pitch — which had Clint Eastwood set to star as an aging Dark Knight. What a tragically missed opportunity: Dirty Harry in Gotham.
Sadly, this roundabout turn of events came back in 2013 when Aronofsky became attached to direct the second Wolverine solo film. Working from a Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Jack Reacher) script that was promised to be the hero’s best outing yet, Aronofsky’s goal was enticingly referred to as “Kurosawa’s Wolverine.” One thing led to another, the director split from longtime partner Rachel Weisz, and scheduling simply didn’t comply as he was forced to depart and leave responsibility to James Mangold (Walk The Line, 3:10 To Yuma). Aronofsky’s next offering, Noah (2014) — while commercially successful — left many underwhelmed, and comic fans will never know what sort of film he and Hugh Jackman could have created together.
1. George Miller – Justice League: Mortal (2007-08)
Justice League: Mortal entered the pantheon of unrealized projects immediately after being closed down in 2008. The film, set to rangle the likeness of Superman (D.J. Cotrona), Batman (Armie Hammer), Wonder Woman (Megan Gale), and The Flash (Adam Brody), among various heroes, developed a reputation for being massive in scale and storytelling scope. Not simply a cinematic adventure, but an adaptation neck-deep in allegory and conflicts the likes of which fans had never seen before.
It would’ve been a colossal event. Mad Max mastermind George Miller clearly retained the storytelling ability to make such bold claims a reality, especially in the wake of immediate classic and Best Picture nominee Fury Road (2015). Through desolate landscapes and earth-shaking set pieces, Miller’s enlightened reality of violence elicit goosebumps when thought of in the context of DC’s ultimate lineup. The recent development of Zack Snyder’s Justice League in 2017 has conclusively killed any possibility of resurrection, but fans can at least look forward to Miller’s Justice League: Mortal, an upcoming documentary about the film’s short-lived history.