With new titles popping up every other month it seems, it’s starting to feel like there’s no comic book movie that Hollywood will say no to. And why should they? Comic book movies, particularly ones based on superheros, are big business right now, to the point where even ones that don’t do well with critics (Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad being two recent prominent examples) are raking in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. However, even though comic book movies have been around for decades now, the superhero boom is only a recent phenomenon. Before Marvel and to a lesser extent DC established their shared universe models, studios had a tough time getting some of these movies off the ground, to the point where the last 20 years or so is riddled with the corpses of failed projects. While this list doesn’t include every cancelled comic book movie out there, it’s still a sobering reminder that even superhero movies aren’t immune from ending up on the scrap heap.
16. James Cameron’s Spider-Man
In the mid-90s, when the movie rights to Marvel properties were being tossed around like candy, there was a point in time when James Cameron was attached to write and direct a Spider-Man movie that—get this—would likely have starred Terminator 2’s Edward Furlong as Peter Parker, Leonardo DiCaprio as Harry Osborn, and Arnold “Mr. Freeze” Schwarzenegger as Doc Ock. Two different drafts were tossed around that were both weird in their own right; one featured a somewhat perverted Spider-Man whose webbing was used as a rather obvious sexual innuendo and the other featured Vulture as the villain, but it was laced with profanity for some reason.
However, it wasn’t bad casting, budget concerns, or edgy scripts that did Cameron’s Spider-Man in, but rather legal issues over film rights. Then rights holder Carolco went under and Cameron bolted to make Titanic, leaving a whole bunch of companies to fight over attaining the rights. Eventually Sony acquired them from Marvel, leading to Sam Raimi’s 2002 film.
15. Terry Gillam’s Watchmen
Zack Snyder gets a lot of credit for achieving the seemingly impossible and making a pretty decent adaptation out of Alan Moore’s masterwork Watchmen, but it turns out that part of the reason Watchmen earned that reputation is because it spent nearly two decades in development hell before Snyder ever even touched it. Terry Gillam was attached to direct the project in the ’90s and based on the account of producer Joel Silver, it would have been a strange beast indeed, with an ending that differed so heavily from the source material that it essentially rewrote the entire Watchmen mythos.
Gillam would eventually depart after deeming the whole thing “unfilmable,” leaving the door open for Snyder to come in and “save it from the Terry Gillams of this world.” Yes, this is something Snyder actually said, but considering this is the same man who decided to kill off Jimmy Olsen in Batman v Superman because it was a “fun” thing to do, it’s really not all that surprising.
14. Tim Burton’s Catwoman
Although it’s fondly remembered as the last good live action Batman film prior to Batman Begins, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns didn’t do as well at the box office as Warner Bros. had hoped, prompting the studio to go in a decidedly more lighthearted direction with 1995’s Batman Forever. One of the highlights of Burton’s film was Michelle Pfeiffer’s vivacious portrayal of Catwoman, who for some unfathomable reason wasn’t asked to return for Batman Forever. It turns out that this was because there were plans to give Catwoman her own movie; Batman Returns screenwriter Daniel Waters was hired on to pen the script and Burton was seemingly on board to direct.
Ultimately, Burton left the project, but Waters actually turned in a finished script in 1995; unfortunately, it was on the same day that Batman Forever hit theaters, where it would eventually become the highest-grossing film of the year. Understandably, Warner Bros. was not in a rush to pursue another comic book film with a darker turn and the project was shelved until almost a decade later when Halle Berry was cast in the role. And we all know how that turned out …
13. Tim Burton’s Superman Lives
Okay, pretty much everyone knows about this one because it’s so infamous, but it’s still worth highlighting because the idea that there was almost a Superman movie starring Nicolas Cage is always worth talking about. For those who don’t know, Superman Lives is the title of a cancelled Superman movie from the ’90s that would have been directed by Tim Burton and starred Cage in the title role. Villains such as Braniac, Lex Luthor, and Doomsday were included at one point or another in the various screenplays written by Wesley Strick and Dan Gilroy.
The wild thing about Superman Lives is that it came so close to taking flight, as photos that surfaced back in 2009 featuring Cage wearing a Superman costume show that Warner Bros. was taking the project seriously. The problem was that the production was a giant mess even before Burton came on (fun fact: Kevin Smith penned a script that rejected the idea of Burton being the director, which ironically got Smith fired once Burton did sign on). The project hit a snag in 1998 when Burton left to make Sleepy Hollow (at this point, $30 million had already been spent on the production) and after failed attempts to bring in other directors—combined with Cage’s departure in June 2000—Superman Lives was put on hold and development on another failed Superman movie began …
12. Wolfgang Petersen’s Batman Vs. Superman
Once it became clear that Superman Lives was a non-starter, Warner Bros. decided to start fresh with a different Superman movie idea, bringing in J.J. Abrams to write a new screenplay that would ignore “The Death of Superman” arc altogether in favor of an origin story reboot. But then Andrew Kevin Walker pitched Warner Bros. on the idea of a Batman vs. Superman movie and Abrams’ script was scrapped. The film was to be set in the near future and would have revolved around Batman being depressed about the deaths of Dick Grayson, Aflred, and Commissioner Gordon and Clark Kent being depressed over his divorce from Lois Lane. The two would air out their grievances and battle it out before joining forces to battle Lex Luthor.
Ironically, future Batman Christian Bale was approached by director Wolfgang Peterson to play Superman. Eventually, Warner Bros. cancelled the project so that they could focus on making individual Superman and Batman projects (in another ironic twist, the studio was spurned to make this decision by a new script from Abrams for Superman: Flyby; yet another Superman movie that would fail to get off the ground.
11. Superman: Flyby
Superman: Flyby started development in 2002 based on a script from J.J. Abrams. Flyby would have been an origin story that ended with Superman flying off to Krypton in a spaceship. Brett Ratner, who would later go onto direct the much-maligned X-Men: The Last Stand, was attached to direct and with Christopher Reeve serving as a project consultant, a long and exhaustive search for a lead actor began. Although Reeve advocated for an unknown to play the part, Ratner approached the likes of Josh Hartnett, Jude Law, Paul Walker, and Brendan Fraser to play Superman. At one point, Hartnett was offered $100 million for a three-picture deal, but it turned out that he and other actors approached for the part were reluctant to commit to such a long-term contract. “No star wants to sign that,” Ratner is quoted as saying at the time, “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.”
Ratner ended up dropping out in March 2003 primarily because the casting process was taking too long, prompting Warner Bros. to bring McG on to direct. That partnership eventually fell through when McG understandably refused to shoot in Australia because “it was inappropriate to try to capture the heart of America on another continent.” (though he’d later admit that it was his fear of flying that made him reluctant to make the trip down under). Although Abrams would later lobby to direct the script he wrote, WB decided to hire on Bryan Singer to replace McG, which led to the making of 2006’s Superman Returns.
10. Batman Unchained/Triumphant
Batman Unchained (often referred to as Batman Triumphant) was the planned sequel to 1997’s exceedingly awful Batman & Robin. During the production of Batman & Robin, Warner Bros. was so impressed by what they were seeing that they hired director Joel Schumacher to make a sequel, with a proposed mid-1999 release window. The film would have featured Scarecrow as the main villain, with both George Clooney and Chris O’Donnel set to reprise the roles of Batman and Robin, respectively (oh and Nicholas Cage was offered the part of Scarecrow, because apparently everyone really wanted to get Cage into a superhero movie in the ’90s.) Of course, then Batman & Robin was released, prompting George Clooney to vow never to play Batman again, and the proposed sequel was ultimately scrapped. leading Warner Bros. to pursue a whole bunch of potential Batman movies until Christopher Nolan finally came in and saved the franchise from itself with Batman Begins.
9. Batman Beyond
The critical failure of Batman & Robin effectively killed the franchise for a number of years. In the eight year span between Joel Schumacher’s pun-happy farce and Christopher Nolan’s transcendent Batman Begins, a number of Batman film ideas were tossed around at Warner Bros., including an adaptation of the critically-acclaimed Batman Beyond animated series. After directing 2000’s Remember The Titans, Boaz Yakin was brought in to develop a Batman Beyond film, but after a few months of working on the script with show creators Paul Dini and Alan Burnett, Yakin left the project after deciding that his heart just wasn’t in it.”It was just one of those moments in time where you think you want to do something, and then you realize you don’t really want to do it, and for some reason it’s on your IMDb page for the rest of your life,” said Yakin of the experience. With Yakin out, Warner Bros. decided to shelve the project in August 2001 in favor of pursuing other Batman projects.
8. Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One
After the proposed Batman Beyond film failed to get off the ground, Warner Bros were looking for other ways to bring the character back to the big screen, eventually settling on an adaptation of Frank Miller’s seminal comic Batman: Year One. Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) was brought into direct and co-write the script alongside Miller. Aronofsky even approached Christian Bale to play Batman, who as well all know would later take the role in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
Problems began to arise when Aronofsky started straying too far from the source material. At the time, he spoke of these changes enthusiastically: “It’s somewhat based on the comic book, toss out everything you can imagine about Batman! Everything! We’re starting completely anew.” WB was not quite as enthusiastic, as they deemed the changes Aronofsky and Miller wanted to make too violent and realistic; a decision that Aronofsky surprisingly agrees with “I was pitching to make an R-rated adult fan-based Batman.” Batman: Year One was cancelled in 2002, leaving the door open for Nolan’s Batman Begins, which came out three years later.
7. Peyton Reed’s Fantastic Four
Long before he helped bring Ant-Man to the big screen (we’re talking even before Tim Story’s 2005 Fantastic Four), director Peyton Reed pitched a Fantastic Four movie to Marvel that would have been like “A Hard Day’s Night but with superheroes” (it was even rumored to be set in the 1960s). According to screenwriter Dough Petrie, the film would have been set after the team had already been established and would have revolved around them struggling as a family unit and with being “the biggest celebrities in New York City.” As for casting, there was interest in Alexis Denisof as Reed Richards, Charlize Theron as Sue Storm, Paul Walker as Johnny Storm, John C. Reily as the voice of Ben Grimm/The Thing, and Jude Law as Doctor Doom.
Reed eventually left the project over creative differences, but as a huge fan of the Fantastic Four comics and characters, Reed could potentially have some involvement (assuming he’s not too busy with Ant-Man) in a future revival if a deal is ever reached with 20th Century Fox to bring Marvel’s first family into the Marvel Cinematic Universe fold.
5. Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman
It’s taken far too long for Wonder Woman to get a movie of her own, but all of that will change when the Patty Jenkins-directed solo outing starring Gal Gadot hits theaters in 2017. While some may find it strange that it’s taken so long for a Wonder Woman movie to get made, none other than Avengers writer and director Joss Whedon was tasked with bringing Princess Diana to the big screen over a decade ago. In 2005, Whedon was hired to write and direct a Wonder Woman movie, but would leave the project two years later due to creative differences and a breakdown in communication between him and the studio.
For his part, Whedon was firmly on board with the film, but claims that no one seemed to how much interest in his ideas. “I would go back in a heartbeat if I believed that anybody believed in what I was doing,” Whedon told the A.V. Club in 2007. “The lack of enthusiasm was overwhelming.” If Whedon had been able to make his Wonder Woman movie happen, he would have wanted Cobie Smulders, who plays Agent Maria Hill in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to carry the iconic sword, shield, and lasso.
4. X-Men Origins: Magneto
Although Fox has so far only made X-Men spin-offs focused on Wolverine, they had plans for a Magneto movie as far back as 2004. In that year, Sheldon Turner was hired to draft a script for an X-Men spin-off and he came up with Magneto, a prequel that he pitched to the studio as “The Pianist meets X-Men.” Man of Steel writer David S. Goyer was hired on to direct in 2007 and it looked like Magneto was a sure thing. Then X-Men Origins: Wolverine failed to make as much of an impact at the box office or with critics as the studio had wanted, prompting Fox to fold parts of the Magneto script into Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class. There are currently no plans to resurrect it.
3. Joe Carnahan’s Daredevil
While Marvel’s Netflix partnership has gifted us with two seasons of a surprisingly good Daredevil TV series in recent years to help us forget all about that infamous 2003 Ben Affleck feature, director Joe Carnahan came close to giving the man without fear another shot on the big screen just a few years ago. Planned as a trilogy set in 1973, 1979, and 1985 respectively, Carnahan’s Daredevil trilogy would have tried to capture the grit and grim of 1970s and 80s New York City, as evidenced by the sizzle reel he released as a sort of proof of concept. Carnahan also wanted music to play a big role, with each installment envisioned as having its own musical identity based on popular music of the time. Unfortunately, before Carnahan could really get rolling, the Daredevil movie rights reverted back to Marvel from 20th Century Fox.
2. Green Arrow: Escape From Supermax
Although the Green Arrow character currently enjoys success on the small screen thanks to the CW’s Arrow, there were plans to develop a live action movie based on the DC sharpshooter back in the late 2000s. David S. Goyer was hired to write the script and his version of Green Arrow would have taken a much different turn than the majority of today’s superhero movies, with Oliver Queen framed for a crime he didn’t commit, thrown into a high security prision, and forced to do battle with all sorts of villains and anti-heroes as he looks for a way to escape.
Goyer claims that the project was ultimately thrown out because the higher-ups at WB were reluctant to invest in a movie featuring a more obscure superhero (remember, this was before Marvel or DC found success with shared universes). Now, it’s probably only a matter of time before a Green Arrow movie gets made, but you probably won’t be seeing Goyer making it, as he has stated that he won’t be directing any future movies in the DC Extended Universe.
1. George Miller’s Justice League
Warner Bros. and DC Comics are finally set to deliver a live action Justice League movie in 2017, but they actually came close to releasing an adaptation almost a decade ago. Back in 2007, Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller was attached to bring the DC superhero team to the big screen, with a cast that included DJ Cotrona as Superman, Armie Hammer as Batman, Megan Gale as Wonder Woman, Adam Brody as the Flash, rapper Common as Jon Stewart/Green Lantern, and Santiago Cabrera as Aquaman. The project even had a script that Warner Bros. really liked but the 2008 writer’s strike heavily delayed the revision process and by extension the production was also delayed. Costs ballooned from there as the project sat stagnant and Miller’s decision to cast relative unknowns in the lead roles also didn’t help matters, so the studio ultimately decided to cancel the project.