Batman Begins was, in fact, preceded by other attempts to dramatize Batman’s origins, both on film and on television. In 1999, one production company proposed a weekly series about the boyhood of Bruce Wayne prior to assuming the Batman identity. However, following the success of the 2000 X-Men film, the feature film division of Warner Bros. shifted its attention to developing a new Batman movie instead. Frank Miller, writer of the original Year One comic-book storyline, wrote a particularly liberal screenplay adaptation of his comics story. Larry and Andy Wachowski, of Matrix fame, authored their own proposal for such a film.
Ultimately, however, director Christopher Nolan chose to go his own route, ignoring these past attempts. The Batman Begins screenplay, originally authored by David Goyer and later modified by Nolan, bears no sign of having been influenced by these earlier attempts. In particular, the emphasis upon Batman’s training, his painstakingly depicted construction of his costume, and his villains are all unique to Batman Begins.
Nonetheless, in considering Batman Begins, it is both useful and interesting to consider these alternate versions – if only to see in what ways they are both different and similar. The similarities often reflect direct borrowings from the comics; the differences often reflect different emphases or one version’s departure from the comic-book source material.
Before turning to Batman’s origins, Warner Bros. had initially planned a fifth installment in the previous Batman series. Joel Schumacher, director of 1995’s Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman and Robin, was to have returned for a third film, tentatively titled Batman Triumphant. Mark Protosevich (The Cell) was tapped as screenwriter. George Clooney was set to return as Batman, with Chris O’Donnell returning as Robin. Shock jock Howard Stern was rumored to be in the running to play Scarecrow, in what would have been the character’s first appearance on film (instead of Batman Begins).
Harley Quinn, created by Bruce Timm for the 1990s animated TV show, would have also appeared in the film. That character, who had proven enormously popular and would subsequently be introduced into the comics, was a female psychiatrist who fell in love with the Joker and became his sidekick. The film’s version would have made her the Joker’s daughter, incidentally recalling the female character Harlequin from Batman comics, who originally called herself “the Joker’s Daughter.” In conjunction with this character, the Scarecrow’s fear gas would have caused Batman to hallucinate that the Joker had returned, allowing a return for the popular villain despite killing him off in Burton’s 1989 film. Whether Jack Nicholson would have returned for the role can only be speculated.
In the wake of the commercial and critical embarrassment that was Batman and Robin, however, Batman Triumphant was scrapped. Warner Bros. reportedly then planned a lower-budget sequel based on a new pitch made in 1998 by Lee Shapiro and Stephen Wise to Warner V.P. Tom Lassally. In a rather stupid attempt at being clever, this version was to be titled Batman: DarKnight, a “cool” riff on how Batman is known as the Dark Knight (rather than a reference to The Dark Knight Returns). The studio reportedly planned a darker, more serious tone for the film, which would have focused more on character in accordance with its lower budget.
The conceit of the proposal was that it advanced the main characters for the first time in the series. Bruce Wayne had retired as Batman, feeling that he had lost his edge – that criminals no longer feared him, perhaps a sly acknowledgement of how the series had gone askew and become less dark. A similarly retired Dick Grayson would have gone off to study at Gotham University and find himself in Bruce’s absence.
DarKnight kept the Scarecrow from Batman Triumphant, although he was supposedly closer to the comic-book version than the version seen in Batman Begins. This Scarecrow, a.k.a. Dr. Jonathan Crane, would have been a professor of psychology at Gotham University as well as Arkham Asylum’s resident psychiatrist. He also would have been obsessed with fear, which was, like Batman Begins, to be a theme of the film.
While keeping the Scarecrow, DarKnight would have ditched Harley Quinn and the hallucinated Joker from Batman Triumphant. In their place would have been Man-Bat, a kind of inverse double for Batman, more bat than man. Man-Bat, a.k.a. Dr. Kirk Langstrom, first appeared in Detective Comics #400 (June 1970). A scientist who studied bats to create a formula intended to give humans bat-like sonar, Langstrom tested his serum on himself, only to find the formula worked too well: it gradually transformed him into a humanoid version of a bat.
The movie’s Langstrom would have been a colleague of Crane’s at Gotham University. Crane would have accidentally triggered Langstrom’s transformation, and Langstrom would have struggled painfully with the monster inside him even as he menaced the citizens of Gotham City, playing into the theme of fear. He would also be motivated by a desire for revenge against Crane, blaming him for his transformation. Warner Bros. is said to have been particularly taken with the characterization of Langstrom.
While Crane spurred Man-Bat, Man-Bat would in turn spur Batman to come out of retirement. Mistaking Man-Bat for Batman, the public would have turned on the retired vigilante, providing the impetus for Batman to return and clear his name by stopping Man-Bat.
As the plot unfolded, Dick Grayson would have been put in Arkham Asylum, where he would have been abused by Crane. Of course, Batman and Robin would ultimately defeat the villains, returning to action in Gotham – perhaps symbolically righting the franchise’s course.
Within a few months of their pitch, Shapiro and Wise had reportedly completed a first draft of the script. At this point, Joel Schumacher was still signed to direct the film, but he dropped out of the project a few weeks after the draft was completed. Warner Bros. replaced Schumacher with Andrew Davis. Davis had directed the movie-quality Batman commercials for On Star’s car service. These commercials featured the Batmobile, a Batman who never unmasked, while Alfred was played by Michael Gough, the same actor who had done so in the four previous films.
While casting rumors circulated, the film languished in development, in part because competing ideas for the franchise were circulating in the Warner Bros. offices. In fact, DarKnight was only officially cancelled in late 2000.
In 1999, the animated Batman TV show then running morphed into Batman Beyond, a sequel / spin-off about a young man years in the future who takes up the role of Batman, mentored by a now-elderly Bruce Wayne. As reported in October 1999, Warner Bros., eager to find a new direction for the film franchise, thought a live-action version of Batman Beyond might be a way of reinvigorating the film series.
By January 2000, the TV show’s creators, Paul Dini and Alan Burnet, were brought in to write the script. In the following months, Boaz Yakin (Remember the Titans) was brought in as director. By August 2000, he was working with Dini, Burnett, and Neal Stephenson, noted (post)cyberpunk author. Reportedly, a first draft of the script was completed.
But the project soon fell apart, reportedly because Yakin wanted a much darker, cursing Batman. The problem with this wasn’t how far it diverged from the all-ages Batman Beyond TV series but rather that such a film would receive an “R” rating, limiting its audience.
Through all of this, Batman: DarKnight officially remained in development. But these two ideas weren’t the only ones competing for the franchise.
Darren Aronofsky’s Batman Movie
Publicly apologizing for Batman and Robin, Schumacher sought the opportunity to redeem himself and win the opportunity to direct another film in the series. Accepting the cries for a less campy sequel, Schumacher proposed that the new film adapt Batman: Year One from the comics. Warner Bros. reportedly liked the idea, but decided on the artsy Darren Aronofsky (who had previously directed Pi) as the director. The fact that Aronofsky had only directed films with a much lower budget (especially compared to Schumacher) was actually an advantage for him, since Warner Bros. still desired a lower-budget film in the wake of 1997’s Batman and Robin.
However, Aronofsky stated to the press that he would rather adapt Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, casting Clint Eastwood as the aging Batman and filming in Tokyo. While such statements illustrate how tentative the project was at this point, they were written off by most as a sign of the director’s eccentricity: he and the studio were reportedly still leaning strongly towards a version of Batman: Year One.
These plans, however, would soon clash against the WB network’s plans for a series starring an 18-year-old Bruce Wayne – plans that seem to have been considerably more developed than Aronofsky’s.
The Aborted Bruce Wayne TV Series
In mid 1999, agents for writer Tim McCanlies reportedly approached Tollin-Robbins Productions with a pitch for a new TV series. Said to star a J.F.K., Jr. type, an American icon whose parents had been killed, the story would see the protagonist struggling with his family’s inheritance, aided by a grandfather-like figure and one policeman. According to legend, only at the end of the pitch was the protagonist revealed to be Bruce Wayne. Tollin-Robbins Productions liked the idea and took it to the WB network, owned by Warner Bros.
Tim McCanlies prepared a series bible outlining the pilot, the first season, and a five-year plan for the show in various levels of detail. The pilot was to begin with Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham just days before he turns 18. The series would see Bruce increasingly move towards becoming Batman – planned as the final moment of the final episode.
Bruce’s battle for control of his family company, which seems to be wrecking Gotham rather than helping it, would begin immediately with the pilot episode. The city’s police force would be corrupt, much as in Year One, and would feature both the corrupt Flass and the pure Gordon. Gordon’s daughter Barbara, who became the original Batgirl in the comics, would appear. Harvey Dent, Gotham’s District Attorney before becoming the villain Two-Face in the comics, would appear as Bruce’s best friend, a rich kid studying corporate law. Harvey’s sister Susan would be created for the show as a teenage love interest for Bruce. Comics’ Vicki Vale, also seen in 1989’s Batman, would have been a TV gossip reporter and another love interest.
Younger versions of Batman’s later villains would also make appearances. Jack Napier, who would later become the Joker, would have appeared as an angry comedian. Selina Kyle, comics’ Catwoman, would have appeared as well. A psychology student named Harleen Quinzel would also have been seen – apparently to later become Harley Quinn, the celebrated lover of the Joker invented for the 1990s Batman animated show and later brought into the comics themselves.
One episode would even have featured Clark Kent, a 16-year-old from Smallville, Kansas, in Gotham City for a convention of high school journalists. Bruce Wayne would have tried unsuccessfully to get away from the farmboy Kent – a kind of in-joke for those knowing that Clark Kent would become Superman.
Of course, Wayne would gradually take steps on the road to becoming Batman. He would visit Arkham Asylum to study criminals, an increasing fascination. He would bring martial arts experts to Wayne Manor, perfecting his own skills. Racing motorcycles, Wayne would learn to appreciate anonymity as he raced along the city streets. As he learns to race cars and fly planes, the public would think him merely a rich kid interested in extreme sports. Regaining control of his company, he would appropriate its new technology for his own use. And WayneCorp would win a bid to build the F.B.I.’s criminal database, giving Wayne back door access to the F.B.I.’s files.
Near the end of the first season, Wayne would have discovered a cave beneath Wayne Manor and begin transforming it into a secret hideout. Once he had decided to battle criminals, he would make short-lived attempts at being a Gotham City policeman and an F.B.I. agent. By the end of the series, Wayne would have decided to fight crime a less orthodox way: by becoming the costumed Batman.
By the end of 1999, rumors were circulating of a new “Young Bruce Wayne” WB show. The network was said to be “thrilled,” seeing the show as its next big hit, to be paired with the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spin-off Angel. Casting rumors began to circulate.
But behind the scenes, the WB network and the Warner Bros. film studio were engaged in a turf war over the Batman franchise. In light of the studio’s plans to have Darren Aronofsky direct a film adaptation of Batman: Year One, the ability of the two developing projects to avoid contradictions was very much in doubt, and most felt that one would have to be given priority. In January, the TV show was officially put on hold, pending a decision.
Reportedly, it was the success of Marvel’s X-Men in July 2000 that sealed the TV show’s fate. X-Men grossed $54 million in its opening weekend, and super-hero comic-book properties were suddenly seen in a new light by Hollywood. Batman’s film prospects simply outweighed all other considerations.
In September 2000 the WB network announced Smallville, a series depicting the exploits of a young Clark Kent in his home town before taking on his adult role as Superman. Michael Rosenbaum, Lex Luthor on Smallville, was even rumored to have been considered for the role of Harvey Dent in the abortive Bruce Wayne series.
Smallville became a success both on TV and, later, on DVD. With the series a hit, its creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar proposed to do Bruce Wayne as a companion series. They were denied along grounds similar to those used to stop the prospective series the first time around – and it didn’t help that, by then, the Aronofsky film was further along in pre-production.
A Batman-related series created by Tollin-Robbins Productions did in fact appear on the WB network in 2002: Birds of Prey, loosely based on the DC comic about a group of female crime-fighters linked to Batman continuity. The original comic teamed the former Batgirl, now wheelchair-bound but still active as the computer expert Oracle, with Black Canary, daughter of a costumed heroine from the 1940s and herself a longtime associate of Batman, plus a rotating assortment of other characters. The TV series was set in a near future after Batman has retired, and saw the daughter of Batman and Catwoman teaming up with the former Batgirl to fight crime and the plots of evil psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel in New Gotham. The series wasn’t supposed to include Batman, but it got away with occasional references – including a flashback sequence showing Batman battling the Joker in the pilot episode. The series was a failure, however, and wasn’t renewed after its original 13 episodes.
Those who regret the demise of the projected Bruce Wayne TV series argue that telling Batman’s origins simply takes longer than an hour or two of film. The whole idea of the TV series would be to show the character progressing slowly over years. For fans, there is a certain joy to imagining the hundreds of hours of Batman material the series might have represented.
On the other hand, Smallville has received somewhat mixed praise, and the WB (which merged with UPN to become CW in 2006) was frequently mocked for its reliance on hackneyed teenage romance. There would almost certainly have been a number of embarrassing moments in all that footage, and not every fan trusted the WB with a young Bruce Wayne. The great appeal of films in the wake of free television has long been quality – a fact that the precision of Batman Begins only emphasizes.
However one feels about the aborted Bruce Wayne series, it’s certainly an interesting footnote to the story of Batman Begins.
We’ll continue our look at the road to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins next time, when we’ll examine Frank Miller’s “Year One” screenplay in detail.
The above article is an excerpt from Improving the Foundations: Batman Begins from Comics to Screen, which is available cheaply in print and digital formats, including on Kindle.