Superhero movies are experiencing a golden age at the moment, which is a dream come true for those of us who want to see these crime-fighting crusaders, guardians of the world, and warriors of virtue strut their stuff on the big screen. We all know there are at least 51 all-time great superhero movies out there, but we’ve discussed them at length already. They’ve had their time in the sun.
But what about the superhero adventures that didn’t make it to the screen? Those unrealized projects that could have changed the landscape of blockbuster cinema if they went ahead. This list is dedicated to those potentially game-changing (and bad) movies we could be discussing today the same way we talk about masterpieces like The Dark Knight and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance if the stars aligned when it truly mattered.
Of course, it’s also worth bearing in mind that if some of these went ahead, the road to world domination could have taken some bizarre and interesting turns and superhero cinema as we know it today could have become a different beast entirely. A place where Superman and bears lived side by side and Spider-Man was a grotesque monster. Who knows what would have happened? All I know is that the unproduced movies I’ve selected for this list deserved more than their doomed fate, rotting in development hell.
Batman vs Superman
Nearly 15 years before Zack Snyder pitted the two iconic DC heroes against each other in what should have been a cinematic showdown for the ages, Se7en screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker wrote a screenplay for a movie called Asylum which saw both crusaders at odds with each other.
In the story, Batman’s girlfriend was murdered by Joker, which leads to Batman blaming Superman lashing out at the Man of Steel for interfering with his his vengeance crusade. Unfortunately, the story was deemed too dark to make at the time, so Akiva Goldsman (who wrote Batman Forever and Batman and Robin) was hired by the studio to add more optimism and hope to proceedings. In the end, Warner Bros. decided to relaunch both superhero franchises separately and canned the project.
David Goyer’s original plan for Blade 3 was to make it a post-apocalyptic tale set in a world inhabited by vampires. The sequel would have been Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” only with Blade front and center. Despite the first two movies being hits, though, the original planned third installment was deemed too expensive to make and we got Blade: Trinity instead — a critical and financial flop. Goyer and co. tried to resurrect the franchise with the previous idea, but his tumultuous relationship with Snipes following their fallout on Trinity proved to be the stake to the heart that killed the franchise.
Vincenzo Natali’s Swamp Thing
The botanic badass is no stranger to screen adaptations following two live-action movies, a short-lived TV series, and even a children’s cartoon. Back in 2009, however, Vincenzo Natali wrote a script for a reboot that was heavily-inspired by Alan Moore’s beloved comics run. Sadly, the project never materialized, but you can read the first four pages of the script if you’re interested.
X-Men Origins: Magneto
In 2004, Sheldon Turner wrote an X-Men script about Magneto’s life in the Auschwitz death camp; from his capture, to his liberation, and subsequent hunting of the Nazi scumbags who tortured him. David Goyer signed on to direct in 2007, but the project stalled after Ian McKellen dropped out due to his age. Elements of the script then found their way into First Class and that was that.
James Cameron’s Spider-Man
James Cameron’s planned 90’s Spider-Man adaptation would have been an experience if the film ever saw the light of day. The plan, you see, was to make our hero an awkward pervert amid his peak puberty years. Spidey would have spied on Mary Jane getting changed and also get jiggy with her on the Brooklyn Bridge some time later. Unfortunately, a legal battle between studios over the rights to the film prevented it from being made and this probably saved Cameron’s career in the long run.
Cameron is a great filmmaker, so to assume that this would have been a disaster is a little far-fetched. Still, a Spider-Man movie where the hero is a peeping Tom sounds like a glorious train wreck on paper.
Jack Black’s Green Lantern
Way back in 2004, Warner Bros. thought about giving the Green Lantern a big screen comedic makeover starring Jack Black as the titular hero. The actor’s stock was high at the time following the success of School of Rock and Tenacious D, which naturally made him the perfect fit for a movie about a spandex-sporting crusader.
Apparently the film would have also featured Pokemon‘s Pickachu and a giant condom as well. The studio backed decided to back out later because they wanted to stick tried and tested formula when it came to producing successful superheroes flicks. And that formula didn’t contain any traces of anime rodents and gargantuan shlong wrappers.
The Crow: 2037
Prior to making his directorial debut with House of 1000 Corpses, Rob Zombie was hired to write and direct a sequel in The Crow franchise that would have followed the underwhelming second installment, Stairway to Heaven.
The story was set in the future and centered around a boy who rises from the dead to avenge the slaughter of him and his mother at the hands of a cultist priest. Sadly, the failure of City of Angels killed the project, but Zombie apparently repurposed the script as an original project that we’ll likely never see.
Zombie is filmmaking marmite; you either love his work or you loathe it. But he’s a director with a strong, uncompromising vision and a fondness for making gritty, violent genre flicks. We need more superhero movies with B grade exploitation sensibilities, and this could have been one of those movies.
Wesley Snipes’s Black Panther
Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther movie was a breakthrough for representation in Hollywood and a bona fide blockbuster success story to boot. And while it wasn’t the first black superhero movie to grace our screens, the Marvel opus is without a doubt the most important. As far as the first Black Panther adaptation goes, wse couldn’t have asked for a better one — but we nearly got one back in 1992 with Wesley Snipes on board to star as the Wakandan warrior.
According to Snipes, the film was inspired by African martial arts and would have been set in a “very rich culturally diverse shithole.” The project didn’t materialize beyond the writing stage, but at least Snipes went on to spearhead a pivotal black superhero movie a few years later. Maybe this one wouldn’t have changed the game like Coogler’s movie did, but any martial arts film starring an action star like Snipes in his prime deserved a chance.
In 2004, hot off the heels of writing Batman Begins and directing Blade: Trinity, David Goyer turned his attention a movie adaptation of The Flash, which he was set to write and direct.
His story featured both the Barry Allen and Wally West iterations of DC’s speedy superhero, and Ryan Reynolds was rumored to don the spandex. Goyer then left the project in 2007 over creative differences and was replaced by other writers and directors who couldn’t get make breakthroughs with the project either. But at least we’re getting a movie in 2020 if the DCEU has spontaneously combusted by then.
Before Henry Cavill became the Man of Steel, he was nearly cast as Kal-El in a JJ Abrams attempt to bring Superman back to the big screen in the early 2000’s. The film would have been an origin story about civil war on Krypton, which leads to our hero being sent to Earth and adopted by the Kent’s. He would have grown up, fallen in love with Lois Lane, and saved the world. Smallville’s Tom Welling and Supernatural star Jared Padalecki were also circling the lead role, and McG and Brett Rattner were both attached to direct at different points before the project was shelved.
The Wachowskis’ Plastic Man
In 1995, long before they blew our minds with The Matrix and Speed Racer, The Wachowskis wanted to give Plastic Man his own movie at Warner Bros. Unlike the movies they’re known for these days, the Wachowski’s take on one of DC’s wackiest characters would have been nutty and very tongue-in-cheek, with the titular hero portrayed as an environmentally-friendly crusader. In an interview with MTV, they described it as “the closest thing to a comedy we’ll write.” But it never happened and we didn’t get to see the sibling filmmakers express their intentionally silly side.
Larry Cohen’s She-Hulk
The Incredible Hulk TV series from 1978 was so successful that Marvel created a female counterpart to the angry green monster as a direct result. The idea was to introduce the character onscreen in a TV movie called The Death of the Incredible Hulk, starring Brigitte Nielsen as Jennifer Walters and Gabrielle Reece as as She-Hulk. Those plans never materialized, but a standalone She-Hulk movie, which would also have starred Nielsen, was still tossed around in the 90’s.
Larry Cohen, the maverick behind some truly wonderful movies like It’s Alive, God Told Me To, and The Ambulance, was on board to direct. Even though the legendary B-movie auteur was known for cult genre fare with a satirical bite, it would have been fascinating to see how he handled a superhero flick. I’m guessing better than most given that he’s one of the greatest unsung geniuses in the history of cinema.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Doc Savage
In 1999, Frank Darabont and Chuck Russell tried to develop a movie reboot of the 1930’s pulp superhero. Screenplay duties were handled by Brett Hill and David Johnson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was attached to play the titular adventurer. Timing proved to be terrible, however, as Schwarzenegger’s political career became his priority and Darabont and Russell were also involved in other projects, which resulted in the film being shelved.
The day we see a new Doc Savage movie will be nothing short of a miracle. According to Shane Black, the reboot he’d been developing with Dwayne Johnson on board to star is also dead. Let’s move on from this miserable note…
Tobe Hooper’s Spider-Man
Back in the 80’s, The Cannon Group, the studio behind some of the wildest action movies of the decade, bought the film rights to Spider-Man. However, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the legendary hucksters who founded the company, knew nothing about the character at all — only that he was popular. And instead of doing their homework, they let their twisted imaginations run wild and devised plans to turn the beloved character into a monstrous spider/human hybrid.
Tobe Hooper was approached to helm their bizarre vision for Spidey. But those plans fell through when the studio had a rare moment of common sense and bucked to the pressure of developing a more traditional adaptation of the popular Marvel comics. That didn’t work out either, though, as they were never able to get the project up and running before their rights to the film expired.
But don’t you wish their original idea became a reality? As much of an abomination the movie would have been, it sounds like the kind of outrageous schlock Cannon specialized in and I’m all for that nonsense. If this travesty went ahead, it would be a beloved cult classic by now.
Stuart Gordon’s Iron-Man
Years before Jon Favreau’s 2008 movie launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the stratosphere, horror director Stuart Gordon was in line to direct an Iron Man movie back in the 90’s based on a script by Robocop scribe, Ed Neumeier. The story would have followed a retired and reclusive Tony Stark who’s forced to return to his old heroic ways when the world is threatened by some kind of disaster. That’s really all we know about the project, but it may have starred Tom Cruise or Nic Cage as they were both linked with the role for a long time before Robert Downey Jr. eventually donned the suit and made it his own.
Batman: Year One (Aronofsky)
Christopher Nolan is credited for taking the Batman saga in a more grounded and dark direction. Before he was given the reins to the franchise, however, Darren Aronofsky had similar ideas in mind for the Dark Knight in 1999 when he was working on his own movie inspired by the “Year One” comics. Furthermore, the script was penned by none other than Frank Miller.
Despite the new ideas Aronofsky and Miller had in mind for Gotham’s main guy, the core of the Batman backstory remains the same — young Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents’ execution at the hands of some rotten scoundrels and is raised by Alfred. In this iteration, Bruce wasn’t rich and Alfred was a blue-collar mechanic who raises Gotham’s future hero in an auto-repair shop. That’s until Bruce has had enough of seeing his city deteriorate at the hands of pimps and crooks anyway.
The film would have been R-rated, with Joaquin Phoenix in mind to play the shadowy crusader.
Justice League: Mortal
In 2008, George Miller very nearly directed a Justice League movie that was loyal to the comics and even featured a cast of up and coming hotshots. The worst part? the film was a stone’s throw away from filming when the plug was pulled on production.
The hero and villain ensemble included Armie Hammer (Batman), Adam Brody (The Flash), Common (Green Lantern), DJ Cotrona (Superman), Megan Gale (Wonder Woman), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Martian Manhunter), Santiago Cabrera (Aquaman), Zoe Kasan (Iris Allen), Jay Baruchel (Maxwell Lord) and Teresa Palmer (Talia al Ghul).
A host of factors killed this one. Miller blames it on some legislation regarding tax rebates which prevented them from shooting the movie in Australia as planned. Additionally, it is believed that Warner Bros. didn’t want different versions of their characters competing with each other as The Dark Knight franchise was in full-swing and the studio still hadn’t ruled out a sequel to Superman Returns.
Doctor Strange (Wes Craven)
Scott Derrickson cut his teeth as a horror auteur before he became part of the Marvel roster when he directed 2016’s Doctor Strange. That said, he wasn’t the first terror maestro to be offered the chance at bringing Marvel’s mystical hero to life. In 1992, the iconic Wes Craven (who was no stranger to comic book movies) signed on to write and direct an adaptation for Savoy Pictures, but the studio’s financial troubles which led to its bankruptcy two years later proved to be the death knell for the project.
David Hayter’s Black Widow
Bringing Black Widow to the big screen for her first landmark solo outing has proven to be an arduous task thus far. In fact, it was only this summer that Marvel appointed a director to take the reigns. In the early 2000’s, though, X-Men writer David Hayter was attached to a live-action project that would have taken place against the backdrop of the Soviet Empire in the midst of a potential nuclear war. But poor timing thanks to bad Uwe Boll movies crushed that dream.
When Hayter was developing the movie, Bloodrayne, Ultraviolet, and Aeon Flux had recently underperformed at the box office. In the eyes of studio executives, the marketplace just wasn’t ready for female-centric action movies. Hayter was so confident that the movie would happen, though, that he even named his daughter Natasha in honor of it. So not only did the studio fail to give representation a chance — they also tainted a child.
Ever since 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army left the franchise open to all kinds of intriguing storytelling possibilities, fans of Big Red wanted nothing more than to see Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman reteam for one last hurrah. For years, the project fluctuated between being dead in the water and a slight possibility — until 2017 when it was announced that the franchise was being rebooted by Neil Marshall with David Harbour on board to play the cigar-chomping demon.
According to the director, part three would have centered around the end of days with “heartbreaking and tragic” results. Golden Army teased our demonic protagonist embracing his evil side in the finale, which would have added an intriguing dimension to the character and a dramatic story no doubt.
Del Toro and Perlman stated interest in returning completing the super saga, but with the former’s neverending list of projects constantly piling up, finding time to focus on a sequel to a franchise that didn’t exactly light the box office on fire wasn’t a high priority.
Spider-Man 3 didn’t receive the most glowing reviews, but the film still managed to gross over $890 million at the global box office and director Sam Raimi seemed to have unfinished business with his favorite superhero. Intending to the right the wrongs of the third installment, he began work on a follow-up with Tobey Maguire and Bruce Campbell set to return. Anne Hathaway and Rachel McAdams also auditioned for the role of Black Cat, with the former particularly impressing.
Zodiac’s James Vanderbilt was hired to write the script, but David Lindsay-Abaire and Gary Ross were brought in later on for re-writes. The plan was to begin filming in 2010, but with Sony planning a reboot script just in case Raimi’s sequel didn’t work out, the director eventually stepped down. The franchise was then rebooted as The Amazing Spider-Man and the that marked the end of Raimi’s era.
Joe Carnahan’s Daredevil
Before Marvel and Netflix gave the Man Without Fear a new lease of life on the small screen, the character was still owned by 20th Century Fox. They didn’t have big plans for him after the very underrated (fight me) 2003 movie starring Ben Affleck, though, which failed to set the world on fire. Joe Carnahan saw potential in the character, however, and pitched an R-rated reboot that would have been much darker and grittier than the previous film.
His plan was to make a brand new trilogy of films set across several years. As he told ComicBook, “I suggested a trilogy as follows: ‘Daredevil ‘73’, ‘Daredevil ‘79’, and ‘Daredevil ‘85’ where I was going to do a kind of ‘cultural libretto’ and make the music of those eras a kind of thematic arc . So the first one would be classic rock, the second one would be punk rock and the third film would be ‘new wave.’’’ That actually sounds more interesting than the excellent Netflix show.
Marvel wanted their creation back, though, and they regained rights to the property before Carnahan could make any serious progress to bring his violent vision to life.
Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman
Once upon a time, Joss Whedon was celebrated for creating TV shows that empowered women. He was a self-defined feminist and his ideals were apparently evident in his work. This perception changed years later when his ex-wife revealed that he cheated on her repeatedly. Still, long before his promiscuity became public knowledge. he was attached to a Wonder Woman movie in 2005 — when public opinion of him was still high.
In Whedon’s movie, the story would have been set in Gateway, a city ravaged by inequality. Wonder Woman would have tackled the crime that was spreading as a result of the harsh social conditions, with Strife set to be the film’s main villain.
Production never progressed, but the script was leaked online prior to the release of the 2017 Patty Jenkins movie only to be met with accusations of sexism, which Whedon disagreed with.
Justice League Dark
Calling the current DC cinematic universe inconsistent would be an understatement. So far, Wonder Woman is the only movie general consensus agrees is good, and one decent movie hasn’t exactly given fans reason to be hopeful or excited about the franchise’s future. However, when they unveiled plans to introduce a cooler Justice League faction than the current one to their cinematic slate, there was reason to be excited again. That didn’t last long.
Justice League Dark would have assembled Deadman, Zatanna, John Constantine and Swamp Thing — DC Comics’ more horror-centric players. Guillermo Del Toro, a natural fit for any movie about monsters and all things supernatural, penned a script for the film but reportedly dropped out to focus on other projects.
Doug Liman stepped in afterward, only to abandon ship as well in 2017. The project was subsequently shelved with no plans in place at the time of writing to move forward with it. If DC have any sense, they’ll throw money at del Toro to come back and let him adapt these characters as he sees fit.
In the mid-90’s, Kevin Smith was commissioned by Warner Bros. to write a script for a new Superman movie. As the Clerks director recalled in this Q&A, the producer wanted him to write the movie for Sean Penn because he had the eyes of “violent caged killer” and demanded that the iconic Superman suit be removed because it looked too “faggy.” And to cap it all off, the movie also had to include giant spiders, polar bears, and a camp robot sidekick. Welcome to Hollywood, everyone.
Plans changed shortly after when Tim Burton was hired as director and Smith was booted from the project. New scripts were penned by Wesley Strick and Dan Gilroy with Brainiac, Lex Luthor, and Doomsday to feature as the big bads. Nic Cage was cast as the Man of Steel, sporting beautiful long hair. This had beautiful disaster written all over it
Of course, the movie was too good to be true. Nic Cage as Superman? Such a thing would only happen in a world where a God existed. But if you want to find out more about this odd slice of pop culture folklore, then Jon Schnepp’s excellent doc The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is essential viewing.