Joaquin Phoenix as a superhero? It was closer than you think. Sometimes, those “what could have been?” story ideas are best left alone. Sometimes, those who make the decision to move forward with a project or not, actually know what they are doing.
Take, for instance, Batman – Year One. While on the surface it may have looked like a good idea – director Darren Aronofsky, writer Frank Miller, and Joaquin Phoenix combing for a new take on Batman. It was a story “based on” Miller’s own comic of the same name, but apparently, that was pretty much the only thing the Aronofsky film would have in common with the comic book. It was also this “new take” aspect of the film that ultimately would be the hang-up. That, and Joaquin Phoenix.
Before we get into the “what could have been”, Frank Miller’s Batman – Year One is noted as being one of the superhero’s most significant storylines as it shows, in typical Frank Miller hard-hitting and graphic detail, the beginning of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into the Dark Knight. It was groundbreaking in that it detailed a reinterpreted vision of Batman’s origin. Joaquin Phoenix came close to taking part in something of an adaptation.
Aronofsky wanted to do the same thing and give Joaquin Phoenix as Batman a different backstory, a different beginning, so to speak. As he once stated via Fandom.com during the now-dead film’s early production, “it’s somewhat based on the comic book, toss out everything you can imagine about Batman! Everything! We’re starting completely anew.”
“Anew” is exactly what Aronofsky did and even Miller, who was tabbed to write the script for Aronofsky, wasn’t prepared for how dark Aronofsky was wanting to go. Aronofsky says about the direction he wanted to take, “The Batman that was out before me was Batman & Robin, the famous one with the nipples on the Batsuit, so I was really trying to undermine that, and reinvent it,” he explains to Empire Online. “That’s where my head went.”
With that in mind, he went searching for his dark Batman and found Joaquin Phoenix. The studio, Warner Bros., had different ideas. They wanted a more clean-cut Bruce Wayne, one that the fans knew. To the studio, Phoenix, who would eventually make waves as Batman’s ultimate foe in Todd Phillips’ Joker, did not fit that mold.
“The studio wanted Freddie Prinze Jr and I wanted Joaquin Phoenix,” he recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘Uh oh, we’re making two different films here.’ That’s a true story. It was a different time. The Batman I wrote was definitely a way different type of take than they ended up making.” Aronofsky is, of course, referring to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, one that was noted for being a darker take on the superhero, but definitely not as dark as Aronofsky wished to take his vision.
Frank Miller’s script, which could be read in its entirety here, had numerous changes to Batman’s world. There are some, which you may or may not find appealing. It would have been a crazy look for Joaquin Phoenix.
For instance, instead of Bruce Wayne remaining at Wayne Manor after his parents are killed, Aronofsky would have young Bruce lose his fortune and become homeless. Alfred would remain, but he would be an African-American man now called “Little Al” who runs an auto-repair shop but remains Bruce’s mentor. This would have had Joaquin Phoenix in a much different relationship with some iconic Batman characters.
As Bruce is penniless, his ability to travel to learn the craft of fighting no longer exists. Instead, Bruce learns to fight by reading books on the art of combat and practicing. This would have given Joaquin Phoenix a chance to bring something totally new to the character.
Batman gets his moniker from a ring that Bruce wears. On it are a T and a W intertwined and when he punches a bad guy, it leaves a mark that looks remarkably like a bat.
Jim Gordon is present and accounted for but his wife’s name is no longer Barbara, but Ann. Jim is suicidal from all the horrors he’s seen in Gotham and is trying to leave the city with Ann, who is pregnant.
Selina Kyle is also present and accounted for, but her character is also an African-American. In Aronofsky’s version, Selina is a prostitute and dominatrix going by the name of Mistress Selina, and she and Bruce would still somehow find a way to each other.
Finally, Joaquin Phoenix would have had a Batcave (under an abandoned subway station) and a Batmobile (a Lincoln Continental). There was even some concept art of how Aronofsky visioned Batman. The art can be seen here.
So, the question begs, how far is too far? Did Aronofsky take his vision to too much of an extreme? Obviously, the studio thought so considering they nixed his film in favor of Christopher Nolan’s vision. Along with Phoenix not being the studio’s chosen Batman, Warner Bros. felt, at the time, that Miller’s script not only veered too far away from what fans wanted to see in their Batman, but the story was too dark and violent. A potential R-rating would kill the box office as kids and young people would not be able to see the film.
Okay, all you GFR Batman fans, chime in. Would you be willing to take that ride with Aronofsky and his vision of Batman or do you need your Batman to live closer to the comic book version? Let us know.