When Zack Snyder released his Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016, he was routinely criticized for the choices he made as it pertained to casting Ben Affleck as Batman and Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. Can you imagine what critics and fanboys alike would have said if they knew about the near casting of Johnny Depp and Josh Hartnett to play DC’s most famous superheroes in their famously canceled 2004 Batman vs Superman film (codenamed Asylum)?
It all started with J.J. Abrams. Abrams was hired in 2002 to write a screenplay that was to reboot Superman. The origin story was going be named Superman: Flyby. The film was actually greenlit and had McG attached as the director.
But McG, for some unknown reason, dropped out to film Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (perhaps the lure of working with three gorgeous actresses?), and then Wolfgang Petersen was approached to direct the film.
A year earlier, though, Se7en and Sleepy Hollow (starring Johnny Depp) scribe Andrew Kevin Walker had pitched Warner’s a Batman vs Superman idea that resonated but never took off. Now, though, it seemed that Warner’s was liking the concept, so Abrams’s Superman script was put on hold and Batman vs Superman was set in motion.
Wolfgang Petersen moved over from Flyby to Batman vs Superman but Warner’s thought Walker’s script to be a shade too dark. They hired Academy Award-winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) to punch up the script. Looking at the script, which you can read here, it would be fun to see just how dark Walker’s original script was because Goldsman’s work is also, well, dark.
Before we jump into the story, let’s chat a bit about who Petersen and Warner Bros. saw as their two leads. Gotham’s caped crusader had a couple of interesting names attached to it, those being Colin Farrell, James Franco, Jude Law, and the late Paul Walker. But the name that led the way and was slated to wear the cape and cowl was none other than Captain Jack Sparrow himself, Johnny Depp. Wouldn’t that have been something, a goth Batman fighting crime in Gotham City.
As for Superman, it was said that Petersen was making his choice between two actors to square off against Johnny Depp. Surprisingly, one was an actor who’d make a big splash playing the Dark Knight in the Christopher Nolan trilogy, Christian Bale. The other was actor Josh Harnett, who was said to have the inside track on becoming the next Kal-El.
Back to our story. In the long run, it may have been a good idea that this film never saw the light of day, regardless of who they had chosen to play the titular superheroes. In Goldsman’s punch up, the story has Batman and Josh Hartnett’s Superman as best pals, though both are having what one may refer to as a midlife crisis.
Batman finds himself five years into retirement. He has hung up his cape and cowl after seeing his ward, Dick Grayson, commissioner Jim Gordon, and his faithful butler and father figure Alfred Pennyworth, all die. Bruce Wayne does, however, employ an Alfred hologram, who acts exactly like the real thing.
As far as enemies go, the Joker is no longer around as he is presumed dead from the fall he took in Tim Burton’s Batman. We also learn quite early that another reason Johnny Depp’s Bruce Wayne is a retired crime fighter is that he fears he will start killing his enemies instead of going after them for justice.
Things are just as gloomy for Josh Hartnett’s Superman and Clark Kent. Lois Lane is in the process of divorcing him because Clark doesn’t have enough time for her as he is always off saving the world. Clark has returned to Smallville, where he is feeling sorry for himself, though he also finds himself looking up his former childhood sweetheart, Lana Lang. Or should we say, Dr. Lana Lang? In what is sort of eyebrow-raising, Clark laments his being an alien and how he’s wasted much of his time trying to save petty humans. Not really the Clark/Superman we’d come to know and love.
Things begin to pick up when Bruce Wayne marries Elizabeth Miller. Clark is his best man. But on the honeymoon, Elizabeth is murdered by, you guessed it, the Joker. He survived the fall…or did he? Enter Lex Luthor.
Luthor has his hands dirty here because he was the one who brought the Joker back to life. But what begins to sow seeds of discontent between Johnny Depp’s Batman and Superman involves Joker. Turns out that a terrorist that Superman saved from being brutally murdered by an angry mob was actually Joker. Now, Batman wants to kill the Joker for once and for all, but Superman won’t let him turn into a killer. Now we have our “versus.”
So, they fight. They fight even though they both know they have been manipulated into fighting. This makes their battle head-scratching. They know it would be pointless to fight, the superheroes say as much before they take to arms. They do so anyway, and Batman almost completes the task with kryptonite.
Batman finally gets his chance to confront the Joker. But the Joker has one big surprise for the caped crusader. Elizabeth Miller was the Joker’s creation. After Luthor brought Joker back to life, he told the clown Batman’s secret identity. The Joker knew the only way to get to Batman would be through Bruce Wayne, so he created the perfect woman for Wayne to fall in love with.
With the Joker finally exacting his deadly plan, it looks like the dark knight will finally succumb. Then Superman arrives, having survived the murder attempt by Johnny Depp’s Batman. The Man of Steel helps Batman take out both Lex and the Joker.
There are some other strange and wild events that take place throughout Goldman’s retooling. One involves Lex Luthor, and we hope you’re sitting down when you read this. Luthor, when we first see him, is in prison. To escape, he first murders his lawyer. Then, on his way out, Luthor uses his fingernails, yes, his FINGERNAILS, to perform brain surgery on two prison guards in order to remove their free will, thus turning them into his zombie slaves. Ouch.
So, what went wrong here? Why didn’t the film ultimately get made? We can talk about the script and how brutal it was, but for some reason, Warner had been ready to move forward.
It came down to then Warner Bros. president Alan Horn. He continued to flip flop back and forth from wanting to see a Batman vs Superman film while also wanting to allow the superheroes Johnny Depp to star in a solo Batman outing and Josh Hartnett to appear in a Superman film before bringing them together in one movie.
It was said he sent the Batman vs Superman script out to 10 Warner Bros. execs while also sending out the Josh Hartnett Superman script to those same execs. Apparently, they all preferred the Superman script, so Batman vs Superman was scrapped, but not before then Warner Bros. VP Lorenzo di Bonaventura put up a fight.
Di Bonaventura was still in the Batman vs Superman corner and really wanted to get the film shot. His idea was to release Batman vs Superman first, then they could tackle the solo films. Apparently during one of the executive meetings where these discussions were taking place, Abrams told Di Bonaventura that they couldn’t do that because it would be like releasing When Harry Divorced Sally only to be followed by When Harry Met Sally.
Di Bonaventura ended up losing the battle and a few days later he would leave the studio. Did Warner Bros. do the right thing in killing the first Batman v Superman movie? Would you have liked to have seen Johnny Depp as Batman and Josh Harnett as Superman? Give the script a read and put them in those roles. They might have worked but the script; not sure if the story holds. Let us know what you think.