Marvel Entertainment’s utter, inarguable dominance of the superhero movie genre has become something of a punchline in recent years. While Warner Bros has achieved smashing success with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, they’ve yet to prove they can effectively sell their more obscure properties to a wide audience the way their competition so roundly has. Big Blue and The Caped Crusader have had no problems making the big bucks, but a cursory viewing of the flop Green Lantern film against something like, say, Guardians of The Galaxy, will more than illustrate the disparity so often mocked and joked about on social media.
So often, this disparity is used to imply WB/DC are just less adventurous, less competent, and less motivated to use their IP effectively in mainstream media. Their success on television with Smallville and now Arrow shows they’re not entirely incapable of making their colorful, at times hokie universe shine in live action, but it seems as though, outside of the dour, gritty, real world takes on their top tier heroes, no other property of theirs in development is touching the work being done during the Avengers initiative. While the cats at the Distinguished Competition are no means perfect, I want to report that I don’t believe that’s the case.
Being something of a movie script nerd (as evidenced here) I recently found and read some unproduced screenplays for prospective DC superhero films from around 2007-08, the same time Marvel was mounting their first big hit, Iron Man. There’s a variety of reasons why these projects never came to fruition, some creative, some financial, some luck, but in these four selected scripts, I think there was the beginning of something special. An alternate timeline where Marvel’s Phase One butted heads with an equally exciting array of new titles from DC, perhaps one-upping one another year in and year out, rather than DC constantly being perceived as lagging behind.
Maybe we’ll see new and improved iterations of these projects on one of the many dates WB has carved out for their slate, or maybe we won’t, but for the sake of “What if?” (to borrow Marvel’s parlance), here are four big DC movies that never happened, and a glimpse and what could have been.
Green Arrow: Escape From Supermax
Penned by Justin Marks, the screenwriter responsible for Street Fighter: Legend of Chun-Li (Yes, THAT Street Fighter: Legend of Chun-Li), Supermax is a very high concept, unorthodox take on the superhero film. The premise is simple, but highly effective. Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, is framed for the murder of a high ranking officer of Checkmate, the organization that polices metahumans. For his perceived crime, he is sentenced to a Supermax facility where a number of supervillains are currently incarcerated. To get free and clear his name, Ollie has to team up with The Pied Piper, Icicle, The Tattooed Man and other C-list rogues to break out of a science fiction version of Alcatraz, challenging his own morality and sense of identity. There’s a pretty sizable role for Amanda Waller, as the warden of the jail, and a number of cute, but not overbearing, cameos from other corners of DC appear as well. There’s some honest to God awful dialogue at times and some of the character motivations are fuzzy, but overall, it had the potential to be a scrappy, low-level hit.
By sidestepping the well trodden path of the “origin” movie, we’re treated to a fully realized DC Universe, with all of the trappings that entails. Things are simple and straightforward enough that you rarely question the absurdity of it all. There’s no need to grit up the place, because the core mythology picks up in media res and is surprisingly easy to follow along with. Rather than a real world that gets populated by new, foreign sci-fi concepts, like in the MCU, here we have a DCU (DCCU?) that is already full of comic book-y stuff. Tonally, it feels of a kin with Universal’s Fast & Furious films, with its potential for serious diversity in the cast, straightforward stakes, and the regular injection of unfrivolous action set pieces. At one point, Matt Damon, I believe, was sought after to play Ollie, but the rogue-ish characterization would have been a much better fit for someone like Lost‘s Josh Holloway, who probably could have turned the role into something special. Outside of a somewhat goofy denouement and paper thin themes, Supermax was clearly a step in the right direction of DC carving out a solid identity for themselves and could have been a mid-budgeted hit if the script didn’t go out of its way to describe an impossibly complicated prison set that probably held the project back.
My favorite element of the script is the deft way Green Arrow’s origin is dispensed with, utilizing the same flashback structure Batman Begins popularized. They don’t make you sit through forty-five minutes of a blonde rich kid on an island to get to the good shit. If Supermax can be lauded for only one thing, it’s getting to the good shit and not saving it for some potential sequel. Also, for all it’s blunt dumbness, putting arch Liberal Oliver Queen in jail and making him the ACLU of mistreated supervillains is a sweet touch.
Around 2007, David Dobkin, director of Wedding Crashers, was attached to this Flash film written by WB favorite David Goyer. Having written comics before and being very close with popular Flash scribe Geoff Johns, you might picture a faithful to the comics adaptation of the Scarlet Speedster, but Goyer’s script took a lot of turns with the source material (some interesting, many inexcusably dumb). In this iteration, we meet Wally West as The Flash and then flash back to him as a rebellious, dickheaded teenager under the tutelage of his super awesome uncle Barry, who, unbeknownst to Wally, is The Flash. Barry’s wife Iris and his partner Hunter Zolomon are the only people who know the truth. After coming into contact with a villain Victor Vesp, who, in trying to steal The Flash’s speed, becomes The Turtle, and kills Barry in a big science accident, crippling Hunter. Wally grows up to be an even bigger piece of shit, gets struck by magic lightning, becomes The Flash, and acts out a really fucking stupid version of the first half of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, as Wally learns to stop being a selfish asshole and learns about power and responsibility, kind of. He doesn’t really learn anything, but eventually, his running fast and being an impatient dick gives way to him running fast and knowing he’s an impatient dick, because, progress?
If I sound openly disdainful of this take on the character, it’s probably because I am. The one thing I’ve always loved about DC Comics is the general goodness of the majority of their protagonists. Goyer’s characterization of Wally as sort of an overgrown Bart Simpson type is completely at odds with how traditionally heroic both Barry and Zolomon are characterized as in the flashbacks. At first, that tension between the old guard and the new blood seems fascinating, but it gets muddled in side plots with the woefully uninteresting supporting cast of S.T.A.R. Labs scientists and a villain who I couldn’t even begin to give less of a fuck about. I mean, The Turtle? The Flash has more enemies than Kanye West, and we go with The Turtle? Yes, a certain spoiler-y character also becomes Zoom and there are some fun foot chase fights that come from that conflict, but the primary antagonist being a slow talking, milquetoast version of Every Spider-Man Villain Ever was a mistake.
On the bright side, Goyer, despite his faults, remains an efficient storyteller and the story remains well paced. If they had ditched Dobkin and brought in a Luc Besson protege like, say, The Incredible Hulk‘s Louis Leterrier, or someone capable of conveying electrically kinetic energy on screen, it definitely could have been a visually striking and engrossing action film. The biggest thing it had going for it is the acceptance of another key concept that sets DC apart from Marvel: that of legacy. The passing of the torch and the sense of heroism as a hereditary rite of passage is a big part of what makes DC, and the inspirational specter of Barry Allen looming over Wally’s coming of age, while improperly executed, was a major step in the right direction.
Billy Batson & The Legend of Shazam
Full disclosure: reading this screenplay was some of the most fun I have had in ages.
You may recall around 2008, The Rock, as he is now, was connected to a Shazam project, most likely to play villain Black Adam. Peter Segal, an Adam Sandler collaborator, was the director attached, and frequent Tim Burton pen for hire John August was working on the script. I’ve read two drafts of his efforts, the latter aiming to be a little more efficient and, as an unhappy side effect, blunt, but the former was totally fucking magical. Here is a superhero film that does the long form origin thing and doesn’t feel like it’s wasting your life away. Billy Batson and his best friend Freddy Freeman live with their foster parents Dale and Kitty, who really just use the kids for the government checks they bring in. The two orphans are as close as brothers, but would be torn apart if they reported their fake parents to the authorities, so to stay together, they tolerate a pretty depressing home life. A magical computer test Billy takes on morality presents them with a map to a train station that leads Billy into the Rock of Eternity, where the wizard Shazam turns Billy into his champion, Captain Marvel. At the same time, there is a scarab MacGuffin that brings Black Adam, a former champion, to our time, where he fights over another MacGuffin, a time travelling little girl, so he can be returned to his rightful time and save his family from slaughter, which would be totally reasonable if doing so wouldn’t destroy the rest of existence.
The actual hero/villain plot of the movie is pretty safe and a little bland, but what makes this script so exciting and fresh is the tone and feel. It’s adventurous and kid-friendly in the way Pixar movies are, or the way old Amblin-era Spielberg was. Billy and Freddy are realistic thirteen-year-olds, but they don’t make corny pop culture jokes to seem relevant. There’s a lived-in feel to their relationship, and the dynamic change of Billy becoming a superhero affects their little family in a way that is emotionally powerful. The key to Billy’s transformation and why he was chosen is his pure heart. The movie plays with morality in a concrete way, whether in scenes of Billy discussing ethics with a schoolteacher or Black Adam challenging the wizard’s high-minded sense of right and wrong by forcing Billy to choose between what lives to save (and not in that shitty Spider-Man/Batman movie trope of two people dangling on a bridge or whatever. He just tosses human beings with abandon, illustrating the inefficiency of heroism). Every scene manages to be funny, without seeming silly, and harrowing, without resorting to being grim. Heartwarming and engaging, it perfectly captures what makes the world of Fawcett City such a blast, while also making it palatable for real world audiences.
Also, the endless goldmine of a hulking adult hero with the mind of a child is exploited to the fullest here. Having The Rock or a Channing Tatum awkwardly going on a date with a schoolteacher and being utterly baffled at how Starbucks is supposed to work is gold, and the cinematic superhero landscape would have been all the richer for it.
I suppose the real grail of this bunch is Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman. Often seen as DC officially screwing the pooch in the war with Marvel (since Joss went onto make The Avengers to rousing success), Joel Silver, the producer at the time, just didn’t think this take was financially viable. Finding this script, which I was previously led to believe was non-existent (the rumor had long been that Whedon never made it past a treatment) was a real get, and despite some foibles, could have led to a very successful motion picture. We begin with the most Joss Whedon-y character ever, Steve Trevor, a role that seems tailor-written for Nathan Fillion, or another of Whedon’s pet actors, crash landing on the island of Themyscira and being sentenced to death for trespassing. The Amazon Queen Hippolyta’s daughter, Diana, fascinated by the world of men, saves his life in brutal combat (with her own mother) to take Trevor back home to deliver supplies to refugees. From there, Diana comes to Gateway City and runs afoul of Arabella Callas, a corrupt corporate CEO who worships and works for the god of war, Aries.
The story itself is very 101-level pop mythology, and there’s not a lot new brought to the genre in terms of inventive plot construction, but the execution, the character work, and the unity of theme are impressive. Tonally, it’s not far from other Whedon works, but there’s a real focus on the nature of heroism and sacrifice, the masculine destruction of war, and the aspirational ideal a figure like Wonder Woman presents. It feels like a snappier, Romancing The Stone take on Richard Donner’s Superman, and I can’t say I want or need much more than that.
Diana would be a great leading role for any number of up and coming actresses, and her relationship with Steve Trevor never feels corny or lopsided, an impressive feat, given Whedon’s track record. There’s a troubling over-reliance on cheap gender humor that undercuts the otherwise laudable work done elsewhere in the script, like a particularly pernicious assertion that a man landing on an island full of women that have probably gone literal generations without seeing a man would be some sort of sexual wish come to life. The cheap dick humor in the middle of an otherwise exciting and friendly superhero story is especially out of place considering how much work Whedon puts into making Wonder Woman a three-dimensional representation of womanhood.
There’s a montage in the film of Diana doing heroic things and getting her bearings in Man’s World, and humorously, we cut to the tried and true cliché of a kitten stuck in a tree. Diana looks at the little girl reaching for her kitten and abruptly suggests she just climb the tree and get it herself. It’s played for laughs, but, at least on paper, that moment of Diana reminding a young girl that she doesn’t need to be saved, felt right. Maybe it would have come off poorly in the finished product, but on the written page, Whedon’s vision is closer to the right idea than many other superhero screenplays I’ve ever read.
Only time will tell if Warner Bros has their heads screwed on right, and if future versions of these dormant projects are able to connect with a mass audience the way Marvel’s product has, but looking back on these varied, noble attempts, I’m nothing if not willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.