Six Superhero Movies That Nearly Went Into Production

Movie production is a complicated process, especially when you consider the issues of a big budget superhero movie. Here is a look at six of these films which almost escaped development hell, but remain unborn.

Superhero movies are big business these days. They have not only firmly established themselves as a staple of our modern pop culture, but have become very profitable. The major Hollywood studios have all invested significantly in bringing a consistent flow of them to the big screen, and frankly audiences can’t seem to get enough of them. Yet, despite how much of a good idea it is to put a big-budget superhero movie into production, there have been some films which have struggled for one reason or another to get the green light. This is a look at some of the most famous failed superhero films which very nearly made it to production.

James Cameron’s Spider-Man

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Back before there were mainstream live action Spider-Man movies, there was this attempt by James Cameron to make one. After establishing himself with Aliens and Terminator, Cameron began to look for new movie franchise options. He asked the production company he was working for, Carolco Pictures, to purchase the rights to Spider-Man. Cameron had grown up reading Spider-Man comics, and was a big fan. He envisioned a series of Spider-Man films following his work on Terminator 2.

Cameron wrote an initial treatment for his Spider-Man film, including drawing storyboards and writing dialogue for some of the more important scenes. The film would be an origin story as we have seen, but it would have been more adult-oriented. In addition to typical James Cameron levels of violence, it would have more language than we are used to seeing in mainstream Spider-Man movies. Reportedly it would be more risque, exploring Peter Parker’s sexuality as he comes of age. 

Rumors had Arnold Schwarzenegger playing Doc Ock, and Edward Furlong or Leonardo DiCaprio as Peter Parker. However, before Cameron could move the film into production, Carolco Pictures went bankrupt. Cameron couldn’t secure the rights for himself due to the way the contract with Marvel had been written, and Sony ended up buying them. Some of the ideas from Cameron’s films even ended up in Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film, although Cameron did not receive any credit.

Spider-Man 4

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Speaking of the original Spider-Man films, director Sam Raimi had full intentions to continue the franchise he created. After the success and fanfare of the original Spider-Man and its sequel, the studio had big expectations for Spider-Man 3. Of course, we all know how that one turned out. Raimi intended the third film to only have one main villain, Sandman, and it would be more of an introspective on Spider-Man/Peter Parker. The studio disagreed. They thought the film needed a more popular villain involved, and so they shoehorned the addition of Venom into the film, to disastrous results.

For the fourth film, Raimi vowed to make up for this mistake. He wanted the franchise to end on a high note, and began working on a plot shortly after the release of Spider-Man 3. Raimi considered famous Spider-Man villains Vulture and Lizard. He also planned to have Black Cat as a secondary villain. Sony hired James Vanderbilt to write the script. It went through several drafts, the latest completed in 2009. John Malkovich was attached to the role of Vulture, and Anne Hathaway as Black Cat. They even had a release date of May 5th 2011 scheduled.

However, the failure of Spider-Man 3 continued to weigh on Sam Raimi’s mind. He worried that the script was not good enough and would not be able to redeem the previous film’s shortcomings. For the studio, the Spider-Man movies had been very profitable, but in order to maintain the Spider-Man movie rights they had to keep making movies. Because of Raimi’s delays on Spider-Man 4, they began to look into the option of a reboot in order to maintain the rights and keep stockholders happy. With the additional pressure to get the film into production, Raimi was afraid of increased studio involvement, which derailed the previous film. This threat, combined with his inability to work out issues with the script, convinced Raimi to eventually to give up on the project and let Sony move ahead with their reboot instead.   

Justice League: Mortal

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The film on this list which probably got the closest to filming is this one. In 2007, Warner Brothers hired Kieran and Michele Mulroney to write a Justice League script. The studio envisioned the new film as the beginning of a new DC movie universe. Individual character films/origin stories would be spun off of this initial introduction to the franchise. George Miller signed on to direct, and rushed into pre-production with the hopes of entering production before the writers’ strike hit. Initially, the studio considered a motion-capture animation, like Beowulf. However, Miller preferred a live action interpretation. His crew scouted a few filming locations in Australia, and initial work on costumes began.

Around the end of the year, casting rumors began to surface. Miller had in mind Armie Hammer for Batman/Bruce Wayne, Adam Brody as Flash, and D.J. Cotrona as Superman. Miller said he intentionally chose to cast younger, more unknown actors so they could grow into their roles over the course of several films. But the studio wasn’t satisfied with the script. They ordered a full stop on any work. By early 2008, the writers strike had begun and any work on improving the script had to be delayed. The studio had no choice but to shelve the project until the script issues could be resolved.

Unfortunately, once the film hit the shelf, that is where it stayed. The government rescinded the tax breaks the project had secured for filming in Australia. The project now had to look for new places to film because it would be too expensive to film in Australia now. Without an Australian connection, George Miller’ interest waned, especially when the studio began second-guessing itself.

With the beginnings of the new MCU in 2008, Warner Brothers decided to reconsider how they were approaching the increasingly popular superhero genre with their new franchise. Like the MCU, they decided to start the franchise with individual character films and build up to a crossover, rather than start with the Justice League movie right away. Work began on Man of Steel to begin this new film universe. 

Superman Lives

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The once popular and profitable Superman franchise was all but dead by the early 1990’s. Despite ideas floating around for a fifth film, the box office performance of 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace bankrupt Cannon Productions. Warner Brothers purchased the rights after the Death of Superman comics became popular early in the decade. Warner Brothers worked on two iterations of a script to adapt the ideas from the comics to the big screen, but neither found any success moving beyond the writing phase. In 1996, Warner Brothers hired Kevin Smith to do a re-write. Smith, concerned with the existing script’s disparity from the comics, decided to basically start over. His draft would become the basis of a new film, entitled Superman Lives.

Producer Jon Peters liked Kevin Smith’s ideas, but wanted it to be more commercial. At the time, Warner Brothers’ Batman franchise had fizzled out after the release of 1997’s Batman & Robin. Understandably, the studio was hesitant to take on another superhero property, and so the new film had to ensure profitability. Reluctantly, Smith agreed to make the requested changes to allow for more merchandising and blockbuster opportunity. The studio considered Robert Rodriguez to direct, but he declined due to another commitment. Smith recommended Tim Burton, and the studio agreed because of Burton’s success with the first two Batman films. Burton was signed to a preliminary contract worth $5 million to be involved.

Pre-production began in the summer of 1997, with production scheduled to start in 1998. The studio hired Nicolas Cage to portray Superman, luring him with $20 million upfront. Kevin Spacey may have been cast as Lex Luthor, Christopher Walken as Brainiac, and Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen. Burton took over creative control pushing, Kevin Smith’s influence aside. The script underwent another rewrite, and shortly afterwards completed preliminary art and costume work.

However, the studio voiced concerns regarding the cost of the new script and they put production on hold. Unwilling to make compromises, Tim Burton left the project to work on Sleepy Hollow. The studio didn’t want to wait for Burton, and accepted a new script which they offered to other directors such as Michael Bay, Oliver Stone, and Martin Campbell. Around the year 2000, Nicholas Cage left the project. Continued script issues kept the project on the ground.

X-Men Origins: Magneto

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Remember when we were supposed to get a whole slew of X-Men Origins films, meant as offshoots from the original X-Men movie trilogy? This one was going to be the beginning of the series, but ended up being delayed to allow X-Men Origins: Wolverine to reach theaters first. Of course, the disappointment associated with that film influenced 20th Century Fox to go in the direction of the prequel films (X-Men: First Class) instead.

Back in 2004, the studio hired Sheldon Turner to write origin story movies for the major X-men characters. He decided to start with Magneto. The film would have taken place in the 1930’s and during WWII with Magneto being held in a concentration camp. Nazi testing is what gave Magneto his powers, and upon escape he would have met Charles Xavier. Magneto’s desire for revenge is what led him to become enemies with Charles.

Locations were scouted for filming in Australia, and Ian McKellen was on board to portray Magneto again. Apparently, they were planning on using him to portray an older Magneto telling a story would would take place as a series of flashbacks. A younger actor would portray him in the flashbacks. The studio had concerns regarding this type of storytelling, and so they revised the script to take place in the 60’s instead. The production planned to use CGI to make McKellen look younger. The film almost made it to production, but the reception of X-Men Origins: Wolverine cast doubts. This, combined with an uncertainty by McKellen due to his age, shut it down. X-Men: First Class re-used some of the ideas from Turner’s original script.

Superman: Flyby

After Superman Lives fell apart (see above) Warner Brothers began to explore new opportunities to reinvent the Man of Steel for the big screen. They weren’t yet ready to give up the idea, especially since the impending release of Spider-Man would be a good litmus test for more big-budget superhero movies. The studio hired J.J. Abrams to write a script, and he completed this in 2002. This was before Abrams earned his reputation as the king of the reboots. It ended up being his first attempt at bringing a once-popular franchise back from the dead.

Abrams’ script was essentially an origin story for Superman, which would start with a civil war on Krypton. The studio hired Brett Ratner to direct, and he worked on the script further. He planned for a massive Superman franchise that could span longer than 10 years. Because of this, he wanted to make sure to get the casting right. One of the problems with casting the roles for this movie is he had to ensure the actors would be available for the sequels. Because of this, it was not a very appealing role for many big-name actors. Josh Hartnett and Jude Law both turned down offers for the lead role. Other famous names appeared in rumors such as Christopher Walken and Anthony Hopkins. Ratner’s film had an estimated budget of $200 million.

Warner Brothers may not have been keen on spending so much money, and this may have led to some studio interference. Combined with the casting issues, Ratner left the project in early 2003. McG picked up the project, and decided to cast an unknown as Superman and had the script rewritten. Some costume work and concepts were created for pre-production. McG wanted to film in New York City and Canada, but this would have been more expensive and Warner Brothers wanted him to film in Australia instead. McG did not want to have to go to Australia, and so he decided to drop out of the project. Bryan Singer replaced him. Singer didn’t use any of the previous work or the script and instead his film became 2006’s Superman Returns.