As we gear up for Zack Snyder’s take on “the greatest gladiator match in the history of the world” in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it’s time to once again to journey back to discover the films that could have been. We looked at the dire state of Marvel’s most popular characters without the benefit of a cinematic universe. We rattled the world with a look at Jurassic Park IV. Now we’re ready to share the secrets of a superhero universe defined by the unmade Batman vs Superman: Asylum. But first, we need to look at how we got to that point.
The success of Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man not only proved the superhero movie lived, but that it had the potential to define movie-going for a generation in much the same way Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had for the generation prior. While J.J. Abrams Superman: Flyby was being developed, Warner Bros. also began work on a parallel project, Batman vs. Superman: Asylum. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven), the film chose to forego any origin stories in favor of a storied history between the two characters. Wolfgang Peterson (Air Force One, Troy) was set to direct, and Akiva Goldsman, who’d already help run the Batman franchise into the ground was hired to do a rewrite of Walker’s script. What follows is a breakdown of the major story beats of Walker’s script pre-rewrite.
In the script, we find a solemn and lonely Clark Kent in the middle of a divorce from Lois Lane, who doesn’t appear in the film but makes her presence felt. Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, is doing well for himself, having retired from Batman after the death of Dick Grayson, and is engaged to the charming Elizabeth. Walker shows the long history and friendship between Clark and Bruce by having Clark fulfill the role of Best Man at Bruce’s wedding. Despite Superman’s heavy heart, there’s a certain lightness to the script in ACT I, if not one defined by a certain level of cheese that made up blockbusters in the early 2000s.
The mood quickly shifts when Elizabeth is killed on her honeymoon by the Joker, who has seemingly been dead for years. As it would turn out the Joker, disguised as a terrorist, had recently tried to blow up a monument in Metropolis, but was saved from being beaten to death by an angry mob by an unknowing Superman. Bruce discovers this and blames Superman for his wife’s death, leading him to once again don the Batsuit and take out his excessive anger on the streets as he attempts to track down the Joker. Superman promises Batman that he’ll stop him if he goes too far, while Batman tells Superman he doesn’t get to play god and decide what’s right for human beings. The central setup is mostly good, if the logic for Batman’s blame of Superman for this is a bit stretched. Regardless, the script does give us one of the best “Bruce decides to be Batman again” scenes in the entire medium.
Most of Act II centers on Batman’s quest for vengeance and it involves a Batmobile chase with the Joker that’s strikingly similar to the one in The Dark Knight. Superman, on the other hand, goes back to Smallville to do some soul-searching on his place in the world, while re-sparking his teenage romance with Lana Lang.
After romancing Lana, and pulling the whole “I can’t be with you because responsibility,” Superman stops a tornado, and goes back to Metropolis. Once there, he discovers Lex Luthor is behind the whole plot, and that he resurrected the Joker to kill Elizabeth so that Batman would kill the Joker and then Batman and Superman would kill each other. Luthor reveals he was only sent to prison for trying to kill Superman before the government wanted him too, but the government kept him on their payroll for years to develop a Kryptonite bomb that would make Earth inhabitable for Superman. Bruce watches their conversation from the Batcave monitors and decides he’ll kill the Joker regardless, because at this point Batman doesn’t give a single fuck.
ACT III is comprised almost entirely of fight sequences. Batman goes to meet Joker at a designated point in Metropolis, but Superman shows up before he reaches it. Batman reveals he’s made Bat-Armor (it’s description sounds very much like The Dark Knight Returns armor) infused with Kryptonite he stole from a government facility.
Their fight is lengthy and brutal, spanning from the sky to the city. For anyone who has ever wanted to see these two duke it out, this is their dream match. Batman finally wins by shooting Superman with a Kryptonite arrow and breaking it off inside of him. Batman goes to meet the Joker at the top of a monument with a domed roof the size of a football field (the stage for the final battle is very difficult to picture). Joker reveals that Elizabeth was working for him the whole time. Bruce takes off his wedding ring and finds Joker’s face etched on the inside of the band. Batman collapses from sadness and the Joker takes a massive battle axe and raise it over his head, ready to decapitate Batman. But a weakened Superman appears and Batman rises for a massive battle of Batman and Superman vs the Joker and his two chemically enhanced henchmen. Batman defeats the Joker and has his boot on his windpipe ready to deliver to final blow. Superman stands there and tells Bruce that it’s his choice, and that this is what everyone has been trying to tell him, that he can’t make decisions for humanity. Bruce relinquishes and spares the Joker. It’s a solid ending after pages and pages of awesome but exhausting action. Only, that isn’t the end. Lex Luthor, having escaped from jail, appears in powered battle suit. He kills the Joker and then faces Batman and Superman before all three plummet from the monument with Luthor crashing and disappearing and Superman catching Batman at the last second. The two reaffirm their friendship and Batman asks Superman if he wants to get a beer, and Superman says he’ll stick with a soda. Laughs ensue. Credits roll. Yes, it’s an extremely weird ending.
While it’s impossible to know what the film would have looked like under Peterson’s direction or what Goldsman’s rewrite changed, Walker’s script is pretty solid. It’s definitely very comic-hooky, and it is definitely apparent that it was written by the guy who wrote Seven. Most of the plot is predicated by convenient reveals that require a certain suspension of disbelief. This would have definitely been Batman’s movie though, as he gets the greater arc, the majority of the solo-action scenes, and gets to defeat Superman. This is Batman in action as we’ve never seen him before, and his costume, gadgets, and Mission Impossible style stunts hew close to the comics of the time. Superman, while still retaining his farmboy charm and inherent goodness, is far more introspective and doubtful of himself than any of the previous films had portrayed him as being. At one point in the script, Walker reminds us that Superman can be inspiring but also look very scary at times. It’s very clear that Warner Bros., even in 2002, was interested in re-examining Superman’s place in our world. While there is a sense of Superman being haunted and lonely, the scenes between Clark and Lana in Smallville are beautifully charming and give the story a nice romantic retreat from all of the suffering and action.
On the subject of suffering, the film uses the Joker to great effect and he is closely inspired by Hamill’s take from Batman: The Animated Series. Lex Luthor’s motivations fall in line with the modern interpretations of the character, but there’s also something very Hannibal Lecter-esque about him. It’s easy to imagine that Walker was thinking of Spacey’s performance in Seven when he wrote this. The master plot of Luthor resurrecting and using the Joker makes sense, but Elizabeth working for Joker works less so because we’re never made aware of her motivations for manipulating Bruce. It’s clear Walker wanted to create a “what’s in the box?” moment in Batman vs Superman, and he almost pulls it off but not quite. It is a surprising twist, but it’s missing a bit of exposition. By the time Batman spares the Joker, the script has exhausted itself, so much so that the final fight against the power-suited Lex Luthor is absolutely unnecessary. It’s visually cool, but so much has already happened, and the central arc already concluded, that it feels like something best saved for a sequel, especially given the fact that the film decides to keep Luthor at large by the end. It’s impossible not to notice that Walker didn’t seem to know how to end the script. The “drinks” joke sounds like a placeholder and speaks to the problem with a lot of the film’s dialogue. In costume, much of Batman and Superman’s dialogue sounds really generic. “We were friends. Once.” Superman says before their final battle. Bruce replies that that was a “lifetime ago” even though the events of the film probably take course over a week at most. Of course, line delivery could have changed a lot of this, but there are times when Walker seems to lose some of the careful character consideration he put into Bruce and Clark when they are written as Batman and Superman.
So would the film have worked? In 2002, before the rise of Marvel Studios, there’s no doubt the film would have been a massive financial success if we’re just talking about Walker’s script and not the rewrite. Critical reception would have lived and died based on the casting and Peterson’s direction. But fan response would have been another thing. The film would have been released pre-social media age so we wouldn’t have had to suffer through years of constant nitpicks and speculations on that front. But upon release, I’d venture to say that fans would have been mostly pleased with the depiction of Batman and the villains. Christian Bale was the top pick for Batman, which of course he later fulfilled in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Superman on the other hand would have been met with complaints of not being enough of a formidable opponent, and for being too morose. Ultimately, he would have needed a very charismatic actor to pull him off well. Josh Hartnett had been approached for the role by Petersen, so take that as you will. There’s little doubt that the film’s greatest impact would have been on the legacy of the Batman franchise.
Batman vs Superman: Asylum is a testament to the fact that while a Batman and Superman movie seems like a no-brainer, it’s a difficult one to work out in terms of defining character arcs and coming up with a plot that efficiently makes both characters the star. Walker’s script may be crowded, a bit messy, and too dependent on its numerous reveals, but it is ceaselessly entertaining. Will Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice work better than a presumed Batman vs Superman: Asylum? We’ll find out this week!
Featured Image: Warner Bros.