It seems like every superhero under the sun is fair game for a big-budget adaptation these days. But that certainly wasn’t always the case. A lot of superhero movies for both Marvel and DC got developed with A-list actors and directors, only to fall apart when the studio lost confidence in the project. Can you imagine a Silver Surfer musical? Arnold Schwarzenneger as Doctor Ocotpus? Jack Black as the Green Lantern?! Here’s our list of 25 superhero movies that were under development and the stories behind them.
1. Dazzler (1980)
Marvel Comics and Casablanca Records began working on creating a new character together in 1977 after Marvel had success with a KISS comic book. The character was a disco singer who eventually was named Dazzler. She was created by a committee of Marvel writers and Casablanca immediately started asking for adjustments and concessions. They wanted her to be featured in the comics alongside the X-Men and Spider-Man. Artist John Romita, Sr.’s design originally was modeled off of Grace Jones but a partnership with film studio Filmworks led to a demand that she looked more like Bo Derek. Derek was in fact attached to the film for a while but also insisted her husband direct which no one else wanted. In the end, it was simply a case of too many cooks. The constant rewrites led to Derek eventually leaving and then Casablanca as well. Marvel tried to get other studios to fund their idea but no one was interested. Ultimately, her solo comic was released in 1981 and was actually the first comic ever released exclusively to comic book stores (no newsstands).
2. Silver Surfer: The Musical (1981)
Lee Kramer was the producer of the musical film Xanadu, starring his girlfriend Olivia Newton-John. He had a dream to create a musical based on Silver Surfer and Marvel was very interested. Kramer wanted the movie to co-star Newton-John and to have visuals like 2001: A Space Odyssey combined with contemporary rock music. Paul McCartney was approached and was interested. Ultimately, though, it was Kramer’s dream and no one else was invested enough in the idea so it drifted away.
3. Copperhead (1984)
Here’s the one superhero you’ve definitely never heard of, but it was at one point intended to be a Marvel character. Then the editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter had just seen the movie Dawn of the Dead and loved it. He approached writer/director George Romero with an idea. To simultaneously launch a new comic book and a movie called Copperhead. Copperhead was a cyborg and Philadelphia sheriff in the not-too-distant future. Romero liked the idea and decided to make Day of the Dead in part to show what he could do with a bigger budget and special effects. Unfortunately, that movie’s budget was actually reduced and the project fell apart.
4. Doctor Strange (1986)
In 1986, Marvel was purchased by B-Movie studio New World Pictures. They began trying to develop movie scripts for all sorts of heroes like Ant-Man, Blade, Deathlok, Sub-Mariner and Wolverine. None of these ever made it past the script stage. They wanted a supernatural comedy take on Doctor Strange and hired Bob Gale, fresh off of Back to the Future. His script was a pretty literal adaptation of the material that had some third act problems and production slowed down. Just three years later, New World Pictures sold Marvel to holding company MacAndrews & Forbes. They sold the rights to Regency Pictures and something started to come together for Warner Bros. to produce. Then they hired Repo Man writer Alex Cox and the character’s co-creator Stan Lee to rewrite the script. But then Warner Bros. got into an argument with Regency over merchandising rights and it died.
5. She-Hulk (1990)
She-Hulk was created when Marvel was afraid the producers of the Incredible Hulk TV show might create a similar character and rushed out a comic to make sure they had the rights to any such character. It was then attempted twice to be turned into a TV movie with zero success. In 1990, it was announced that there would be a live action movie based on the character by writer/director Larry Cohen. Cohen was at that point primarily a producer and director of B-movie exploitation fare. Ten months after the announcement of the movie, actress and model Brigitte Nielson was hired for a series of photographs where she portrayed She-Hulk. No word on why the movie never happened but with the talent involved, we probably all dodged a bullet.
6. Spider-Man (1991)
James Cameron was finishing up True Lies and wanted to make a Spider-Man movie. Carolco had the rights to the character and Cameron developed plans with Leonardo Dicaprio as Peter Parker and Arnold Schwarzenneger as Doctor Octopus. The movie had ideas including mutated people, an anti-capitalist message, steamy sex scenes and harsh language. Unfortunately, Carolco had a number of movies bomb and went bankrupt. The rights reverted to Marvel who was also fighting bankruptcy so they quickly sold the rights to Sony and the project went away.
7. Watchmen (1996)
Watchmen was critically acclaimed as soon as it was released in 1986. Superstar producer Joel Silver grabbed the rights immediately and wanted Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Time Bandits) to adapt it. Gilliam gave it two attempts: once in 1991 and again in 1996. Gilliam and Silver figured the film needed a $100 million budget but only secured $25 million because their recent films had gone overbudget. Gilliam left the project and claimed it was unfilmable. How much you enjoyed Zack Snyder’s adaptation in 2009 colors whether or not you agree with him.
8. Elektra: Assassin (1992)
Frank Miller’s comic was a satire of violence, the media and politics. Director Oliver Stone was attracted to a movie dealing with those themes. He supposedly wanted professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece to star as the titular character. Stone was putting things together when Marvel sold the rights to 20th Century Fox in a package deal with Daredevil and Bullseye. With the material yanked away from him, Stone simply made Natural Born Killers next, covering similar themes.
9. Batman Triumphant (1996)
Warner Bros. was very excited with the dailies for Joel Schumacher’s fourth Batman movie and hired him to direct a fifth. Writer Mark Protosevich (I Am Legend, Poseidon remake) was hired to write it. The story would have featured Batman, Robin and Batgirl battling Scarecrow. At one point, Batman hallucinates that he is fighting the Joker. Henchmen would have included Mad Hatter and Harley Quinn (in this version, the Joker’s angry daughter). Rumored names for the cast included Nicolas Cage, Steve Buscemi, Ewan McGregor, or Jeff Goldblum for the Scarecrow, Madonna as Harley Quinn, and Martin Short as the Mad Hatter. When Batman and Robin bombed critically and financially, the movie was scrapped before production began.
10. Superman Lives (1996)
The story of a Superman movie by Tim Burton is pretty well known these days, with a documentary about it on the way. It was set to star Nicholas Cage with rumors of Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen and Courtney Cox as Lois Lane. One script was written by Kevin Smith. Producer Jon Peters kept getting involved and demanding specific things like Superman fighting a polar bear, not flying because he was a character from the “street” and a massive spider as the ultimate monster. Lex Luthor and Brainiac were to merge into Lexiac. Superman would die early on in a fight with Doomsday and be reborn to save the day. It honestly sounded terrible and Burton never seemed too excited about it. The only reason it kept getting developed was Warner Bros. had at this point sunk tons of money into its development and Burton and Cage had “pay or play” deals meaning even if the project got canceled, they would be paid their full salary. Ultimately, Warner Bros. finally realized they had no good story idea and scrapped everything.
11. Sandman (1996)
Neil Gaiman’s popular comic book about the lord of dreams was selling very well and Hollywood was interested. Warner Bros. hired Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, then best known for writing Aladdin, to script the movie. It was to be directed by Roger Avery, who had co-written Tarantino’s films True Romance, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. It was a strong team but the studio thought they were getting a superhero movie and demanded it to be rewritten as such. Neither side could align on a vision and it fell apart.
12. Iron Man (1999)
20th Century Fox had the rights to Iron Man at the time and Tom Cruise was interested in playing the title character. They met with director Quentin Tarantino to make Iron Man. Tarantino has only ever adapted someone else’s story once, with Jackie Brown in 1997. It didn’t do as well as he hoped and he ultimately decided he didn’t want to do an adaptation of someone else’s work. After he walked away, Fox sold the rights back to Marvel within a couple weeks, probably figuring it was too tough of a story to crack.
13. Batman: Year One (2003)
Before Batman Begins, Warner Bros. was planning to reboot Batman and hired Darren Aronofsky to direct an adaptation of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s acclaimed Batman story Batman: Year One. Christian Bale was even being lined up to play Batman. Aranofsky wanted to add some of his own ideas which would have significantly changed the mythos. For instance, Bruce Wayne would not have been a billionaire and after his parents died, he was raised by an auto mechanic named Big Al. He slowly develops his gadgets like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. The film was developed for two long years when all of a sudden Warner Bros. decided they didn’t want to oversaturate the market with a superhero movie (hard to believe a decade later). But they instantly began development on another superhero idea…
14. Superman Vs. Batman (2003)
Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) wrote the first draft and Warner Bros. hired Wolfgang Peterson (Neverending Story, Air Force One, Troy) to direct. They also added Akiva Goldsman to work on the story. Christian Bale was set to be Batman and Josh Hartnett would be Superman. It would have featured a Batman who retired after Alfred, Robin and Commissioner Gordon were all dead and Clark Kent/Superman was recently divorced from Lois Lane. Clark is the best man at Bruce’s wedding but Joker kills his wife during the honeymoon. Clark goes to Smallville and romances Lana Lang while Batman returns to the streets. He ultimately blames Superman for his wife’s death and they fight but then learn Lex Luthor set everything in motion and team up to take him down. Warner Bros. couldn’t decide if it was quite what they wanted and held off while a Superman movie by J.J. Abrams was written.
15. Fantastic Four (2003)
In 2003, 20th Century Fox had just had big hits with their first two X-Men movies and the next superhero property they wanted to develop was Fantastic Four. They hired Peyton Reed to write and direct, fresh off his hit Down with Love. I don’t know what the studio expected but he delivered a script very much in line with that movie. It would be a period piece set in the 60s and skip past the origin to the family of superheroes as celebrities. Fox hated the idea and scrapped it in favor of a more literal but updated adaptation. Peyton Reed later ended up working on a Marvel movie: this summer’s Ant-Man.
16. Superman: Flyby (2004)
From 2002 to 2004, J.J. Abrams developed a Superman movie that would see him live, die, and be reborn battling evil Kryptonians. Lost had only just started and he was years away from directing Mission: Impossible 3 and Star Trek. Like many Warner Bros. movies, the studio executives just could not decide on the direction they wanted for such a prominent character. Abrams only wrote the screenplay and directors like McG and Brett Ratner were looked at to direct. Screen testing actors (which included future Man of Steel stars Henry Cavill and Amy Adams) were not met with enthusiasm by the studio. Ultimately, Bryan Singer stepped in with his Superman Returns pitch and fresh off the X-Men and X2 hits, Warner Bros. rushed his version into development instead. To be fair to Warner Bros., the script had some strange ideas like Krypton having never exploded and Jonathan Kent having a heart attack when he learns that Clark is Superman, as well as Lex Luthor being a sleeper Kryptonian agent.
17. Green Lantern (2004)
The original idea for Green Lantern was to be a grossout comedy starring Jack Black. Comedy writer Robert Smigel wrote the story, which followed a guy named Jud Plato who stars in a show called “The Dare Diner” who would perform dares. When alien Abin Sur dies, the power ring chooses him. He does stuff like creates a giant condom to trap some bank robbers and creates a green elf for his friend to have sex with. At the time, the movie was with New Line Cinema who had tons of money from the successful Lord of the Rings movies so they developed all sorts of stuff. But fortunately, they decided this wasn’t the right way to go with the character.
18. Wonder Woman (2005)
Warner Bros. had a great idea and hired Joss Whedon to write a Wonder Woman movie and potentially direct. Well known for his strong female characters and love of comic books, as well as dealing with the underperforming movie based on his late show Firefly, Whedon took the job. He also later said he planned to hire Cobie Smulders to play Wonder Woman (he ultimately cast her as Maria Hill in The Avengers). Then Warner Bros. could not decide whether to pull the trigger. It’s never been fully explained what happened while the movie was in development for two long years, but Whedon said his vision and the studio’s never lined up. He said he wanted to do a movie where Wonder Woman recoiled from a society plagued with atrocities but ultimately lunged into the fray to stop great evils.
19. Justice League: Mortal (2007)
At the same time that Batman Begins was being made, DC hired Mad Max director George Miller to make a Justice League movie with a Batman of its own. He had a $220 million budget and a full cast signed up: Armie Hammer as Batman, D.J. Cotrona as Superman, Megan Gale as Wonder Woman, Adam Brody as Flash, Common as Green Lantern, Santiago Cabrera as Aquaman, Teresa Palmer as Talia al Ghul, Zoe Kazan as Iris Allen, Hugh Keays-Byrne as Martian Manhunter and Jay Baruchel as Max Lord. The cast met for table reads and some fitness/fight training. The story involved Max Lord getting a hold of Batman’s secret files on how to take down the Justice League if any of them ever became a threat. Then the Writers Guild of America strike happened. This delayed filming a bit because the script wasn’t quite finalized. When the strike ended, Australia (where the movie would be filmed) reneged on promised tax credits, which would inflate the budget. Thought was given to moving production to Canada but by then Batman Begins had come out and was a huge hit. Warner Bros. got cold feet at the idea of a second Batman on film concurrently and scrapped it. A documentary is currently being made about the behind-the-scenes story.
20. X-Men Origins: Magneto (2007)
Writer David Goyer (the Blade trilogy and the Nolan-directed Batman trilogy) and Up in the Air writer Sheldon Turner had a movie about Magneto’s early years. It was to be set during the Cold War and have featured Magneto meeting a young Charles Xavier. The goal was a 2009 release. Then two things happened: delays from the writers’ strike and X-Men Origins: Wolverine underperformed. Instead, big chunks of the story were included in the also in-development X-Men: First Class movie set in the 1960s and the X-Men Origins series of films was canceled.
21. Spider-Man 4 (2007)
Sam Raimi was set to direct another Spider-Man movie with both Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst returning. There were plans to have multiple villains, possibly a version of the Sinister Six. Anne Hathaway was lined up to play Black Cat (she later played Catwoman in Dark Knight Rises), John Malkovic was signed as Vulture, and Dylan Baker was set to return as Dr. Connors/The Lizard. There were rumors of Morbius, the Living Vampire being in it as well. If it all sounds too busy, that’s what director Sam Raimi thought, too. The goal was to get the film out in 2011 but there had been four rounds of scripts and Raimi wasn’t happy with any of them. Sony needed to get a new film out to keep their rights to the Marvel character so the project was scrapped in favor of a quick reboot.
22. Doctor Strange (2007)
Writer Neil Gaiman became friendly with Marvel in 2007, writing The Eternals and 1602. He also went to visit director Guillermo del Toro while he was filming Hellboy 2. Del Toro was excited to learn that Gaiman was writing a Doctor Strange movie script for Marvel and said he wanted to direct. It all fell apart when del Toro overbooked himself. He agreed to direct The Hobbit (which he later backed out of) and had to drop Doctor Strange. That left the movie in limbo and Marvel had a massive hit with Iron Man the following year, changing their plans on which characters to film first.
23. Green Arrow: Escape from Super Max (2008)
From 2004 to 2008, David Goyer worked hard to make a Green Arrow movie along with co-writer Justin Marks. Points for creativity, the movie would have skipped his origin and dealt instead with the archer locked up in a special prison full of supervillains. It would have involved Green Arrow needing to team up with several of them in a heist-style movie to break out to clear his good name. No word on why it fell apart but maybe it’s a reverse situation of what normally happens – it worked on TV at the time. He was a regular on Smallville and as soon as that ended, he was rebooted on his own popular CW show, Arrow. There’s a good chance Warner Bros. rightly assumes there’s only so much mainstream appetite for a second tier character.
24. Plastic Man (2008)
In the mid-90s, the Wachowski siblings (later to write and direct the Matrix movies) wrote a script for Plastic Man. Bryan Spicer, a TV director, was set to direct. The comics are goofy fun most of the time. It’s about Patrick O’Brien, a low level crook who gets shot and some chemicals get into his wound that give him the ability to shapeshift his body like putty and decides to be a hero. It’s very slapsticky. The Wachowskis had Patrick O’Brien renamed Daniel O’Brien, an environmental fanatic who gains his powers after an evil industrialist uses him as an unwilling test subject. The industrialist wanted to use the powers to make himself handsome and the film was going to have some social commentary about plastic surgery and environmentalism. As recently as 2008, the Wachowskis have said they’d like to make this movie. Warner Bros. was never too into the idea.
25. Hawkman (2011)
In 2011, Warner Bros. announced they planned to make a Hawkman movie, hiring Adrian Askarieh, Gregory Noveck, and Will Hackner to write and produce. The film was described as part Indiana Jones, part Da Vinci Code, and part Ghost. And then… nothing. Not a peep. Seems likely Warner Bros. gave up but no word on whether it was the script, an overall direction for the studio, or they couldn’t line up the right cast and crew. Maybe the underwhelming version shown on Smallville hurt its chances. Bottom line, no Hawkman.