We're getting closer to seeing Batman v. Superman, the long-awaited smackdown between the Dark Knight and the Man of Steel. But if things had turned out differently, we could have seen Batman fight Superman back in 2004. Here's everything we know about Batman vs. Superman: Asylum, and how it would have been different than Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Minor spoilers and speculation for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ahead...
What was Batman vs. Superman about?
Batman vs Superman was pitched by Andrew Kevin Walker, the writer of Se7en, who wrote an ultra-dark screenplay about the two heroes clashing. According to the book Superman vs. Hollywood by Jake Rossen, the studio apparently thought this version was too dark, so they hired Akiva Goldsman (the writer of A Beautiful Mind who also wrote Batman Forever and Batman and Robin) to do a rewrite. Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, The Perfect Storm) was all set to direct.
A draft of Batman vs. Superman, as rewritten by Goldsman, has been floating around the internet for years, and is easy enough to find. Plus a few dozen books have included detailed summaries of the plot at this point. And there are some pretty severe problems with the storyline.
In Batman vs. Superman: Asylum, Batman and Superman are best friends, but they're both having a bit of a midlife crisis. Batman has been retired for five years, after the deaths of Dick Grayson, Jim Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth. (Batman has programmed a holographic Alfred, who acts almost like the real butler.) The Joker is also presumed dead, after he fell to his death at the end of Tim Burton's Batman. We learn early on that Bruce quit being Batman because he feared that he would start killing his enemies and going after revenge instead of justice.
Meanwhile, Lois Lane is divorcing Clark Kent (because "Truth, Justice and the American Way" don't leave much time for relationships.) Clark spends lots of time moping around Smallville and rekindling his high school romance with Lana Lang, who's a doctor now. Clark talks a fair bit about how he's an alien and he's wasted his time on this small planet full of petty humans, which seems kind of out of character.
The action starts when Bruce Wayne marries a beautiful, brilliant woman, Elizabeth Miller (with Clark as Bruce's best man). And then she's murdered on their honeymoon by the Joker (who's been brought back to life by Lex Luthor, using DNA and stuff.) To make matters worse, it turns out that a terrorist that Superman stopped an angry mob from murdering was actually the Joker, so it's Superman's fault for saving the Joker's life. Batman wants to kill the Joker once and for all, but Superman won't let Batman become a murderer.
So the two heroes fight, even though they both kind of know that they have been manipulated into fighting by Lex Luthor. That's the weirdest thing about the confrontation between Batman and Superman in Batman vs. Superman: Asylum: They both know that their fight is pointless, and they even say so before they start fighting. But Batman still tries to murder Superman with kryptonite, and comes incredibly close to succeeding.
In the end, Batman confronts the Joker -- who reveals that Batman's wife was actually the Joker's creation, all along. Once Lex Luthor had told the resurrected Joker that Bruce Wayne was Batman, the Joker knew how to create the perfect woman for Bruce to fall in love with. The proof? The ring she gave Bruce has the Joker's face engraved all over the inside of the band. Batman's supposed to be the great detective, the Joker gloats -- but he totally missed this obvious thing.
And then Superman miraculously survives Batman's murder attempt, and helps Batman take down the Joker and Luthor.
The best bit is when Luthor escapes from prison by murdering his lawyer. And then he uses his fingernails -- his fingernails! -- to perform impromptu brain surgery on two prison guards at once, removing their free will and turning them into his zombie slaves. Let me just repeat that: Lex Luthor uses his fingernails to do brain surgery on two people simultaneously.
Of course, the script that's floating around on the internet may be fake, and all the plot summaries and details in various books may be inaccurate. Plus the script was probably still being reworked when the film was shelved, and it's never fair to judge a film from a script draft, because it's just a work in progress. We can't know how this film would actually have turned out, full stop.
But the notion that Batman and Superman are manipulated into fighting because Batman wants to kill the Joker and Superman won't let him feels a bit cheap. And the fact that both heroes admit that they're being manipulated into fighting, but they do it anyway, is kind of bonkers.
What went wrong?
The best account of the rise and fall of Batman vs. Superman: Asylum comes from David Hughes' indispensible book Tales From Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made. And luckily, Hughes' chapter on this film (along with Darren Aronofsky's Batman: Year One and JJ Abrams' Superman: Flyby script) is actually online, as an excerpt at Movieline.
So Petersen was all set to film Batman vs. Superman in 2003, for a 2004 release. There was already tons of casting speculation flying around, with Christian Bale being rumoured for Batman and Jude Law for Superman. (Matt Damon was also in the running for either role.) Petersen gave various interviews, where he talked about how the clash between Batman and Superman was perfect for the post-September 11 world: "Superman represents sort of everything clear and bright and noble. He represents our hopes and ideals. Batman, on the other hand, represents the dark and obsessive and vengeful side."
And then, all of a sudden, Warner Bros. seemed to change its mind about Batman vs. Superman. Studio President Alan Horn was apparently convinced it was better to relaunch both heroes separately, with Abrams' Superman script and some version of Aronofsky's Batman origin story.
Warner Bros. VP Lorenzo di Bonaventura was still a staunch supporter of Batman vs. Superman, and argued that they could do the team-up movie first and then release Superman: Flyby. But J.J. Abrams, in one meeting, reportedly told di Bonaventura that "You can't do that," because it would be akin to releasing When Harry Divorced Sally followed by When Harry Met Sally.
In the end, according to Hughes' book, the fate of Batman vs. Superman apparently came down to Alan Horn versus Lorenzo di Bonaventura -- and after BvS was killed, di Bonaventura left the studio a few days later.
There was a general sense that Warner Bros. could make more money (on toys, sequels, etc.) by launching two separate Batman and Superman franchises. But also that the Batman vs. Superman concept was flawed. As David S. Goyer, co-writer of Batman Begins, told the L.A. Times in 2005:
"Batman vs. Superman is where you go when you admit to yourself that you've exhausted all possibilities... It's like Frankenstein Meets Wolfman, or Freddy vs. Jason. It's somewhat of an admission that the franchise is on its last gasp."
Goyer, of course, went on to be one of the writers of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Batman vs. Superman vs. Batman v. Superman
So based on what we know about Batman v. Superman, how does it approach the clash between the two heroes differently than the 2004 film would have?
There are a ton of major differences, starting with the fact that Batman and Superman aren't old friends at the start of Batman v. Superman -- in fact, they have apparently never met, and know nothing about each other. (We see Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent meeting for the first time, in the trailers.)
And their reason for fighting is totally different, too. In Batman vs. Superman, they're only fighting because Superman gets in the way of Batman's bloody vengeance against the Joker. But in Batman v. Superman, Batman actually has it in for Superman directly because he believes Superman is too powerful, and too alien, to be trusted. And Batman's distrust of Superman has a concrete motivation: the wholesale destruction in Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel, which apparently claimed someone Bruce cares about. Of course, in both movies, Lex Luthor is behind the whole thing.
Another major difference is the fact that Batman v. Superman sticks to one major villain -- Luthor -- with Doomsday looking like an additional, stakes-raising baddie. The Batman vs. Superman storyline relies on both the Joker and Lex Luthor, with both arch-villains needing to get major screen time.
And the other huge difference is that Batman v. Superman is clearly aimed at jumpstarting a whole DC Comics movie universe, with lots of potential to follow Ben Affleck's Batman and his supporting cast alongside Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League. By contrast, it's hard to imagine just how Batman vs. Superman, back in 2004, could have led to much of anything, since it features a washed-up Batman, and a somewhat burned-out Superman as well.
So the idea of Batman going up against Superman, on the big screen, has been around for nearly 15 years. But the biggest challenge in this concept has always been finding a reason for Batman and Superman to fight that actually makes some sense. How you answer that question depends on how you see both of those heroes: The 2004 movie answers it by turning Batman into a vengeful killer, who can only keep from murdering people by hanging up his cowl, and Superman into Batman's conscience. By contrast, the new film plays on the fact that Superman actually did murder General Zod, and he inadvertently trashed a huge chunk of his own city.
Neither of these reasons for their clash seems quite as compelling, on the face of it, as the setup in The Dark Knight Returns, where Superman is kind of a government stooge and Batman is kind of off the rails. (That way, both of these men are a little compromised.) But then, part of the problem is that a movie can't automatically draw on the long history these characters have in the comics -- any movie that pits Batman against Superman has to start fresh, introducing both heroes and then putting them in the ring.
But the bottom line is, you were probably never going to get a Batman/Superman grudge match on the big screen, without one or the other of those heroes being slightly tarnished in the process first.
All images are from Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.