There are many stories in Hollywood of potentially great superhero movies that never got made, and now we have yet another one to add to that list. Gremlins director Joe Dante, as it turns out, had been approached prior to Tim Burton to direct a Batman movie for Warner Bros. Not only that, but he revealed that he had plans to make John Lithgow The Joker in what would have been his version.
Joe Dante recently talked a bit about the project in an interview with Psychotronic Cinema. The screenplay for this Batman movie that never was would have been based on a screenplay written by Tom Mankiewicz, who wrote the Roger Moore Bond movie Live and Let Die. In terms of tone, the movie would have been darker than the 1960s Batman TV series, but not as gritty as the Christopher Nolan movies. Here is what the director had to say about it.
"It started with his parents being killed, and it was a revenge story. But it was very outlandish, had a lot of giant props in it. The Joker was a major character in it. I wanted to hire John Lithgow for that part because I had met him on The Twilight Zone movie. And for whatever reason, I started to gravitate more towards The Joker than towards Batman. And I actually woke up one night and I said to myself, "I can't do this movie-I'm more interested in The Joker than I am in Batman, and that's not the way it should be." So I went and told them that I couldn't do it, and they looked at me like I'd completely lost my mind."
It is not at all surprising that we would have seen Bruce Wayne's parents get killed, as we are constantly reminded of this in pretty much every version of Batman that is brought to any medium. It is interesting that Joe Dante explains that his reasoning for not wanting to do the movie had to do with his fixation on the character of The Joker. In both Tim Burton's Batman and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, The Joker very nearly overshadows the title character, especially in the case of The Dark Knight, which featured Heath Ledger's unforgettable performance. Not to mention that John Lithgow is one of the finest character actors we have, so the idea of him taking on that role in his prime is no doubt something many of us would love to see, were we able to take a trip to the alternate universe that movie exists in. The director did say in the interview that he ultimately doesn't regret passing on the opportunity.
"I don't regret not doing Batman, in the sense that I'm not sure what it would have ended up being like. But I certainly can't say it was a major career-booster, my decision not to make it."
In the end, it was Tim Burton who wound up making Batman and Jack Nicholson who wound up playing The Joker. By pretty much all accounts, that turned out to be a very good way to go with it. The movie went on to gross $411 million on a $35 million budget back in 1989. Even unadjusted for inflation, that is very impressive. Not only that, but the movie spawned a sequel from Burton, Batman Returns, and two Joel Schumacher movies, Batman Returns and the much-maligned Batman & Robin, that took place in the same continuity.
The failure of the latter is what eventually led to Christopher Nolan's dramatically different take with Batman Begins. While most of us wouldn't want to alter the path that brought us The Dark Knight trilogy, there is no doubt Joe Dante's Batman would have been interesting. But much like the Nicolas Cage movie Superman Lives or George Miller's Justice League, this is something we will simply have to wonder about.