Comic book movies that almost happened

You can't hit up the theater without running into a comic book movie these days, but despite the glut, there are still plenty of superhero movies that never actually made it to the silver screen.

From heavy hitters to would-be crossovers and even some long-lost projects from the likes of Joss Whedon and Terry Gilliam, the road to comic book overload is littered with some flicks we'd love to have seen (and a few we're glad never made it out of development hell). Here's our full rundown of the comic book movies that almost happened.

Batman Unchained/Triumphant

Fresh off Batman and Robin, director Joel Schumacher was already planning out his next Dark Knight flick for the late '90s. The project would have reportedly brought George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell back as Batman and Robin, and potentially introduced Nicolas Cage as the Scarecrow. It would've also featured Harley Quinn as a secondary villain, with Courtney Love and Madonna rumored to be on the short list. Schumacher also planned to bring back villains from across the Batman pantheon, with hopes to feature everyone from Tommy Lee Jones' Two-Face to (believe it or not) Jack Nicholson's Joker. But the project never made it out of the scripting phase. With Batman and Robin getting eviscerated by critics and dismissed by fans, Warner Bros. decided to shelve the director's campy take on the Dark Knight and eventually retool the franchise under Christopher Nolan with Batman Begins.

Justice League: Mortal

Before Zack Snyder took the reins of the DC universe, George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road) almost got his own shot at a flagship Justice League film. In fact, it was almost ready to shoot, but the 2007-'08 writer's strike derailed production, and the project never recovered. The film would have starred a who's who of up-and-comers for the mid-2000s: D.J. Cotrona was Superman, Armie Hammer was Batman, Megan Gale was Wonder Woman, Adam Brody was the Flash, Common was Green Lantern, Santiago Cabrera was Aquaman, and Hugh Keays-Byrne was Martian Manhunter. Considering what we've since seen from Miller with Fury Road, it's fascinating to think what he might have been able to do with a big budget and full access to the DC canon. Warner Bros. could have beaten Marvel to the big team-up film by years, and reshaped the entire landscape of superhero filmmaking.

Batman: Year One

Director Darren Aronofsky teamed up with comic legend Frank Miller to adapt the origin story Batman: Year One a few years before Christopher Nolan would pick up the broken pieces of the Bat-franchise and create his Dark Knight trilogy. Aronofsky was pitching a hard-R adaptation of Batman, which would have been a film squarely aimed at an adult audience. At the time, fresh off the cheese-tastic Joel Schumacher run, the studio wasn't quite ready to ditch the comfy confines of a PG-13 rating (and all the extra ticket money it brings). The project was described as being so dark it would have made Tim Burton's semi-grounded Batman film look like a cartoon, following Batman's bloodied knuckles as he beats his way through the corruption of Gotham City. We would've also seen the evolution of the Batman costume, starting with a simple hockey mask and a blacked-out Lincoln Continental serving as the 1.0 version of the Batmobile.

Joss Whedon's Wonder Woman

Before Marvel scooped him up to make The Avengers, Joss Whedon signed on with Warner Bros. to make a Wonder Woman film in the mid-2000s. Whedon put a script together, but the studio eventually backed off the idea and shelved the project. No one was ever cast, but Whedon reportedly liked Cobie Smulders (How I Met Your Mother) for the role. Smulders would go on to play Maria Hill in Whedon's The Avengers, so he was obviously a fan. Whedon was reportedly high on the concept, which is no surprise, considering his girl power reputation dating back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Plus, Wonder Woman is one of his favorite heroes. As DC struggles to find creative footing for its own film universe, it's fascinating to think that Whedon—the architect of Marvel's most ambitious movie, and the one that pushed the studio into the stratosphere—almost ended up at DC.

Terry Gilliam's Watchmen

A decade before Zack Snyder brought Alan Moore's Watchmen to life, Terry Gilliam almost took his own crack at the ambitious graphic novel. As interesting as it would've been to see Gilliam tackle this story with 1990s effects, his proposed ending is the real kicker. Gilliam had planned to fundamentally change the final act, and have Ozymandias convince Doctor Manhattan to go back in time and prevent himself from being turned into a godlike being. By doing that, the big twist would be that the entire Watchmen story literally becomes a comic book instead. It's a WTF-y ending, no doubt, but it certainly fits with Gilliam's style. Sadly, the project floundered in development hell and never happened.

Superman Lives!

In the early-to-mid-'90s, Warner Bros. tapped Kevin Smith to write a Superman movie, which almost starred Nicolas Cage in the title role—to the point that behind-the-scenes footage of costume tests with the actor actually exist to this day. The story would've featured Brainiac sending Doomsday to block out the sun and kill Superman. The script was apparently pretty good, and Tim Burton was ready to direct—but he ordered a rewrite of Smith's script, that version was deemed too expensive, and another rewrite was ordered. The studio still wasn't happy at this point, and finally Burton got frustrated enough to walk away from the project, shelving the Superman franchise for several more years.

Batman Beyond

The years before Christopher Nolan started his Dark Knight trilogy were a tough time for the Batman franchise, and the studio considered some outside-the-box options to get the character back on track. One of the coolest ideas? A live-action adaptation of the future-set animated series Batman Beyond described as a slightly darker, but comfortably PG-13 type of film in the same vein as Sam Raimi's Spider-Man—just with a cyberpunk vibe. The animated series finds old man Bruce Wayne mentoring the new, teenage Batman Terry McGinnis. Behind-the-scenes buzz indicates the script was pretty great, but Warner Bros. was iffy on actually greenlighting a Batman movie that didn't feature Bruce Wayne in the title role. Had it happened, there's every chance it could've reshaped the entire landscape of Batman filmography. Instead, it's a footnote in history.

Plastic Man

Years before they would break big with The Matrix, the Wachowskis were hired to put together a script for a Plastic Man film in the late '90s. The concept tossed pretty much everything about the character from the comics, and instead told a gritty revenge story about a man looking for vengeance on the evil corporation that experimented on him. Those who've read the script say it was more in line with Sam Raimi's Darkman than anything Plastic Man fans might recognize. The project languished for years, until the Wachowskis picked it up around 2008—fresh off the success of their Matrix run—and tried to cast Keanu Reeves in the title role. Thankfully, the project stalled (again) at that point, and the Wachowskis' grim, dark Plastic Man never made it off the ground.

Green Arrow: Escape From Super Max

The Green Arrow helped launch a full-fledged superhero universe on the CW, but he almost journeyed to the big screen a few years earlier. The project started as a script from David S. Goyer (Man of Steel) and Justin Marks (The Jungle Book) in 2008, and would have followed the Green Arrow as he's framed for killing a government official and tossed into a supermax prison with a lot of the DC Comics baddies he spent his career putting behind bars. This was a few years before the comic book genre became the biggest thing on the planet, so despite positive buzz about the script, Warner Bros. didn't want to take a chance on a movie about a mid-tier hero and a bunch of villains. Since we're now living in a post-Suicide Squad world, you have to wonder if this one might actually have a chance of escaping development hell at some point. DC seems desperate to make good superhero movies, and this one certainly sounds like it could be great.

Joe Carnahan's Daredevil

In the eleventh hour before Marvel Studios reacquired the rights to Daredevil, director Joe Carnahan (Smokin' Aces, The Grey) tried his hardest to get a 1970s-set Daredevil concept off the ground. Carnahan planned on having Daredevil patrol the neon-soaked streets of a New York City that has long since disappeared—he even put together a sizzle reel to show off the vibe he was aiming for, and yeah, it's pretty great. Carnahan had high hopes for his spin on the character, initially pitching a trilogy that would have tracked the late '70s and early '80s. We wouldn't trade Netflix's excellent Daredevil series for this period-set roll of the dice, but Carnahan really did come close.

Superman: Flyby

Before he was a geek god creating Lost and directing everything from Star Wars to Star Trek, J.J. Abrams was a struggling scriptwriter trying to break out with a major property. He put together the script for this would-be Superman movie, which would've found the Man of Steel facing off against the new Kryptonian baddie Ty-Zor (oh, and in this story, Krypton never blew up). The script was positively eviscerated by Ain't It Cool News in 2002, and rumor has it that negative buzz actually derailed the project, eventually making way for Bryan Singer's Superman Returns. Interestingly enough, Abrams' pitch did end up having some thematic similarities to Man of Steel. For one, he wanted to examine the psychological effect of growing up with enormous power, all while being taught to hide it from everyone. Zack Snyder's film mined a lot of that territory, but it was Abrams' script that tapped it first.

James Cameron's Spider-Man

Well before Sam Raimi made his seminal Spider-Man, essentially kickstarting the modern comic book movie genre, James Cameron tried to take his own shot at the wall-crawler. Cameron pitched a story that would've made some changes from the comics canon, following a new version of the Spider-Man origin and pitting him against some very different takes on classic comic baddies Electro and Sandman. Cameron's take on the character would've bordered on R-rated, featuring a Peter Parker who drops F-bombs and has a sex scene with Mary Jane on the Brooklyn Bridge. That's certainly… different. Let's just be glad this one stayed on the bench until Raimi stepped in.

(The Original) Batman vs. Superman

Batman and Superman have finally met on the big screen, but that super-crossover was supposed to happen a lot sooner. Warner Bros. tried to mount the first Batman vs. Superman in the early 2000s, with eventual Batman Begins star Christian Bale on the short list to play Bruce Wayne, and Josh Hartnett sought for Superman. The plot would've featured an older Batman who's pals with Superman, but all hell breaks loose when Batman's wife is killed, and he comes to believe Superman was behind it (thanks to Lex Luthor's machinations). The project was eventually axed when Christopher Nolan started developing his Batman trilogy.

Spider-Man 4

Spider-Man 3 underwhelmed, but director Sam Raimi was ready to roll with a fourth film in his successful series starring Tobey Maguire. A script came together for a fourth film, and there were rumors the studio was already planning out a whole new trilogy of Spider-sequels to keep the train rolling. Raimi reportedly wanted the Lizard, Electro and Vulture as villains; Anne Hathaway was also rumored to play Felicia Hardy, a.k.a. the Black Cat.

So what happened? Apparently, the studio wanted the film turned over on a very tight timetable, and after how rushed Spider-Man 3 felt, Raimi didn't want to barrel through another sequel without taking his time. So the studio axed the franchise altogether, rebooting it with Amazing Spider-Man (which lasted just two films, and was axed to make way for Spidey to eventually join up with the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War). As much as we'd liked to have seen Raimi's fourth Spider-Man, it probably worked out for the best in the end. Now let's just hope Spider-Man: Homecoming is up to snuff.

Green Lantern

Probably the most untraditional interpretation of a superhero to ever be perverted from the pages of a comic, Robert Smigel's version of Green Lantern would have starred Jack Black in a raunchy twist on the hero. A regular jackass who could suddenly imagine anything into being, Smigel's Lantern would have been a nightmare; as he told Vanity Fairhe envisioned a final act in which the hero would find himself outmatched and simply conjure up a Superman with his ring to solve the problem.

"You've run out of abilities, so you conjure up the best superhero that exists and let him solve the problem. Then the whole sequel could just be him sitting around watching the green Superman do everything," chuckled Smigel. "The laziest Green Lantern in history."

Initially reluctant, Black agreed to star after reading the script, but at that point, it was the studio that got cold feet about the concept of a comedic Green Lantern movie—and ultimately ended up going in the direction that gave us a CGI-suited Ryan Reynolds as the hero. Let's call this one a wash.