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Batman Unchained: The Full Story Of Joel Schumacher's Shelved Third Batman Film

The year 1997 was an eventful one for humanity. Skynet showed how it was preparing to take over the world as IBM's computer beat chess champion Garry Kasparov. Sugar Ray released the funkier-than-blue suede shoes single "Fly." And Warner Bros. nearly killed the entire "Batman" film franchise with the release of the Joel Schumacher-directed "Batman & Robin."

The latter became one of the most talked-about events in the fandom and film industry, as it took eight years before the Dark Knight returned to the big screen in Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins." Actor George Clooney went on a decades-long apology tour for his part in this frosty sequel, while everyone involved in the production looks at it as the cinematic equivalent of a bad gas station hot dog. Yet here's the shocker: Despite all signs pointing toward it not being very good during production, Warner Bros. had already greenlit another Schumacher-helmed sequel. Amazingly, considering the toy manufacturer's heavy involvement in the franchise at that point, it wasn't called "Planes, Trains, and Batmobiles." Instead, it had the working title of "Batman Unchained."

Even more surprising, Schumacher's third film about the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder actually sounded like an intriguing project that would have wrapped up the entire franchise — including Tim Burton's earlier movies. With that said, let's take a look back at what could have been and the history behind the unmade "Batman Unchained."

Warner Bros. greenlit the movie during Batman & Robin's production

Studio executives have long been accused of being disconnected from their consumers and not listening to the audience. "Batman & Robin" adds credence to this sentiment. Joel Schumacher's "Batman Forever" made a lot of money at the global box office — $336.6 million to be exact. However, it wasn't as beloved as Tim Burton's films before it. The film holds a 39% critical approval rating and 32% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, with one of the biggest criticisms being how it turned the franchise into cinematic candy floss — it was too bright, too sweet, and too disposable.

Warner Bros. learned the wrong lesson from this and decided to double down for "Batman & Robin." The sequel is even louder and more manic than its predecessor. As the dailies rolled in, the execs must have made snow angels in their own winter wonderlands in their offices, especially since the studio greenlit the next movie seven weeks into the production. It isn't unheard of, but it showed major confidence in what they had seen up to that point.

Speaking to Starlog, it was clear Schumacher had his reservations at the time. "My feeling is, don't count your sequels before they hatch," he said. "I've got to see if audiences like 'Batman & Robin.'"

Mark Protosevich was hired to write Batman Unchained

Akiva Goldsman built a powerhouse collaborative relationship with Joel Schumacher in the mid-1990s. In the space of three years, Goldsman had screenwriting credits on four of Schumacher's blockbusters: "The Client," "Batman Forever," "A Time to Kill," and "Batman & Robin." Naturally, many expected him to return for the next Dark Knight movie in the series, especially with Schumacher's attachment as well, but Goldsman declined the opportunity.

In 1997, Variety revealed that Mark Protosevich had signed the deal to write the screenplay for "Batman Unchained." At the time, he was relatively unknown compared to Goldsman, so the film could have been his big breakthrough in the industry. While his first draft for the movie didn't lead anywhere, Protosevich did go on to pen 2000's "The Cell," 2007's "I Am Legend," and 2013's "Oldboy," and he even contributed the story for 2011's "Thor" and was collaborating with Steven Spielberg on the unmade "Jurassic Park 4."

Schumacher worked closely with Protosevich while he was still busy on "Batman & Robin" to establish the story for what would have been the fifth entry in the franchise.

Nicolas Cage was eyed to play the Scarecrow

Nicolas Cage is so good at acting that he's even been paid to play himself on screen. The greatest tragedy, though, is that Dark Knight fans haven't been Caged nor afforded the opportunity to see this generational thespian strutting his stuff in Gotham City. The actor is a noted comic book enthusiast himself and likely would have jumped at the opportunity. Luckily, Joel Schumacher harbored plans to include Cage in the next installment of his Batverse.

"I was set to do another Batman," Schumacher told Vice. "I even met with Nick Cage on the set of 'Face/Off' because I was going to have him play the Scarecrow." While this match made in heaven never came to fruition, Schumacher did get to work with Cage on his 1999 crime thriller "8mm," then again on 2011's "Trespass."

What's particularly interesting about this casting is it more or less aligns with the timeline for the infamous "Superman Lives" project, which would have seen Tim Burton direct and Cage star as the Man of Steel. In theory, audiences could have seen the celebrated actor portray two iconic DC characters in the space of a few years. It would have been Cage's DC Universe and we would all just be living in it.

Coolio claimed he had been promised the part of Scarecrow

While Joel Schumacher said he envisioned Nicolas Cage in the role of Jonathan Crane, Coolio suggested otherwise. The late rapper has a small cameo in "Batman & Robin" during the bike race scene featuring Alicia Silverstone's Batgirl and Chris O'Donnell's Robin, with the credits for the film listing him only as "Banker."

However, Coolio claimed he only accepted that bit part because it would have led to something bigger. In an interview with the Burleson Star, he said the next film would have seen him portray the Scarecrow, but the chance to play the master of fear went away because of the film's cancellation. Coolio also claimed that he had a fractured relationship with Schumacher.

While the musician's claim hasn't been officially corroborated by the studio, it does sound plausible. Work had commenced on "Batman Unchained" during the production of "Batman & Robin," and the Scarecrow had been established as one of the main villains in the script. Also, it wasn't unusual for studios to cast musicians in high-profile roles in the 1990s, as they tried to capitalize on popular figures drawing in a wider audience for their products. Coolio was on top of the world with his 1995 smash-hit single "Gangsta's Paradise" and went on to have a steady film career afterward as well, even if he never portrayed Scarecrow.

Harley Quinn would have been introduced as the Joker's daughter

Harley Quinn debuted as the Joker's madcap sidekick and love interest in "Batman: The Animated Series" in 1992. While she became a fan-favorite character in the show, she was nowhere near the level of popularity that she is now. That didn't stop her from being considered for the live-action films, though.

Rather than trust the source material and the character's origin story, "Batman Unchained" planned to introduce a much different Clown Princess of Crime, according to what screenwriter Mark Protosevich told The Hollywood Reporter. This version of the villain would have been a toymaker instead of a psychiatrist and be revealed to be the Joker's daughter. Determined to get revenge for the death of her father, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), in 1989's "Batman," she would team up with the Scarecrow to break the Bat.

Musician Courtney Love's name was floated around as a possible contender for the part of Harley, and Protosevich confirmed he did meet up with her — but not to discuss the movie. "I think she had heard about the possibility of Harley Quinn being in the new 'Batman' and was thinking she would be good for it," he said. "But we didn't really talk about that. We talked about a lot of other things."

The plot would have featured all the previous villains

The internet might have had a field day with Zack Snyder's decision to incorporate a bloodthirsty Dark Knight in his DC Extended Universe movies, but Ben Affleck's Batman has nothing on the body count racked up by the likes of Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, and George Clooney's Caped Crusaders. These films weren't afraid of killing off their villains — with the hero being a potential accessory to murder in most of the cases.

Nonetheless, Joel Schumacher and Mark Protosevich had a grand plan to incorporate all the antagonists from the past movies through a flashback sequence — possibly induced by the Scarecrow's fabled fear toxin. The story would have featured a scene where Batman would need to conquer his fears and past villains — including the likes of the Penguin (Danny DeVito), Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), Riddler (Jim Carrey), and Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) — before one last round of fisticuffs against the Joker.

The idea was for the actors who portrayed the characters, such as Jack Nicholson, Carrey, and DeVito, to return for their respective cameos and one last hurrah in the film series. It might have been challenging (and expensive) to get everyone together at the same time, but if executed, it would have undoubtedly been a major movie moment — that's for sure.

Batman Unchained would have been extremely expensive to make

According to George Clooney's comments to The New York Times, "Batman and Robin" cost in the region of $160 million to produce, making it more expensive than "Batman Begins," which clocked in at $150 million nearly eight years later. At the time, it was the most costly film centered around the Dark Knight; however, its follow-up, "Batman Unchained," could have forced Warner Bros. to dig even deeper into its pockets.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Mark Protosevich explained what Joel Schumacher said to him after he submitted the first draft of his script to the director and a Warner Bros. executive. "A few days later, I'm getting a call from Joel, whose main comment was that I had written maybe the most expensive movie ever made," he said. "Then I remember I never heard from the executive at Warner Bros. I called many times, never got any kind of response."

Joel Schumacher changed his mind about the villains of the movie

There have been multiple accounts of the timeframe when Joel Schumacher left "Batman Unchained" or Warner Bros. canceled the project — depending on who you're asking. According to comments made by Schumacher to Variety in December 1997, six months after the release of "Batman & Robin," the director was still attached to "Batman Unchained" but wanted to revise Mark Protosevich's original script. He wasn't sold on using Harley Quinn and the Scarecrow anymore and wanted to take the film in a different direction.

"I felt I disappointed a lot of older fans by being too conscious of the family aspect," he said. "I'd gotten tens of thousands of letters from parents asking for a film their children could go to. Now, I owe the hardcore fans the Batman movie they would love me to give them." Schumacher explained how he had a concept for a budget-friendly "Batman" film but would have needed to convince the powers that be about trusting him with its execution.

Joel Schumacher wanted a darker Dark Knight

Years later, Joel Schumacher opened up about his time working with Warner Bros. on the "Batman" movies. The director revealed some of the internal discussions with the studio, including his proposed plan for the fifth movie in the franchise, "Batman Unchained."

Chatting to The Playlist in 2011, Schumacher once again iterated how he wanted Nicolas Cage for the part of the Scarecrow and explained his overall vision for the movie, stating: "I had begged the studio for 'The Dark Knight [Returns],' but they wanted a family-friendly, toyetic thing." As he had mentioned years earlier, he wanted to deliver a film that would have appealed more to longtime fans than the kid-friendly fodder he had produced before. An adaptation of Frank Miller and Klaus Janson's seminal Batman story might have certainly done the trick here.

The relationship between the filmmaker and Warner Bros. hit a bumpy road after the release of "Batman & Robin," with Schumacher receiving a lot of flack for the box office underperformance and negative reviews. However, the filmmaker explained how this narrative didn't bother him too much, since he only did what he was instructed to do by his bosses and made them a lot of money in the process.

The planned ending found a way into Batman Begins

Hollywood is called a machine for a reason. Behind the scenes, there are a plethora of projects in various stages of production. Some of them lead to global releases, while others get stored away in a vault, never to be seen again (see: "Batgirl") — or have their ideas "repurposed" down the line. This is usually where writing credits disputes surface, as some writers demand acknowledgment if their work gets used in different projects.

Mark Protosevich said he doesn't believe "Batman Begins" cribbed his proposed work on "Batman Unchained," but he did say he noticed a similarity in the concept for a specific scene, which he complimented for its execution. He revealed to The Hollywood Reporter how the original ending in his script would have seen Bruce Wayne walk into a cave and have a colony of bats flap around him as he embraced his fear.

"There's a similar image in 'Batman Begins,' where he discovers what will be the bat cave and it's filled with bats and they are flying around him," Protosevich said. "Not that this scene was inspired by mine, but it was a similar idea. It was a powerful image."

Chris O'Donnell confirmed there were plans for a Nightwing spinoff movie

One of the biggest question marks surrounding "Batman Unchained" is whether it would have seen Chris O'Donnell return as Dick Grayson aka Robin. Mark Protosevich confirmed to THR that Robin featured in his first draft. The plan was for a rift to form between Batman and the Boy Wonder, with the sidekick returning for the final battle to help his partner. In other words, it would have followed the same beats from the past two movies where Bruce Wayne and Grayson squabble like a married couple.

In a retrospective interview with Entertainment Tonight about his time in the "Batman" movies, O'Donnell remained grateful for the opportunity, especially since he had grown up as a fan of the Dark Knight. He also revealed an interesting nugget of information about his character's future. "Yeah, there was at one point: 'Nightwing,'" he said. "When the reviews came out on 'Batman & Robin,' that was shut down immediately."

In the context of the overall storyline, a "Nightwing" movie would have made sense. Much like in the comics, Grayson steps out of the shadow of Batman and becomes his own hero, transforming from Robin to Nightwing. Considering how popular O'Connell was as the character, it's unsurprising there were talks about him being able to carry his own superhero film too.

Joel Schumacher said he quit Batman Unchained

It's highly unfair that the late Joel Schumacher is more renowned for the failings of "Batman & Robin" than his phenomenal work on generation-defining films such as "The Lost Boys" and "St. Elmo's Fire." This point wasn't lost on the director either, as the experience of the "Batman" sequel soured his views on blockbuster cinema.

In an interview with Vice, he explained how he hit a crossroads moment after doing press for "Batman & Robin" and remembered why he wanted to become a director in the first place. He wanted to get back to the passion of filmmaking and stories rather than the business element of it all, so he quit "Batman Unchained."

"So I went on a vacation to Mexico and I call my bosses and say, I just can't do another 'Batman,'" he said. "You would think they wouldn't want me to make another. But the licensing, the toys, the pajamas, they've produced astronomical numbers in sales. I just needed to get out of carrying the summer movie thing, for my own sanity."