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Actors Who Almost Played Batman Villains

"Batman" movies aren't just defined by the titular superhero. Sure, the character has a major role to play in why audiences love this franchise so much, but the villains of these movies are what really draw people in hook, line, and sinker. The live-action incarnation of "Batman" has shown an affinity for casting famous and often unexpected faces as some of the most beloved comic book baddies of all time. In the process, the series has delivered adversaries that rank up there with the very best cinematic antagonists, with much of the quality deriving from incredibly thoughtful performances. It's hard to imagine these projects existing without the likes of Jack Nicholson or Michelle Pfeiffer ... but these actors weren't always the only choice for these characters.

Over the years, several different actors have been considered to play an assortment of "Batman" villains only to get rejected in favor of other performers. These decisions led to some beloved villain casting coups, but it also creates fascinating alternate universe scenarios for die-hard "Batman" fans to stew over. What could have the Riddler, Two-Face, or any number of other "Batman" baddies looked like if the casting had gone in a different direction? It's hard not to ponder this when looking over the laundry list of actors who almost scored villainous roles in one of the biggest superhero movie franchises of all time.

John Lithgow as the Joker

In getting Tim Burton's first "Batman" movie off the ground, it was critical to nail down the casting of the film's central antagonist, the Joker. Long one of Batman's greatest foes in the comics, the Joker would now need an appropriately intimidating and talented performer to bring him to life. In the final cut of "Batman," Jack Nicholson followed up his roles as unhinged and unpredictable people in "The Shining" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" by taking on the part of Joker. However, he wasn't the only name considered for the part — John Lithgow was one particularly notable name also eyeballed for the villain.

Having already turned down the opportunity to portray the Joker in an earlier Joe Dante-directed version of "Batman," Lithgow still wasn't chomping at the bit to play the comic book villain once Tim Burton stepped into the director's chair. Speaking to Vulture decades later, Lithgow recalled how he auditioned for the part of the Joker, but at the same time, he kept telling Burton that he shouldn't be cast in this role. That seemed to be the end of it, but Nicholson got the part shortly after, and Lithgow finally realized just how big this role was. Once he realized how significant this comic book movie was, Lithgow regretted being so adamant in passing on the part.

John Glover as the Joker

John Glover has had a prolific career as an actor and has tackled various DC Comics roles across live-action and animated productions. This includes portraying Dr. Jason Woodrue in "Batman & Robin, Mr. Sivana in "Shazam!", Lionel Luthor in the TV show "Smallville," and Edward Nygma/the Riddler on "Batman: The Animated Series." His connections to the world of DC Comics adaptations were once set to go even deeper, though. Decades ago, Glover was even considered for the juicy role of the Joker in the 1989 "Batman."

While responding to a Paul Dini tweet about attending a screening of "Joker," Glover revealed that Robert Wuhl had once told him that he'd been Tim Burton's first choice for the part of the Joker in "Batman." Given that Glover was appearing in prominent roles in several hit movies in the late 1980s like "Masquerade" and "Scrooged," it's no surprise that this actor would be on the radar of people looking to cast a big blockbuster circa-1989. No reason was given for why this casting never came to pass beyond Glover joking that his answering machine wasn't working. Despite Burton's apparent wishes, Jack Nicholson would eventually score this comic book villain role. However, even with missing out on this part, Glover's managed to do perfectly well for himself when it comes to securing work in major DC adaptations.

Annette Bening as Catwoman

Some potential candidates for "Batman" movie villains don't get much farther than an audition or being tossed around as a prospective name by a Warner Bros. executive. Annette Bening, though, was an exception. She wasn't just cast as Selina Kyle/Catwoman in "Batman Returns" — she went so far as to attend a costume fitting for the role. Fresh off her Oscar-nominated turn in "The Grifters," Bening was an in-demand talent who could've easily fit into the star-studded aesthetic of 1990's "Batman" movies. 

Unfortunately, producer Denise Di Novi revealed in "Batman: The Definitive History of the Dark Knight in Comics, Film, and Beyond" that this exciting casting was significantly complicated when Bening got pregnant (via Insider). From there, it became clear it'd be impossible for the performer to accomplish the necessary stunts and other physical work for the Catwoman part. Plus, Bening has been open about how despite her passion for playing this part, she found it an easy choice to give up a movie role for the sake of her kids (per Inquirer.net). With that, Bening bid farewell to the part, and Michelle Pfeiffer took on a role that would become iconic. Though she wasn't a part of this Tim Burton superhero tentpole, that doesn't mean this awards darling performer would never find herself on similar territory later on in her career. Notably, Bening eventually managed to work with Burton on the 1996 movie "Mars Attacks!" and also got to work on a superhero movie with 2019's "Captain Marvel." 

Al Pacino as Two-Face

By the time "Batman Forever" was gearing up to go into production, the "Batman" franchise already had a strong track record of delivering unbelievable casting coups when it came to famous Batman baddies. Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer set a high mark for any future installments to hit, and that meant the pressure was on for the casting of "Batman Forever" adversaries Riddler and Two-Face.

For the latter role, a murderer's row of talent was observed for the part. One of the many names examined for the role was Al Pacino, who had recently scored his first Oscar win for "Scent of a Woman." Pacino certainly would've fit the bill as a cinema legend on par with Nicholson or Pfeiffer, and he even had experience playing a comic book villain thanks to his work in "Dick Tracy." For whatever reason, though, Pacino ended up passing on the role. The casting hunt continued, and eventually, Tommy Lee Jones — who had a history with "Batman Forever" director Joel Schumacher thanks to the 1994 film "The Client" — was selected for the part. This ensured another famous name inhabited a Batman villain, though it wasn't an actor who could bring the "Heat."

Robin Williams as the Riddler

Some of the most famous Robin Williams characters are happy-go-lucky figures with a spring in their step and the heart of a child. But great movies like "Insomnia" and "One Hour Photo" demonstrate the actor's gift for chilling antagonistic roles — ones that Williams could execute with real conviction and not a trace of unintentional goofball energy. Given this track record, the idea of him playing a "Batman" antagonist isn't so far-fetched, and it almost happened on multiple occasions. One of these occasions was on the 1995 film "Batman Forever," where Williams was offered the part of Edward Nygma/the Riddler.

This particular adversary in Batman's rogue gallery loves to prattle off riddles and taunts to his rival and would've been a perfect fit for the dialogue-driven acting style of Williams. However, the casting never came through. In an Empire interview years later, Williams noted that he'd actually been offered the part of the Riddler much to his own excitement, but the role was abruptly handed off to Jim Carrey instead. Tragically, this mirrored a situation with the role of the Joker in Tim Burton's "Batman" years earlier. Williams had the enthusiasm and the skills for a "Batman" villain role, but unfortunately, characters like the Riddler kept slipping through his fingertips.

Patrick Stewart as Mr. Freeze

Mr. Freeze has been adapted into several interesting incarnations outside of his comic book roots, including Alfred Molina's thoughtfully realized iteration of this character in the "Harley Quinn" TV series. Unfortunately, Mr. Freeze didn't fare quite as well in live-action movies, with his only appearance in this domain being in the film "Batman & Robin." This incarnation of the villain was heavy on ice puns delivered with lots of scenery-chewing flair by Arnold Schwarzenegger but little in the way of menace or complexity.

This approach to Mr. Freeze is certainly memorable, but there was once a radically altered version of Mr. Freeze on the table. Back in 1995, Entertainment Weekly reported on the earliest casting rumors for "Batman & Robin" by noting that Patrick Stewart was the top choice for portraying Mr. Freeze. It's easy to imagine a version of this character who is more overtly tormented by his dying wife and making great use of Stewart's gift for gravitas. The problem, though, turned out to be that Stewart's schedule was so busy in 1996 — he had to shoot several movies — and it was always a pipe dream to secure him for the production. Arnold Schwarzenegger would later get cast in the part, with director Joel Schumacher later telling Variety that the actor was the only performer who could've possibly brought the chilly baddie to life.

Guy Pearce as Ra's al Ghul

Across his "Batman" movies, Christopher Nolan has often brought back familiar faces from his earlier works as a filmmaker. "The Dark Knight Rises" is an especially noticeable example of this trend thanks to "Inception" cast members like Marion Cottilard, Tom Hardy, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt showing up in the runtime. But this trend almost began back in 2005 with Nolan's first "Batman" title — "Batman Begins" — and initial plans to have Guy Pearce play the villainous Ra's al Ghul.

Pearce had previously worked with Nolan on "Memento." Given their collaborations in the past, rumors spread during the pre-production phase of "Batman Begins" that Pearce had been approached to play the titular superhero. Pearce dismissed these rumors back in 2004 and would later clarify to Vulture in 2011 that while he was never in the running for Batman, Nolan had approached him for the character of Ghul. However, a clear problem emerged when Pearce was considering the role: his age. Ghul was initially conceived as a helpful mentor to Bruce Wayne, with both characters being roughly the same age. However, the part was later reimagined as one that would be inhabited by a significantly older actor — somebody like Liam Neeson, who ultimately got the job. Thus, Pearce was dropped from the role and moved on to other projects. With Pearce gone, Nolan would have to reunite with former cast members on "Batman" blockbusters on another day.

Adrien Brody as the Joker

After "Batman Begins" became a hit movie, all eyes were on who would be inhabiting the villain of the movie's sequel, who was teased in the final moments of "Begins": the Joker. A parade of big-name performers began cropping up in the entertainment press as potential candidates for the role. Even actors who weren't auditioning or considered by Warner Bros. brass for the role became the subject of internet speculation. Among the names that got floated around for the film was Adrien Brody.

Speaking to USA Today (via IGN), Brody expressed excitement over the idea of playing the Joker and especially of doing something more demented with the character than previous live-action incarnations. Brody also noted that much of this enthusiasm came from his adoration for "Batman Begins" and the unique vision Christopher Nolan brought to that project. It's easy to see how Brody, an experienced dramatic performer, could've fit into the grounded and compelling world of Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy. Indeed, his then-recent Oscar win for "The Pianist" meant Brody had extra clout as an artist when this sequel was ramping up pre-production. Though Brody and countless other performers were tossing their names out as prime candidates to play the Joker, Nolan always thought of Heath Ledger as the one and only choice for this villain (via IndieWire). Ultimately, the concept of Adrien Brody as Christopher Nolan's Joker was destined to exist in people's imaginations.

Mark Ruffalo as Two-Face

There was a time when Hulk actor Mark Ruffalo was not affiliated with any comic book movie franchise. For many years, Ruffalo was an actor simply known for his work in dramas and indies like "Zodiac" or "The Kids Are All Right." However, Ruffalo almost got his chance to show up in a comic book movie blockbuster a few years before his debut Marvel Cinematic Universe appearance in "The Avengers." This prospective role came in the form of auditioning to play Harvey Dent/Two-Face in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight."

Talking to MTV in October 2008, Ruffalo revealed that he'd auditioned for the role and explored his younger fascination with graphic novels, especially the works of Frank Miller. However, despite Ruffalo's enthusiasm for the part and Nolan as a filmmaker, the director of "The Dark Knight" opted to go in a different direction for the role. Opting out of casting Ruffalo led to Aaron Eckhart taking on Two-Face instead. In this same interview, Ruffalo notes that he would be interested in taking on a comic book movie role, which would end up coming to pass when he snagged the role of Bruce Banner/The Hulk — a part he's inhabited for roughly a decade.

Matt Damon as Two-Face

Hot off his work in the "Bourne" trilogy, Matt Damon spent the late 2000s fielding several offers to either headline or appear in major roles in big blockbuster movies. One of these offers was to play the protagonist of "Avatar," while the other was to portray Harvey Dent/Two-Face. Damon opted to pass on both of these parts, and the latter casting failed to come to fruition due to scheduling issues.

When talking to MTV, Damon explained that scheduling was the reason for him being unable to pursue the role. He also noted that he never even got to meet Christopher Nolan about the role — an indicator that Damon's potential casting came up extremely early in the production of this blockbuster. Damon's comments about this role, which eventually went to Aaron Eckhart, were expanded on years later. In particular, he revealed on the "Happy Sad Confused" podcast that the specific reason he couldn't portray this Batman baddie was due to his commitments to another high-profile movie (via Epicstream). He did not clarify what project caused him to miss out on being a "Dark Knight" villain. Despite missing out on the chance to be in a box office monster hit, Damon has been very relaxed about the whole experience. As fate would have it, he ended up working with Nolan after all on two separate occasions thanks to the movies "Interstellar" and "Oppenheimer." Turns out Damon and Nolan were destined to work together, just not on a "Batman" movie.

Kate Mara as Catwoman

2012 was an especially good year for Anne Hathaway. Not only did she deliver her eventual-Oscar winning supporting turn in "Les Miserables," but she also got to portray Selina Kyle/Catwoman in "The Dark Knight Rise." It's a performance from the actor — one that draws upon the traditional femme fatale mode of the character but also injects some personal turmoil to convey the aura of tragedy surrounding this thief. It's a complicated and fascinating turn, though it's also one that Hathaway wasn't always guaranteed to play.

Plenty of other performers tried out for the role of Catwoman in auditions, including Kate Mara. Talking to ESPN, Mara revealed that she had auditioned for the part, with her affection for the works of Christopher Nolan being a primary driving force behind her pursuit of the role. Mara's connections to Catwoman went no further than just that audition, but Mara expressed gratitude for the opportunity to even try out for the part. Though it was disappointing to miss out on this role, Mara wouldn't be missing from the territory of comic book cinema for long — she eventually got her big comic book movie gig with Susan Storm/The Invisible Woman in 2015's "Fantastic Four."

Ryan Gosling as the Joker

Remarkably, several of the first names associated with the cast of "Suicide Squad" did get roles in the final cut of that 2016 blockbuster. Notably, Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and Cara Delevigne ended up inhabiting the parts of Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and Enchantress, respectively. However, there were some differences between the first cast list and those who ended up in the final cut. Tom Hardy as Rick Flag, for example, didn't become a reality thanks to the actor experiencing scheduling conflicts with "The Revenant." Another example of a name pursued that never even signed onto "Suicide Squad" is Ryan Gosling.

A famous heartthrob who's never appeared in a comic book movie, Gosling was approached to portray the Joker. It's not hard to see why given that Gosling would've fit snugly into a cast that was emphasizing A-list talent, and he was well-known for playing off-kilter characters in genre fare like "Drive." However, the big difference between those earlier Gosling roles and this prospective Joker part was that Warner Bros. wanted the actor to sign on for multiple films. Gosling balked at the idea of a multi-movie contract, so he walked away from the chance to play the Clown Prince of Crime. Jared Leto later took on the part while Gosling kept on pursuing dramas like "First Man" and "La La Land."