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SUMMER SNEAKS

Rescuing Batman

Studio Politics And Creative Misfires Sent The Dark Knight's Fortunes Into Precipitous Decline. Could Something In His Past Save Him?

May 08, 2005|James Greenberg | Special to The Times

Robinov's recollection of the "Batman: Year One" experience is decidedly different. " 'Batman: Year One' never went very far," he says. "We never made a deal. There was never a script done. It didn't go further than it did because the intention of that movie didn't feel right."

The merger of Time Warner with AOL in January 2001 and the company's subsequent free fall perhaps put further pressure on the film division to rescue the day with one of its superheroes. At the same time, the pressure may have been paralyzing. After veteran studio bosses Terry Semel and Bob Daly departed in late 1999, their replacement, Alan Horn, had promised to build the studio's release schedule around five tent-pole pictures a year.

"When Alan Horn first took the job, he said he wanted to revive the Superman and Batman characters," says Robinov. "That was a priority for him." So the studio was throwing as much as it could into the hopper, hoping something would stick.

As "Batman: Year One" was sinking, the studio decided to try yet another approach. What if Batman and Superman faced off in one film as they had done many times in World's Finest Comics? Wolfgang Petersen ("The Perfect Storm") was hired to direct the project, and he, in turn, brought in writer Andrew Kevin Walker ("Seven") to write the screenplay, later polished by Akiva Goldsman ("A Beautiful Mind").

Petersen envisioned a clash between a big-city, brooding Batman motivated by anger, pain and guilt, and a Superman who was all-American, small-town and innocent. He promised "a true existential experience with visual fun." If all went well, he said, the film could be in theaters by summer 2004.

But things did not go well. In addition to creative issues, "Superman Vs. Batman" fell victim to cutthroat studio politics that pitted Di Bonaventura against Horn over the kind of films the studio was making, a dispute that ultimately stretched as far as corporate headquarters in New York.

Meanwhile, a script by J.J. Abrams (creator of TV's "Lost" and "Alias") for another Superman film, the first part of a proposed trilogy, had gained favor at the studio. Horn was said to prefer the optimism of the "Superman" script to the darkness of the "Superman Vs. Batman" screenplay. He then took a step that was bizarre even by Hollywood standards: He distributed copies of both scripts to 10 other company executives and solicited their opinions.

According to an executive involved in the debate, Di Bonaventura argued that "Superman Vs. Batman" boiled down the characters to their essence; not going ahead with it, he said, would be "one of the great mistakes of all time."

Robinov agrees that it was an excellent script, but "rather than reintroduce the two characters in one film, we made a conscious decision to try and introduce the two characters independently. I think it gave us a lot more latitude to continue with Batman," he says.

The vote was 11-1 in favor of "Superman" -- Di Bonaventura's was the one dissenting vote. For Di Bonaventura, the "Superman Vs. Batman" episode was just symptomatic of a larger rift, and he resigned his post the following month, in September 2002.

In the eyes of many comic book boosters, Warner Bros. made the right decision. " 'Batman Vs. Superman' is where you go when you admit to yourself that you've exhausted all possibilities," says Goyer, who wrote the screenplays for "Blade" and its two sequels. "It's like 'Frankenstein meets Wolfman' or 'Freddy Vs. Jason.' It's somewhat of an admission that this franchise is on its last gasp."

But the move left Warner Bros. without a franchise film for either summer 2003 or 2004. So it looked again to Batman -- sort of. A production of "Catwoman," a Batman spinoff the studio had been trying to put together for at least 10 years, was hastily assembled with Halle Berry replacing Ashley Judd, who had long been attached to the project. The problem was that the film had nothing to do with Batman or the history of the Catwoman comic book character. The $100-million movie took in a mere $40 million.

STARTING OVER

Although the impulse in Hollywood is often to keep cranking out films and milking a franchise until it's dry, some observers believe the delay in mounting a new Batman was not a bad thing. "I don't think eight years is that long," says Guber, who took nine years to put together the first Batman film. "What they were doing was resting the franchise, and maybe they should have rested it even longer. They needed to get the other film out of the marketplace and out of the consciousness of the core audience."

"After 'Batman & Robin,' it was necessary to do what we call in comic book terms 'a reboot,' " says Goyer. "Say you've had 187 issues of 'The Incredible Hulk' and you decide you're going to introduce a new Issue 1. You pretend like those first 187 issues never happened, and you start the story from the beginning and the slate is wiped clean, and no one blinks.

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