The Biggest Blockbusters Never Made
The two most dangerous words in the English language are ‘what’ and ‘if’, in precisely that order. ‘What if I get hit by a bus this morning on my way to work?’ you may think, and a few months of obsessive thought on such a question may leave you stuck in your home indefinitely. In cinematic terms, on the other hand, after year upon year of viewing films so spoon-bendingly awful that only a heady mouthful of popcorn could relieve the malaise, I came to realise that ‘what if’ can be useful when finding yourself faced with something which spectacularly fails to meet your expectations (I believe the technical term is a ‘steaming turd’). Given a piece of work which is terrible enough, it’s oddly satisfying to contemplate how good the thing could have been – so I say, dare to dream, dear reader! Alas, I have taken a minute or two off from my glorified daydreaming to compile a list of great blockbusters, that were so great they never got made:
5. Bryan Singer’s X-Men 3
Bryan Singer left the X-Men series on an upward trajectory; X2 still stands as one of the truly great comic-book films, blowing its predecessor out of the water both financially and artistically, and Singer perfectly set up an X3 – the stage was well and truly set. Then Brett Ratner got hired, and X-Men: The Last Stand was a disaster. It substituted the heart of Singer’s films for a hard-drive full of empty CGI and a storyline hazier than Wolverine’s long-term memory. I still occasionally have nightmares that include the words ‘I’m the Juggernaut, bitch’ floating around – in a nutshell, it was not a good film.
Details on Singer’s X3 remain sketchy, but it’s clear that he intended to wrap up the Phoenix in a more nuanced manner, having her function as a kind of walking Weapon of Mass Destruction. According to Michael Dougherty, one of the prospective writers: ‘She had basically returned as a god… she was here to end things on her terms, she was basically sick of the fighting and she was going to take things into her own hands and she didn’t give a shit what the X-Men or the Brotherhood had to say about it.‘ Singer’s X3 would have seen the divided world he had fostered in the first two films torn even further asunder by the arrival of a near-omnipotent being who put into the shade all other beings on planet Earth, and ultimately he would’ve followed the comics far more closely as ‘she kind of becomes that cosmic force that Phoenix is known to be, she chooses to leave Earth and become a god… The final scene … would have been her telling Cyclops or her telling the X-Men ‘I’ll be watching.’’ .
Ah yes, Cyclops wouldn’t have died. Woo and indeed hoo.
Singer had other interesting ideas up his sleeve; Scott would have built the Danger Room to ensure nothing like Jean’s death happened again, which makes sense character-wise. He wanted to bring in the character of Emma Frost to manipulate Phoenix, and have her played by the original Queen of Sci-fi, Sigourney Weaver (a departure from the comics character, but the prospect of a mature female to sit between the twin sages of Patrick Stewart’s Xavier and McKellen’s Magneto is tantalising). Add to this, the probable completion of Rogue’s arc from frightened teenager to fully-fledged X-Man, Logan and Scott’s prickly relationship as Jean returns, and the possible introduction of Colossus and Gambit into the team, all indicate that we may have been heading for a genre classic. Oh well, at least young Vinnie got another line on his CV with Ratner’s film, and next year’s Days of Future Past will give Singer a unique opportunity to correct Ratner’s mistakes, and give us a REAL X-Men 3. Also, it will have the (proper) Sentinels in it, so it will probably be the second best thing ever created by the human race (the first being sliced bread). Watch this space.
4. Quentin Tarantino’s Casino Royale
Two years after Die Another Day, the Bond franchise had sunk into a level of soul-searching that would have put Prince Hamlet to shame. Talk of reboots, a Pierce Brosnan continuation, or adaptations of one of the non-Fleming novels had all faded away. Step forward Quentin Tarantino, who proposes his own Bond 21: a hard as nails adaptation of the original Bond story, Casino Royale, set in the same smoke-stained time period as the book and retaining Brosnan’s Bond, with Uma Thurman as Vesper. (I like to imagine his pitch took place in a top-secret location, with Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson tied up and dangled above a huge pool full of sharks as a billion-dollar state-of-the-art laser burned ever closer to them as Quentin, sporting a cheap eyepatch, remarks: ‘I’ve had this idea to do a f*****g Bond movie based on Casino Royale that will be a total f*****g piece of f*****g nitro, aright? Oh and I want to cast Pierce Brosnan and Uma and the whole damn thing will f*****g rock, aright? Whadyasay?’, and the producers instantly refusing and a deflated Tarantino letting them go and removing the eyepatch.)
Although Tarantino’s film never came off, and the eventual Casino Royale was fantastic, once the image of Le Chiffre, perhaps played by Christoph Waltz, staring down Bond at a smoky Bacarrat table cemented itself in my brain, I found it difficult to dislodge it. I must admit that the idea of the the hero and the villain sitting opposite each other in immaculate tuxedos and actually talking, firing off that famous probing, punchy, witty Tarantino dialogue, gives me just a little thrill. The problem comes when one considers the baggage of a Tarantino film; if he made a Bond, he wouldn’t be entering Bond’s universe, Bond would be entering his universe, and that rankles me. Plus, I don’t think setting the film in the 1960s would have helped matters; to be honest, I think it would just have confused audiences. If the film’s intention was to take the franchise backwards in time, why would Brosnan have been there? The whole thing had the potential to get messy. Plus, it’s inevitable that he somehow would have crowbarred Samuel L. Jackson in as Blofeld, doing a crap sub-European accent and stroking a rubber cat.
We’ve recently learned a new facet of the story, too: after being given the thumbs down by the producers, an angry Tarantino made an attempt to bid for the rights to Casino Royale himself, before the Broccolis and EON ultimately acquired them. Angry reject turns rogue and tries to bring down his rejecters? Sounds like a textbook Bond villain to me. In fact, it would make a wonderful movie…
3. Joss Whedon’s Wonder Woman
Despite the leaps in sexual equality that have been made in Western society, it still seems that the same grey, conservative essence of damsels in distress and paternal alpha males beats in the bright and shiny heart of the modern superhero films. Strong female heroes remain a rarity. Because of this fact, they still have the potential to be revolutionary on the big screen, even in the supposed golden age of gender equality that is 2013. But it’s not for want of trying. Before the Avengers hit the screens and made Robert Downey Jr. the de facto Lord of Everything, a pre-bearded Joss Whedon was intent on bringing the Amazonian warrior Princess Diana of Themyscira, alias Wonder Woman, to the screen.
The thinking behind the project was simple: we know Whedon is an accomplished writer of female characters – Buffy Summers and a certain Black Widow, not to mention a whole host of others, can attest to that, and the studio suits obviously believed a female superhero would provide a unique selling point in a crowded field of spangly-outfitted males. Says Whedon of the project: ‘She was very powerful and very naïve about people, and the fact that she was a goddess was how I eventually found my in to her humanity and vulnerability, because she would look at us and the way we kill each other and the way we let people starve and the way the world is run and she’d just be like, ‘None of this makes sense to me. I can’t cope with it, I can’t understand, people are insane.’ His Wonder Woman would most likely have examined the inequalities and injustices which permeate modern societies, and, just from these few brief lines, it sounds as though the heroine would face them down with an interesting utopian sensibility; too rarely do we see such an attitude in the cynical world of brooding modern superheroes. On a far more basic level, women kick ass, and there’s no one better than Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy Summers, to illustrate that point on film.
I can’t help feeling that Warner Brothers ultimately canned the project because, at heart, they didn’t believe men would really pay that much to see a strong woman saving the day, and that’s sad. I know Whedon could’ve done this character justice, and there has even been talk that he had Cobie Smulders, Nick Fury’s SHIELD colleague from the Avengers, in mind to play the role – a huge missed opportunity on all parts. However, it sounds as though his script is still floating around somewhere – and it’s never too late.
2. Peter Jackson’s Halo
I have never played Halo in my life. I have no idea what the story of this film would have been. But I love Peter Jackson, and I love Lord of the Rings, and I am confident that this film would quite possibly have been the most successful film ever, and maybe even have singlehandedly bankrupted every citizen on the planet. Think Avatar, but good, and minus a load of steroid-enhanced Smurfs making the place look untidy. (Alternatively, it could have been the biggest box-office bomb in the history of cinema, but either way, it wouldn’t have been boring.)
It all began back in 2005. Microsoft paid Alex Garland, of 28 Days Later fame, one million dollars to write a spec script for a potential Halo film, and by 2006 Peter Jackson had signed to produce the film with his young Padawan learner, Neill Blomkamp, slated to direct. The world of Halo, from the little I have seen as the ignorant novice that I am, has the potential to be epic and overwhelming on screen in the same way that Middle-Earth was, and the prospect of Jackson returning to play in another gargantuan sandbox was tantalising. At the time the film deal with Microsoft fell through, for example, Jackson had already set his Weta Workshop the task of designing the film’s spacesuits, weaponry, and worlds – Gandalf-only knows what they would have come up with. In the end, Blomkamp and Jackson produced District 9 in the lieu of their planned epic, so the story has a relatively happy ending. I would definitely have preferred Halo, though: Lord of the Rings in space – it could have been pure cinematic joy. Plus, by the time the film would have been ready, IMAX and 3D had materialised, giving what would already have been a breathtaking spectacle a platform that even Lord of the Rings never had. But besides all that, isn’t it just about time that a film based on a video game was actually…um…good?
1. Tim Burton’s Superman Lives
And you thought Man of Steel was controversial? Try this. It seems like light-years ago now, but Tim Burton was once in line to direct Superman. He cast Nicholas Cage as the lead. He designed a bizarre black and silver outfit for the title character, and, at the behest of his producer Jon Peters, he was ready to put on film the Man of Tomorrow fighting a giant mechanical spider – Superman Lives would have been a lot of things, but boring ain’t one. The backstory is simple; Warner Brothers, having seen Burton bring one of their two biggest characters to the screen, with generally successful results, now wanted him to resurrect the other.
A lot has been said and written about this film. I have no idea whether it would have been fabulous or atrocious, but Burton turned Batman into a huge box office success and mined interesting thematic treasure at the heart of the mythology’s twisted cast of characters, and it is plausible that in Kal-El’s ‘otherness’ in an alien society, he would have found similar gold. Burton’s films pulsate with adolescent alienation, just ask Edward Scissorhands, Bruce Wayne or Edward D. Wood Jr., and so what finer way to truly express this theme than with a character who is actually an alien? I have no doubts at all that Burton could have made Superman work, by tapping into his innate isolation, and it’s easy to forget that Nicholas Cage, before he recently became a figure of piss-takes disguised as cult-idolatry, was once regarded as a fine actor. I could see him as Superman.
Those things would not have been the problem with Superman Lives. The problems would have been with the planned story, which sounds convoluted and bizarre. Kevin Smith’s script featured no less than three villains, which even the film-makers agreed was too many which is why in later rewrites they had two of them, Brainiac and Lex, artificially bond together to create, depending on the draft, Luthiac, or indeed Lexiac (I like Lexiac better, but it sounds like a diarrhea tablet – Brainiex perhaps?). As if that’s not enough, the Fortress of Solitude would have been guarded by two polar bears for no discernible reason other than Brainiac getting to beat them up, Superman wouldn’t be shown flying, and Brainiac’s assistant would be a little droid named L-Ron with, quote on quote, a ‘gay R2-D2 persona’. I’m also not sure Burton’s aesthetic would really have suited Superman; he’s a light, bright character (Superman that is, not Burton) and his world is not a spooky one of the traditional Burtonian hallmarks, ghosts and ghouls. This is a character who actually gets his power from sunshine, and if there’s one word that springs to mind when thinking of the Tim Burton ‘look’, it’s not sunshine (conversely, I have no idea what the word would be; answers on a postcard?). Despite all this, I have faith that Burton could have got the central alienness of Earth’s greatest protector right, and ultimately, that must be the most important element of any of these superhero films. It’s probably for the best that this was canned, but I can’t help but be left thinking ‘what if?’.
Ah yes, what if? That age-old question. Of course looking back is no good, but sometimes it’s impossible not to catch a terrible film, late at night on some obscure channel in the outermost Siberia of your satellite box, and cry into your hot water bottle as you muse on what might have been. I guess, in the end, we should just be thankful for the things we get, films or otherwise, rather than the things that we hoped we’d get. In this spirit, I hope you enjoyed the article, but if you didn’t, don’t forget you have all the time in the world to speculate on how good it could have been.
Oh, and for a final treat, just in case you really were disappointed, here is a final bonus entry in this list. Hope you enjoy it.
George Lucas’s Howard the Duck 2: The Dark Duck Rises
You know you want to, George. You made The Phantom Menace, after all.
What do you think? Leave a comment.