What Is the Greatest Movie Never Made?
When it comes to Hollywood "what-ifs" this one is near the top of the list.
Of all the movies that almost happened, it seems particularly interesting that in the current saturated superhero era to look back on what would have been a fascinating project.
It's a Batman movie.
But before we get to that, let's consider other big what-ifs.
There is a book about many of these called Tales From Development Hell, and a follow up titled The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made. There is Gene Roddenberry's pitch for a Star Trek movie sequel that involved Klingon villains stopping the JFK assassination, forcing heroes Kirk and Spock to... kill JFK themselves. Pretty dark.
There is also the Tim Burton/Nicholas Cage Superman movie. You just have to wonder how amazingly bizarre it could have been.
There is a whole Reddit thread worth mining for these and more.
Perhaps one of the biggest near misses is the true story behind Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove. Before it was an award-winning book and a beloved miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, it was an idea for a movie.
After finishing The Last Picture Show and shooting to the top of Hollywood's lists of hot young filmmakers, Peter Bogdanovich had his pick of projects and stars. What did he want to do?
A grand, sweeping western. He'd, of course, employ western author and American literary giant Larry McMurtry, who wrote The Last Picture Show (book and film) to pen it. Bogdanovich wasn't aiming small. This western would be written for John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda. The giants of the genre and of cinema itself.
But it never happened. McMurtry went ahead and wrote the epic novel anyway and the rest was history. That project lived on and became perhaps even bigger and more influential as a result. That's why it can't top this next project, which is so weird and unique.
The 'Batman' that never was
Put yourself in 1980. Superman: The Movie had been released and was a huge success. We're in the early days of the blockbuster era. Star Wars toys have taken over the world, He-Man and Transformers are in living rooms entertaining young children. Batman, one of the other obvious and hugely popular comic book heroes is just sitting there. Why did it take until 1989 for the movie to happen?
Well... it kind of didn't.
A writer named Tom Mankiewicz had a script for a movie called The Batman and the director attached was Ivan Reitman. Reitman was known at that moment for the raunchy, crazy summer camp comedy Meatballs, which helped make a star out of Bill Murray. Reitman was completing Stripes, a military comedy also starring Murray.
So it's not too surprising to find out The Caped Crusader Reitman had in mind was Bill Murray.
Bill Murray as Batman sounds kind of crazy now, but maybe just the right amount of crazy? Considering that Adam West as Batman during the 1960s was a comedy, and that Reitman and Murray would later team up for Ghostbusters, one of the greatest comedies of its time.
Ghostbusters is more than a comedy though. It broke the mold. It was a tentpole summer blockbuster that also worked on a comedic level. It didn't take itself seriously, but through dramatic tension, real stakes, visual effects, and lots of top-notch talent that were committed to the material, the movie worked. It mashed multiple genres at the highest possible level.
Just imagine Bill Murray's asides and witticisms in the context of Bruce Wayne. But set Murray aside for a moment. Let's talk about the rest of this team.
The greatest family of screenwriters ever?
The name Mankiewicz is synonymous with screenwriting. If you feel like you've heard or seen the name before it's because it's been a constant in the world of cinema. Tom Mankiewicz's long career saw him often as a creative consultant, script doctor, and occasional screenwriter. But his impact on many projects and the way stories are told in TV and Movies today, is undeniable.
His father, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, wrote tons of screenplays during Hollywood's golden age, perhaps his greatest achievement could be that he wrote and directed All About Eve. He also produced The Philidelphia Story and wrote and directed the famously doomed Cleopatra.
Joseph's brother Herman wrote Citizen Kane. There are other members of the Mankiewicz family working around media to this day, including Ben Mankiewicz, who hosts Turner Classic Movies.
Tom's The Batman never was produced. Tim Burton's Batman was a different script and entirely different vision. Tom carved out a successful career for himself as the writer of multiple James Bond films and had a few TV series. He served as a creative consultant on the aforementioned Superman: The Movie, as well as Superman II. He was a consultant to Peter Falk for the run of his hugely successful Columbo series.
But in the end, Tom's career didn't live up to his last name. Nobody was more aware of this than Tom. "I think Dad [Joe] is probably disappointed that I have not worked up to what he considers to be, and I must say I consider to be, my creative potential. He's never said he's disappointed, but I know he is, and I know that come Oscar night some year, he would love to see some wonderful film that I wrote and directed being honored."
On the one hand, Tom was born with a good shot to have a career. But in his own father's eyes, that held him back. "I do share Tom's disappointment. Or put it this way. He came to share my disappointment. On the other hand, I understand completely. I wrote for W.C . Fields. I wrote Westerns. I wrote anything when I started out. The point is, Tom sold his stuff. Now I happen to think he's better than that. Tom found it a little too easy. Instead of shooting the fourth draft of his screenplay, they shot the second. I have said to him, 'I don't think the second draft is good enough, Tom. You can do better.' But he didn't have to do better, and that was a pity. You see, Tom didn't have sitting on his tail half a dozen very good producers."
Talk about pressure. On the upside at least neither ended their lives the way Herman did. Herman was a severe alcoholic, who died in 1952 at the age of 55. A film about his unique story titled Mank is being made by David Fincher, "I seem to become more and more of a rat in a trap of my own construction" Herman once wrote of his own alcoholism.
A Batman dream cast?
Tom was coming off success in the genre through Bond and Superman, a hot young director of subversive adult comedies in Reitman with a budding star and generational talent in Bill Murray. What else could make this would-be Batman even better?
Any Batman needs a good Joker. We've now seen two actors win Oscars playing the role, and that excludes Jack Nicholson, perhaps the greatest actor to play the role.
This Batman movie had David Bowie attached for the part.
Think David Bowie circa Labyrinth. What would a scene of Bowie's Joker and Murray's Batman be like? It feels criminal that we'll never find out.
But the cast isn't complete. Reitman attached two esteemed members of Hollywood's old guard to play Batman's trusted elders. Oscar-winning legend William Holden was set to play Commissioner Gordon and David Niven to play Alfred. As for Robin, well, nothing was set in stone, but we could probably count out Harold Ramis.
Some what-ifs make sense almost like they do exist in an alternate timeline. This what-if is such an odd amalgamation of iconic talent that was coming together at such a unique moment in movie history.
Bill Murray as Batman still sounds like a great idea to me. Can someone get on that, please?