From Hell: Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One


[This week we’ll be looking at a few movies mentioned in Tales from Development Hell by David Hughes (Titan Books). The book chronicles the arduous and at times absurd development process that films go through, often leading to that unfortunate limbo known as “development hell.” Tales from Development Hell comes out today. Look for our spotlight on the book this Friday.]

The state of the Batman franchise was up in the air after Joel Schumacher’s campy Batman and Robin. Christopher Nolan eventually (and successfully) took the helm, but Warner Bros. considered many options prior to Nolan. In addition to Batman vs. Superman (it would have been directed by Wolfgang Petersen), one radical idea was floated by Darren Aronofsky in 1999: a reinvention of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One.

Aronofsky teamed with Miller on the screenplay. (They’d previously collaborated on an unproduced adaptation of Miller’s Ronin.) The results were Batman filtered through gritty crime movies like Taxi Driver and Death Wish. Many liberties were taken with the Batman backstory. Bruce Wayne would have been found on the street after his parents were murdered, raised by a mechanic at an auto repair shop in a rough neighborhood. He’d initially wear a hockey mask when fighting crime (shades of Wild Dog) and would be inspired to dress like a bat not by the animal itself but because of the mark produced by his signet ring when punching baddies (shades of The Phantom).

Aronofsky says in Tales from Development Hell, “Our take was to infuse the movie franchise with a dose of reality. We tried to ask the eternal question: ‘What does it take for a real man to put on tights and fight crime.'”

Though an entire screenplay was written, this gritty take on Batman was shelved. “I think Warners always knew it would never be something they could male,” Aronofsky says in the book. “I think rightfully so, because four year olds but Batman stuff.” A more faithful animated adaptation of Batman: Year One was released last year. David Hughes shares a few thoughts with us after the cut.

I told them I’d cast Clint Eastwood as the Dark Knight, and shoot it in Tokyo, doubling for Gotham City. That got their attention.

— Darren Aronofsky (quoted in Tales from Development Hell)

This is such a radical, Elseworlds-like version of a bankable character. Do you think studios today are as open to these sorts of takes on characters?

David Hughes: Well, they let him pitch it and paid him (handsomely) to write it, so I guess they were back in 1999/2000. Today? Yes, I think studios have woken up to the fact that a strong IP [intellectual property] has extraordinary potential for exploitation, and just because The Lion King is on stage doesn’t mean you can’t re-release the film in 3D, or make a belated sequel, or a TV cartoon series, or exploit the medium in countless different ways. And as long as some of them are aimed at me, and every once in a while you get a film like The Dark Knight, I’ll take as many as they can make.

Have Aronofsky or Miller considered altering their screenplay? By that I mean changing it from a Batman story to a story about an original vigilante character.

I very much doubt it. I still have a hope that the script will be turned into an amazing prestige graphic novel. In fact, I bumped into Vertigo editor-in-chief Karen Berger one night in SoHo and pitched exactly that idea, but unfortunately it was late at night, I was halfway through a rather drunken poker game, and I think I might have scared her off with my inebriated pitch! (Darren gave the idea his blessing, though, so you never know.)

Warner Bros. is going to reboot Batman once Christopher Nolan is done with his trilogy. Any ideas or predictions of what they’ll do?

None at all, although I suspect they will be torn between doing a massive about-turn from the fantastically successful Nolan — like a reboot with a really young Batman, Harry Potter-style (I’m telling you, audiences would pay to see that) or sticking with the Nolan universe (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, you know) but changing the actor and director (like the new Bourne). It would take a gutsy studio to start over — Sony did it with Spider-Man, but now they’re so far in the red they’re pinning all their hopes on one film.


Previous tale from Hell:

Lord of the Rings starring The Beatles

more tales from Hell to come…

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David Hughes is the author of Tales from Development Hell, The Greatest Sci-fi Movies Never Made, The Complete Kubrick, and The Complete Lynch. He is also co-author of Farscape: The Illustrated Companion with Paul Simpson, and has written about film for The Guardian, Empire, GQ, and numerous publications.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.