Directors that turned down comic book movies


For many of us, directing a comic book movie sounds like one of the coolest jobs on the planet. And, over the years, heaps of filmmakers have jumped at the chance to call the shots on big screen adaptations of those primary-coloured comic book panels.

However, on the other side of the coin, loads of moviemakers have snubbed such offers. Some do this because superheroes don’t appeal to them, while others have turned down one comic book movie only to accept a gig on a different one a little ways down the road. Scheduling conflicts and ‘creative differences’ are cited rather a lot, as well. Here’s a rundown of some key examples…

Superman: The Movie

So many people turned down 1978’s Superman: The Movie that we’ve decided to lump them all together, to save you from the reading the same paragraph with a different name in it umpteen times in a row. The gig ended up being Richard Donner’s, of course, and it was a job that caused him a lot of headaches. But he wasn’t the producers’ first choice.

Producers Alexander Salkind and Ilya Salkind first courted George Lucas, but he was too busy with Star Wars to take the job. Straw Dogs and The Wild Bunch helmsman Sam Peckinpah was in talks at one stage, but apparently he pulled a gun in a meeting and said this to one of the Salkinds: “You gotta shut up, kid. What do you think you know about movies?”

Steven Spielberg was offered the job after Jaws became a smash hit, but he was already signed on to make Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Peter Yates, John Guillermin, Ronald Neame and Richard Lester (who ended up taking over from Donner during the sequel) also had talks about boarding the project. In the end, it was the success of The Omen that brought Donner onto the Salkinds’ radar. The Salkinds and Donner would part company with Superman II still far from completion.

Batman

Similarly, when producers Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker were trying to get 1989’s Batman off the ground, they looked in a number of different places before deciding to hire Tim Burton.

Guy Hamilton – who already had four James Bond films under his belt, in the shape of Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, Live And Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun – was the first person to be offered the job, but he turned it down.

At this time, the producers were having trouble garnering studio interest for their gritty vision, with the Adam West incarnation looming in everyone’s memories. Scripts were written and re-written, and Warner Bros eventually came on board.

Ghostbusters’ Ivan Reitman was offered the gig, seeking Bill Murray for the role of Batman and Eddie Murphy as Robin. He eventually parted with the project. Gremlins’ Joe Dante also came on board at one stage, seeking to cast John Lithgow as the Joker, but the partnership didn’t last.

Alex Cox was offered the job after the success of Repo Man, but he declined. David Cronenberg – who already had Videodrome, The Fly and Scanners on his CV at this point – also turned down an offer. It was Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and then Beetlejuice that eventually led to Burton landing the gig.

Fun fact: decades later, Joe Dante did end up directing in the DC universe. He shot an episode of Legends Of Tomorrow season 1.

Dick Tracy

Before Warren Beatty came on board, numerous directors were considered for the comic strip-inspired detective movie Dick Tracy. Steven Spielberg (agan) was offered the director’s seat early on, but it doesn’t look like he ever signed up. Next, John Landis showed an interest, and brought his own writers in to hone the script.

Then Walter Hill came on board, putting together a more violent version than the film we ultimately got. He approached Beatty to star, but they pair couldn’t agree on the tone. They both left, and Richard Benjamin was attached to helm a lower-budget iteration.

In the end, Beatty bought the rights to the property and made the film his own way. Before deciding to direct it himself, he considered offering the job to Martin Scorsese.

Superman Lives

Kevin Smith’s Superman Lives script – which he was working on in the late 1990s – is another project that a number of different directors circled. It’s also another film that ended up with Tim Burton, who came on board and threw Smith’s script out. (The full wacky story of this ultimately unmade film can be found in the wonderful documentary The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened?)

Before Burton came on, Robert Rodriguez was offered the gig, off the back of From Dusk Till Dawn and his prior films. Rodriguez was already working on The Faculty, though, so he had to turn Superman Lives down. But he was fond of Smith’s script, apparently.

After Burton left the project (getting paid an awful lot, regardless), a script rewritten by Dan Gilroy was offered around. Ralph Zondag, Michael Bay, Shekhar Kapur, Brett Ratner and Martin Campbell all turned it down. William Wisher Jnr then wrote another draft of the script, which Oliver Stone turned down.

After that, J.J. Abrams and McG both flirted with Superman. Flyby was the title of a script penned by Abrams, which McG was attached to and detached from on numerous occasions. Abrams lobbied to direct it himself, but Warner Bros threw out the script instead. (Abrams didn’t exactly ‘turn it down’, then, but it’s still interesting.) Then Bryan Singer came in and Superman Returns was born.

Batman Begins

As you might’ve noticed by now, big screen superhero reboots have a tendency to consider/approach a number of directors, before settling on one. Here’s another example. After the Burton/Schumacher Bat-franchise ended, Darren Aronofsky and Joss Whedon both pitched their takes on Batman. Of course, Christopher Nolan ultimately ended up with the gig.

Although details are scarce, it’s also believed that the mighty David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en, Zodiac) was offered some sort of Batman deal, which he turned down, before Nolan became involved. (Fincher was also in talks to take on Spider-Man on two different occasions: before and after Sam Raimi. But disagreements with the studio put paid to that.)

Watchmen

Multiple directors also circled the adaptation of Watchmen, which ultimately wound up with Zack Snyder. Famously, Terry Gilliam was attached for a time, but was shackled with a tiny budget. He claimed the comic was un-filmable, and ended up departing the project.

David Hayter (who worked on the script) was attached to direct at one stage, as were Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass. Again, without travelling back in time and sitting in on some meetings, it’s hard to say if any of these comings and goings constituted a ‘turning it down’, but we thought you’d like to know.

Tim Burton is one person that did, apparently, flat out reject an offer to board the project. In all fairness, Zack Snyder did a bang up job with this one.

Man Of Steel

Speaking of Mr Snyder, he also made Man Of Steel. However, other directors were considered ahead of him. Early on, David S Goyer offered the gig to his Blade II cohort Guillermo del Toro, but he turned it down. He was committed to At The Mountains Of Madness at the time, a H.P. Lovecraft novel-to-movie adaptation that ultimately wasn’t made.

Robert Zemeckis was also offered the Man Of Steel director’s chair, but he rejected it too. Given his extensive work with effects-driven blockbusters (Back To The Future, The Polar Express, Contact and many more besides), he could’ve done wonderful work with the Superman mythos. 

Christopher Nolan, who served as an executive producer on the movie, apparently had Ben Affleck, Darren Aronofsky, Duncan Jones, Matt Reeves, Tony Scott and Jonathan Liebesman on his shortlist of potential Superman directors. That shortlist presumably got binned around the same time that Snyder was approached.

Gambit

This one’s more rumour than ironclad fact, but it’s been suggested that numerous directors have turned down Fox’s Channing Tatum-starring Gambit movie.

Internet tittle-tattle suggests that Tatum approached both Darren Aronofsky (the director of Requiem For A Dream, Black Swan and The Wrestler, who appears on this list multiple times) and Bennett Miller (known for Moneyball and the Tatum-starring Foxcathcher). Both directors reportedly passed on the project.

According to Screen Crush, The Raid’s Gareth Evans and A Most Violent Year’s J.C. Chandor have also turned Gambit down.

Two other directors have joined the project, only to leave after a while in development. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes helmsman Rupert Wyatt was on board for a while, as was Edge Of Tomorrow’s Doug Liman. Wyatt apparently left over creative differences, while Liman chose to focus on DC’s Justice League Dark instead. (He’s since departed that project due to scheduling issues, though.)

The Flash

Speaking of upcoming movies that don’t yet have directors, DC’s Ezra Miller-starring The Flash has been through a fair few. Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie, 21 Jump Street, Han Solo) wrote the first draft of the script, but declined an offer to direct because their schedule wouldn’t allow it.

Next came Seth Graeme-Smith, who didn’t so much turn it down as work on a script for a good long while before departing due to creative differences. Rick Famuyiwa then came and went in a similar fashion.

Sam Raimi and Marc Webb, of the Spider-Man trilogy and The Amazing Spider-Man reboots respectively, both reportedly passed on this one too. Matthew Vaughn, of Kingsman and Kick-Ass, is believed to have turned it down as well.

Recent rumours have linked the aforementioned Robert Zemeckis to The Flash, but he’s since lined up another project (documentary adaptation The Women Of Warmen), which may or may not rule him out, depending on how quickly DC want the movie in cinemas.

Right then, with those rejected-by-many movies covered, let’s move on to some individual directors…

Ron Howard (unspecified)

“I’ve had opportunities over the years [to make superhero movies]”, Ron Howard revealed to the Happy Sad Confused podcast, back in 2015. He then went on to explain his reasoning for turning them down:

“I really feel like you shouldn’t make a movie as a kind of exercise. You have to be all the way in. I was never a comic book guy. I like the movies when I see them, especially the origin stories. I never felt like I could be on the set, at 3 o’clock in the morning, tired, with 10 important decisions to make, and know, intuitively, what the story needs. For me, I’d be copycatting and not inventing. I’ve never said yes to one.”

It remains a mystery which superhero movies Mr Howard has turned down. Given that his directorial CV contains the likes of Rush, The Da Vinci Code and Apollo 13, there’s no doubting that he could handle the spectacle.

Jeff Nichols (Aquaman)

“If you were a director working on the Warner Bros. lot over the past few years, someone is going to ask you about a DC character at some point,” Midnight Special, Mud and Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols told Screen Crush last year. The character he was asked about, specifically, was Aquaman.

This was Nichols’ reasoning for turning the film down:

“But, you now [sighs] the trick with Midnight Special is even though it was made at the studio, they gave me a lot of control over the process. And I don’t just mean control over final cut, but it felt like we were making one of my movies. I had my team. I had my family there. My crew. We made the movie we all wanted to make. With the DC universe, so many parts of it had been activated and so many decisions had already been made that it felt more and more — and Warner Bros. agreed — that it was me trying to jump on a moving train. That’s not so much what I’m good at. I’m more of a ground up kinda guy.”

James Wan ended up taking the gig.

Ava DuVernay (Black Panther)

Selma and 13th director Ava DuVernay was offered the director’s chair on Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, but she opted not to take it. Instead, she’s lined up the Disney novel adaptation A Wrinkle In Time.

“For me, it was a process of trying to figure out, are these people I want to go to bed with? Because it’s really a marriage, and for this, it would be three years,” DuVernay told THR, after turning down the Black Panther job. “It’d be three years of not doing other things that are important to me. So it was a question of, is this important enough for me to do?

At one point, the answer was yes, because I thought there was value in putting that kind of imagery into the culture in a worldwide, huge way, in a certain way: excitement, action, fun, all those things, and yet still be focused on a black man as a hero — that would be pretty revolutionary. These Marvel films go everywhere from Shanghai to Uganda, and nothing that I probably will make will reach that many people, so I found value in that. That’s how the conversations continued, because that’s what I was interested in. But everyone’s interested in different things.

What my name is on means something to me — (my bodies of work) are my children. This is my art. This is what will live on after I’m gone. So it’s important to me to be true to who I was in this moment. And if there’s too much compromise, it really wasn’t going to be an Ava DuVernay film.”

Creed’s Ryan Coogler ended up taking the job.

Fede Alvarez (Marvel)

Fede Alvarez, director of the Evil Dead reboot and last year’s Don’t Breathe, has been courted by a number of franchises. He talked about it all in a lengthy interview with Forbes.

“After Evil Dead, because it opened and made money, I did have a chance to go and explore things,” he revealed. He mentions in the interview that he had talks about Fast And Furious 6 and Friday The 13th. Particularly relevantly to this article, he also said this: “Calls happened about Marvel but I said no to all of those.”

Speaking broadly about turning all these things down, Alvarez added: “I always said no to those because I believe that filmmakers need to have time to create their own body of work. Eventually, when you have five or six movies, maybe then you have a body of work that is heavy enough that you win in that process of making movies by committee.”

The rumour mill reckons that Doctor Strange – which ended up with another horror aficionado, Scott Derrickson – would’ve been part of Alvarez’s Marvel discussions.

James Gunn (DC movies)

James Gunn is no stranger to superhero movies. He sent up the genre with the indie treat Super, before joining the Marvel Studios fold to write and direct Guardians Of The Galaxy and its two sequels. But Gunn has also turned down opportunities to work on comic book films.

In a Facebook Live Q&A, Gunn spoke briefly about the DC Extended Universe, revealing that he’s turned down offers from DC on more than one occasion.

“I’ve had opportunities to make DC films, but I haven’t said yes to anything, and not sure I would at this time,” Gunn explained. This makes a certain amount of sense, given that he’s firmly entrenched in the MCU at this stage.

Gunn also took a moment to praise the DCEU, saying “I thought there was some amazing action sequences in Man Of Steel.” Perhaps, one day, he will switch sides and have a crack at a DC property. Just don’t expect it any time soon.

The Duplass Brothers (Marvel or DC)

Mumblecore mainstays Mark and Jay Duplass – who co-wrote and co-directed Baghead, Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives At Home – have also turned down at least one offer to make a comic book movie.

Los Angeles Magazine asked the brothers if Marvel or DC has ever approached them, and here’s what happened:

“We have been [approached],” Mark answered. “We said no. The thing that happens when you sign on to a $180 million movie is that the movie is not a movie. It’s a commodity. We’re not in that business.”

“It’s very easy to blow people’s minds in Hollywood,” added Jay. “Just say no. Now, if it were Batman and Robin as a 98 percent relationship drama in the Bat Cave…I would bet that’s 12,000 people’s favorite movie.”

It’s yet to be revealed which movies they turned down. Something more comedic like Spider-Man: Homecoming or Ant-Man (or DC’s Ezra Miller Flash movie!) would be my guess… but what do I know?

Quentin Tarantino (Men In Black and Luke Cage)

After the smash hit success of Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino was offered a lot of projects by Hollywood big wigs. On the list of things he could’ve directed was the (admittedly rather loose) comic book adaptation Men In Black, but Tarantino opted to turn down all the offers and work on the script for Pulp Fiction instead. That was a very smart move, in hindsight.

Around this same time, back in the early 1990s, Tarantino pursued the rights to make a movie about Marvel’s bulletproof black hero, Luke Cage. Tarantino eventually opted not to press ahead with it though, for reasons he later explained to Nerdist

“In the case of Luke Cage, it was my comic geek friends that almost talked me out of it, because I thought Larry Fishburne back in the day would’ve been a great Luke Cage, and they were talking about Wesley Snipes. And I could see them both, but it was like ‘I think Fish would be better.’ And they go ‘Yeah…he could work out and everything, but he doesn’t have the bod that Wesley Snipes has, and Luke Cage needs to have the bod.’”

“And I literally was so turned off that that would be their both starting and ending point, that it literally put it in my head that, if I do a comic book movie, it should be an original character. It should be something I create rather than try to fit in.”

So, if his mates hadn’t mentioned Wesley Snipes’ bod, we might’ve seen a Luke Cage movie directed by Reservoir Dogs-era Quentin Tarantino. Sigh…

Towards the end of the 1990s, Tarantino was also linked to Iron Man, which was in production at Fox at the time. That movie ultimately never happened, with Fox selling the rights to New Line Cinema. New Line tried to get a version off the ground with Joss Whedon as director, but the rights ultimately returned to Marvel. And the rest is history…



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