Sometimes a whole range of actors are linked with a role, in what seems to amount to a public audition process (Robert Pattinson linked to The Batman is the latest). But there have been many instances in the past where someone has been offered the role in a comic book movie, often even signing the deal, yet it never came to pass.
So whilst this article isn’t going to talk about those who got down to the shortlist, it will focus on the people who got the job as a comic book character they never got to play.
Marlon Wayans – Robin
Hot off the success of the original Batman movie back in 1989, Warner Bros was planning to move ahead quickly with a sequel. Plans to shoot it at Pinewood in 1990 were shelved though, as instead the studio awaited the return of Tim Burton to the director’s chair, who’d gone off to make Edward Scissorhands.
In the interim though, Warner Bros got busy. Wesley Strick was one of those who took a stab at the screenplay, and his version of what was then Batman 2 had Robin featuring in it. Warner Bros was keen on the idea, even going so far as to cast Marlon Wayans in the role.
Wayans got to the stage of signing up for the film, having a costume fitting, and being optioned for a sequel. But when Tim Burton came back to the project, he was no fan of the character of Robin. Daniel Waters’ subsequent script removed him, and the idea was then to save Robin for Batman 3.
That plan would come to fruition, but by that stage, Tim Burton had moved on, and Joel Schumacher was in as director. His favoured choice for the Boy Wonder was Chris O’Donnell, who would take on the role in both Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Wayans would never get to play the role, and hasn’t been in a major comic book movie since either.
Annette Bening – Catwoman
Still on Batman Returns, someone else who got cast in the film was Annette Bening. She won the role of Catwoman, off the back of her excellent work in The Grifters, which Tim Burton had seen and was impressed by. She beat quite a field too, with everyone from Cher and Madonna through to Susan Sarandon and Bridget Fonda apparently competing for the role.
Yet Burton’s Batman movies had a problem with their lead female roles. Sean Young was originally set to play Vicki Vale in 1989’s Batman, but a riding injury forced her to pass, and Kim Basinger took on the part. In the case of Catwoman, Bening discovered she was pregnant, and thus had to relinquish the role. Michelle Pfeiffer subsequently met up with Tim Burton, and he gave her the part instead (for more money than Bening would have cost).
Nicolas Cage – Superman
It’s no longer Batman, but we’re still talking Tim Burton here, with one of the most infamous pieces of comic book casting that never ultimately came to light. Had all gone to the original plan, Tim Burton would have rebooted the Superman franchise in the 1990s, with Superman Lives. This was a project so steeped in comic book movie folklore there’s a documentary about it.
Nicolas Cage signed up to play the role of Clark Kent/Superman in the movie, pocketing $20m for his trouble on a pay-or-play contract (which meant that even if the movie didn’t get made, he got his moolah). He went in for extensive costume tests, many of which have subsequently appeared online.
Burton fought for Cage, arguing that he could bring something different to the role, specifically that he could make Clark Kent and Superman feel like two characters that people wouldn’t immediately visually link.
But then Warner Bros got cold feet. With the bill heading north of $100m for the negative, at one point nearly touching $200m – and this was the mid-1990s too – the studio eventually decided it was too rich a deal. It put Superman Lives on hold, and when Tim Burton departed in April 1998 to go and make Sleepy Hollow instead, the project was all but dead.
Warner Bros spent around $30m on the film eventually, with little more than those leaked Cage photos to show for it. Cage, a lifelong comic book fan, would eventually take on the role of Ghost Rider instead. We’re coming to him again later a little bit further down this list too…
Armie Hammer – Batman
Of the many abandoned attempts to bring Batman to the big screen, one of them was being shepherded by Mad Max director George Miller. Back in 2007, he even got to the stage of casting for his project, Justice League assembling of DC comic book heroes including Batman.
Miller got quite far down the road with the project, before it was kiboshed by matters out of his hands. The writers’ strike of 2008, and a change in the Australian tax rebate incentive programme, changed the financial dynamics of Justice League. Warner Bros would instead press ahead with Christopher Nolan on a Batman reboot.
However, Miller had already cast Armie Hammer as his Batman. The same Armie Hammer who came to prominence in The Social Network, and then took on the title role in The Lone Ranger. Hammer has since admitted that the version of Justice League that Miller was planning wouldn’t have had the violent edge of Zack Snyder’s DCEU films. He’s also distanced himself from taking on the role of Batman in any future movie project.
Adam Brody – The Flash and Megan Gale – Wonder Woman
Talking of Miller’s Justice League movie, he’d already cast a couple of other people in the roles of comic book heroes. Specifically, Adam Brody was signed up to play The Flash, and Megan Gales was set to be Wonder Woman. Those two pieces of casting went south when the project was put into turnaround. We were pleased to see Brody get his superhero moment in Shazam!, then.
John Malkovich – The Vulture
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4 would have been a hugely expensive movie. Sony got close to giving him the go-ahead to make the film in 2009, and it got to the stage where casting conversations were taking place.
So much so in fact that in January 2010, word leaked out that John Malkovich had been cast as The Vulture in Spider-Man 4. The actor himself confirmed the role on Italian television, following rumours that had popped up a few weeks before. Furthermore, Dylan Baker – who had sat patiently through two Raimi movies as Dr Curt Connors – would have possibly got his moment as The Lizard in Spider-Man 4.
But the seeds to this one falling apart had been long sown. Raimi clashed with Sony on Spider-Man 3, resulting in a film that neither party was particularly happy with. And as the budget ballooned for what would have been Spider-Man 4, Sony blinked. It called the film off, Raimi departed, and the studio ordered a full reboot, leading to 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, where Lizard was played by Rhys Ifans, and later the MCU Spidey reboot Spider-Man: Homecoming which saw Michael Keaton rock the part of The Vulture.
Dougray Scott – Wolverine
Hugh Jackman has played Wolverine in nine different films but that he landed the role at all had an element of fate to it.
Jackman wasn’t the first choice for the role of Wolverine, and in fact another actor got offered the role first. That man? Dougray Scott, who was in the midst of work on Mission: Impossible 2. Mission: Impossible 2 was already behind schedule (the film had already been delayed a lot due to substantive overruns on Cruise’s previous project, Eyes Wide Shut). As such, Scott had to complete his villanous duties on Mission: Impossible, and director Bryan Singer would instead take a chance on a then-relatively unknown Hugh Jackman for his Wolverine. Had M:I 2 been on time? Things most likely would have been very different…
Anthony Hopkins – Jor-El
By the mid-2000s it was Bryan Singer, off the back of his success with the opening pair of X-Men movies, that got the nod to reboot Superman, with Superman Returns. However, before Singer was attached, the project for a time was in the hands of Brett Ratner.
Ratner was on board for quite a while, to the point where he cast Anthony Hopkins (who he’d worked with on Red Dragon) in the role of Superman’s natural father, Jor-El. Hopkins himself has since admitted as much, telling MTV that “I was going to do the movie with Brett, and I don’t know what happened”. He added that politics had its part to play, and that “I think Brett was out of line with something and they said thank you very much. I never heard from Brett since then but I was all set to it”.
Singer in the end would, with the help of computer trickery, reuse Marlon Brando in the role instead. Hopkins eventually got his comic book movie moment when Kenneth Branagh cast him in Thor.
Jim Caviezel – Cyclops
Still perhaps best known for his portrayal of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s brutal The Passion Of The Christ, Jim Caviezel was the original choice to play Cyclops in the first X-Men movie.
The role eventually got taken by James Marsden, but the only reason that Caviezel dropped out in the end was down to the old problem of scheduling difficulties. He had to quit the role when it was realised that production would clash with another movie he was committed to, the underrated Frequency.
Tom Cruise – Iron Man
Tom Cruise never fully signed on the dotted line to play Iron Man, but it was no secret he was involved in the project for some time. The actor was not only set to star as Tony Stark in the movie, but also produce it. And Marvel’s Kevin Feige admitted as much at the time, revealing that discussions had been ongoing for a number of years.
Cruise eventually dropped out of the project though, saying back in 2004 that “as it was lining up, it just didn’t feel to me like it was going to work”. With Cruise departing the project, Kevin Feige would ultimately recruit Jon Favreau to direct Iron Man, and he in turn cast Robert Downey Jr in the lead role. Cruise, to date, hasn’t taken on a comic book character.
Arnold Schwarzenegger – Doctor Octopus
Once upon a time, it was James Cameron who was battling to get a Spider-Man movie made. This was pre-Titanic and Avatar, and Cameron was facing a lengthy battle in the first place just to get access to the rights for a Spider-Man picture.
Cameron was intending to use Doctor Octopus as the villain in his Spider-Man film, and he’d talked to Arnold Schwarzenegger – then at the height of his Arnold Schwarzenegger powers – to take on the role. Arnie was in discussions for the role, but ultimately Cameron couldn’t agree with the studio as of a direction to take the movie. He parted ways, and several years later, it would be Sam Raimi – with the help of Alfred Molina – who brought a film to the screen with Doc Ock in it.
Arnold Schwarzenegger – Sgt Rock
Arnie did go on to play a comic book character, with his peerless performance as Mr Freeze in Batman & Robin. But as well as Doctor Octopus, he was attached for a time to play Sgt Rock. This was in the late 80s and early 90s, when a film of Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert’s World War II infantry officer was being strongly mooted.
Published by DC, over time we learned that Sgt Rock was a very American, very able soldier. A terrific shot, able to survive more damage than Arnie did in the film Eraser, it was nonetheless something of a puzzle that he’d be played by an Austrian. Nonetheless, several screenplays were developed. At one stage, Bruce Willis was linked with the role too.
But it was Schwarzenegger who was attached, eventually dropping out as assorted attempts to mount the film failed. Talk continues of there one day being a Sgt Rock film, but Arnie’s chance of taking the role now is very slim.
Michael Biehn – Spider-Man
We’re back to James Cameron’s Spider-Man project again here. It was around 1994 when it finally looked as if he might be getting the project motoring, and at that stage, he’d settled on his webslinger too. Regular collaborator Michael Biehn, whose career best work came in Cameron’s The Terminator and Aliens, was set to play Spider-Man/Peter Parker.
However, at that stage the film that Cameron was looking to make was a tricky, technically demanding one, to the point where it wasn’t going to happen. Cameron instead chose to make True Lies, and his Spider-Man project ultimately fell apart, taking Biehn’s interpretation of Spider-Man with it.
Billy Dee Williams – Harvey Two-Face
Tim Burton persuaded Billy Dee Williams – still best known as Lando, of course – to take on the small role of Harvey Dent in his 1989 Batman movie. You don’t need to be an expert in the history of Batman to know that Dent goes on to become Harvey Two-Face, and the story goes that Williams took the role on the assumption that he’d follow that transformation through.
Furthermore, it seems that Williams signed a pay-or-play contract to that effect, locking him in for the role, unless Warner Bros paid him his fee anyway. That, ultimately, is what the studio chose to do as well. When it became clear that Tim Burton wouldn’t be back for Batman 3, Joel Schumacher was hired, and he opted to take Harvey Two-Face in a different direction for Batman Forever. Williams apparently wasn’t too enamoured anyway with the idea of Two-Face ultimately playing second fiddle to The Riddler in that movie. Tommy Lee Jones thus took over the role of Dent/Two-Face, and Williams got his cheque anyway.
Incidentally, rumours also suggest that Mel Gibson was offered the role of Two-Face, but couldn’t accept it due to clashes with the production of Braveheart.
Terrence Howard – War Machine
When the first Iron Man film was released, taking on the role of James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes was Terrence Howard. The plan was that he’d move on to play War Machine in Iron Man 2, but that was before things went sour.
Lots has been said and written about Marvel and director Jon Favreau’s decision to recast the role for Iron Man 2. Allegations flew around that Howard hadn’t been the easiest to work with, and that Favreau hadn’t been happy with the performance anyway. Howard, in return, has placed the blame firmly at the door of Robert Downey Jr for him not being able to wear the War Machine suit. In Howards’ words, “it turns out that the person that I helped become Iron Man, when it was time to re-up for the second one, took the money that was supposed to go to me and pushed me out”.
Don Cheadle took on the role from Iron Man 2 onwards…
Nicolas Cage – The Scarecrow
Cage again! This time, he was lined up for Joel Schumacher’s third Batman film. This would have seen him take on the role of The Scarecrow in what was said to be called Batman Triumphant.
Whether this one got as far as a firm deal being put in place is unclear, but what is more certain is that Batman & Robin derailed any chance of it happening at all. Whilst the film opened strongly, its box office since collapsed (albeit still grossing over $200m worldwide), and the movie was quickly derided as one of the worst blockbusters in living memory. That reputation has not been shaken off.
Schumacher, who at the time was alternating Batman movies and John Grisham adaptations for Warner Bros, abandoned his plan for Batman Triumphant. When the Scarecrow would eventually appear on screen, in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins back in 2005, it would be Cillian Murphy who took on the role.