Joe Dante Almost Made a Batman Movie With John Lithgow as The Joker
There have been several intriguing Batman movie concepts that never made it to the big screen over the years, including Darren Aronofsky’s Year One and a third Joel Schumacher Bat-film (dodged a bullet there, to be honest), but one of the lesser-discussed projects belonged to Joe Dante — yes, the director of classics like Gremlins and The ’Burbs almost made a Batman movie, and if he hadn’t ultimately walked away from it, we might have ended up with a memorable performance from John Lithgow as The Joker.
Before Tim Burton made his 1989 Batman movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, the powers that be at Warner Bros. tapped Dante to helm a movie about the Dark Knight. Dante teamed up with screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (Live and Let Die) for the project, which, as he explains to Psychotronic Cinema, began as so many Batman films have:
It started with his parents being killed, and it was a revenge story. But it was very outlandish, had a lot of giant props in it. The Joker was a major character in it. I wanted to hire John Lithgow for that part because I had met him on The Twilight Zone movie.
Lithgow, as you may remember, famously starred in the fourth segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, which coincidentally featured a gremlin. As far as Jokers go, Lithgow could have made for a rather fascinating foil for Batman, especially in a Dante-directed film that, as he explains above, would have featured some of the director’s more campy sensibilities.
So, what happened? Dante explains:
And for whatever reason, I started to gravitate more towards The Joker than towards Batman. And I actually woke up one night and I said to myself, “I can’t do this movie—I’m more interested in The Joker than I am in Batman, and that’s not the way it should be.” So I went and told them that I couldn’t do it, and they looked at me like I’d completely lost my mind.
Although Dante says he ultimately doesn’t regret walking away from the Batman project, he adds, “I certainly can’t say it was a major career-booster, my decision not to make it.” And so we add another title to the list of “cool Batman movies that might have been.”