Joel Schumacher's Unmade Batman & Robin Sequel Sounded A Lot Like Arkham Knight

The rise and fall of Batman feature films from 1989 through 1997 was fascinating to witness. One cannot understate the enormity of Tim Burton's "Batman" in the popular consciousness, nor the outsize box office it earned when it was first released. Internationally, "Batman" earned $411 million, which is about $990 million in 2023 dollars

A sequel seemed inevitable, and in 1992, Burton returned with "Batman Returns." The sequel was, however, incredibly odd and dark, featuring a surreal visual aesthetic and way more violence. Some critics objected to the film's darkness, and there was a minor uproar. The third film swapped Bat actors (Michael Keaton left, Val Kilmer stepped in) as well as directors. Joel Schumacher's "Batman Forever," released in 1995, adopted an Atlantic City-like neon aesthetic and upped the color and energy from Burton's dour films. It, too, was a massive hit, and Schumacher's 1997 follow-up, "Batman & Robin" sought to up the ante, ratcheting up the colors and garishness to an even greater degree. 

But it seems a line was crossed with "Batman & Robin." The actively fled Burton's celebrated neo-noir aesthetic and the film plunged directly into the campiness once associated with the 1966 "Batman" TV show. Kilmer was replaced by George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger received top billing for playing the villain Mr. Freeze. Audiences and critics rejected "Batman & Robin," and it retains a reputation to this day for being one of the more misguided superhero films ever made. 

But there was a time when "Batman & Robin" was assumed to be a surefire hit, and there was every reason to assume that Schumacher would have kept making Batman films for many more years. A 2015 article in the Hollywood Reporter unearthed some of Schumacher's ideas for a "Batman 5," and, well, they sound interesting. 

Batman Unchained

Many Bat-fans may already know of the existence of "Batman Unchained," but for those who haven't heard of the project, it promised to be pretty wild. 

"Batman Unchained" was to feature the return of George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell as Batman and Robin, and was to feature the Scarecrow and, only recently introduced in "Batman: The Animated Series" character Harley Quinn, then only the Joker's moll. Schumacher evidently went to the set of John Woo's "Face/Off" to personally ask Nicolas Cage to play the Scarecrow, and the villain's signature nightmare gas was to, in one scene, resurrect the Joker in dream form. Schumacher intended to ask Jack Nicholson from the 1989 film to reprise the role, and the larger plan was to include the returns of the Penguin, Catwoman, the Riddler, and Two-Face from all the previous movies. 

Screenwriter Mark Protosevich ("The Cell," the "Oldboy" remake) wrote a 150-page screenplay for "Batman Unchained." Rumors were that the film was to be called "Batman Triumphant," but that was mere fan speculation that spread without Protosevich's input. In his script, Batman was to go on a more personal journey, facing a lot of his own personal fears. In his vision of things, Harley Quinn was not a fallen psychiatrist, but a toymaker who goes mad when she learns the Joker is her long-lost father. She was to be played by Courtney Love. Harley and the Scarecrow intended to drive Batman to madness and get him committed to Arkham Asylum.

Robin would enter the fray to drag Batman back from the brink. The final shot of the film would have seen Batman standing in a Balinese cave, surrounded by bats, finally free of his fears. 

Taken off the rails

None of the above actors signed on, but many were reportedly interested. Protosevich said of Courtney Love: 

"I think she had heard about the possibility of Harley Quinn being in the new Batman and was thinking she would be good for it. [...] But we didn't really talk about that. We talked about a lot of other things. It was certainly one of the better lunches I've ever had in my career in show business."

Sadly for the fate of "Batman Unchained," Schumacher's "Batman & Robin" ended any hope of a direct sequel. The idea of diving into a fifth movie — especially one that would require a massive payout to returning guest stars — was put on hold. Protosevich remembers the immediate collapse, and how everything Batman-related was immediately moved to a back burner at Warner Bros. "Batman & Robin" opens, and everything else shut down. Protosevich said: 

"A few days later, I'm getting a call from Joel, whose main comment was that I had written maybe the most expensive movie ever made. Then I remember I never heard from the executive at Warner Bros. I called many times, never got any kind of response. [...] This got into a period of weeks and then a month, and my agent pestering Warners. And the next thing I knew, they were pulling the plug on the whole project. They were going to wait and see what they were going to do with Batman. The Joel Schumacher-driven Batman train was taken off the rails." 

There wouldn't be another Batman feature film until 2005 when Christopher Nolan's "Batman Begins" hit theaters. In 2015, however, something very akin to "Batman Unchained" seemed to appear: the video game "Batman: Arkham Knight."

Batman Unchained Returns

The premise of "Arkham Knight" was that Batman had jailed the Joker and crime in Gotham city had declined. During the lull, several of Batman's other nemeses team up to kill him off once and for all. The Scarecrow uses poison gas to clear the city of civilians (they aren't killed, just evacuated), and the only people remaining in Gotham are Batman-hating criminals. While this is happening, Batman discovers that he once received a tainted blood transfusion from the Joker, and he is now hallucinating the Joker around him. 

Like "Batman Unchained," the central theme of the game involved examining Batman's relationship with the Joker, and how the villain will always be hanging over the hero, even subconsciously. A combination of the blood transfusion and a hit of the Scarecrow's fear gas cause Batman to go temporarily mad, thinking he was the Joker. The game's climax saw Batman kidnapped by the Scarecrow, unmasked on national television, and injected with fear drugs for the world to see. In Batman's mind, he and the Joker duke it out for mental dominance. 

Madness has always been something of a background theme in the Batman feature films, with a visit to an asylum, and several conversations about duality, and the outsider impulse to dress in wild costumes and fight crime. Both "Batman Unchained" and "Arkham Knight" were made to explore how insane it is to be a Batman. 

Well, Unchained" wasn't made, but a sequel to the 2022 film "The Batman" is still on the way.