Batman Vs. Superman, The Old Man And The Gun, And More Projects Wolfgang Petersen Almost Directed

When Wolfgang Petersen burst onto the scene with his WWII submarine masterpiece "Das Boot," Hollywood came calling. Any director who could pin audiences to their seats for two-and-a-half hours with a film that rarely leaves the interior of a U-boat surely had the skills to enthrall viewers with a mainstream blockbuster. While Petersen proved more than reliable with smashes like "In the Line of Fire," "Outbreak," "Air Force One," and "The Perfect Storm," he occasionally found himself attached to ambitious projects that, for one reason or another, failed to launch or launched without him at the helm.

Petersen, who died on August 12, 2022, at the age of 81, left behind a litany of what-ifs. He was in the mix on several tantalizing projects that could've changed the complexion of superhero and YA filmmaking; there's an alternate universe in which Petersen revived the DC universe with a Batman and Superman mash-up in the early 2000s. As we mourn the passing of a master, let's take a look back at what might've been.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

When Warner Bros. purchased the rights to J.K. Rowling's best-selling boy wizard series in 1999, the studio shot the moon and entered into negotiations with Steven Spielberg, who believed the adaptation should be an animated film (with the title character voiced by Haley Joel Osment). When Spielberg backed out, WB reached out to just about every name director on the planet, and evidently got fairly far down the road with Petersen.

The appeal was crystal clear. Petersen had transformed Michael Ende's difficult-to-adapt "The NeverEnding Story" into a daringly dour kid-lit classic. Given the darkening direction of Rowling's series, Petersen felt like the franchise's frontrunner at the turn of the millennium. He pulled out due to a scheduling conflict in the spring of 2000, which helped clear the way for Chris Columbus to land the coveted/dreaded gig.

Ender's Game

After passing on Potter, Petersen's reputation for handling difficult YA novels landed him in the running for a big-screen adaptation of Orson Scott Card's sci-fi classic. He was paired with the pre-"Game of Thrones" screenwriting duo of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss in 2003, but they never cracked the script to Card's satisfaction. Petersen had another sci-fi iron in the fire with his take on Whitley Strieber's alien thriller "The Grays," but "Ender's Game" was much closer to the finish line. 

Petersen jumped ship in 2008, leaving the gig to Gavin Hood, who, um, made a movie!

The Old Man and the Gun

David Grann is one of the finest non-fiction writers going today. If you've never read his work, you know him from the film adaptation of his engrossing "The Lost City of Z" and are most likely anticipating Martin Scorsese's take on his utterly gutting "Killers of the Flower Moon." Prior to the greenlighting of these films, Petersen, who'd been inactive since "Poseidon" (his middling remake of "The Poseidon Adventure"), took a crack at Grann's wistful profile of a career criminal who opted to go out doing what he loved. 

There's nothing in Petersen's oeuvre that syncs up with this story, which makes it one of his most melancholy missed opportunities. He was capable of such nuanced character work ("Das Boot" is an expertly managed compendium of human tics), so you wonder if Petersen, nearing the end of his career, wanted to make something sweet and kinda quiet as his Hollywood swan song. 

David Lowery wound up making the film with Robert Redford. It's nice, but it's so very in Lowery's wheelhouse. I'd love to see Petersen's version.

Batman vs. Superman

Five years after Joel Schumacher buried the Caped Crusader franchise with "Batman & Robin," Warner Bros. stunned the world with an out-of-nowhere announcement that Wolfgang Petersen would be directing "Se7en" screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker's "Batman vs. Superman." The reaction from online fandom was, for the most part, "Bring it on!" With Marvel edging toward the brighter side of the comic book spectrum with "Spider-Man" and "X-Men," WB handing the DC reins to Walker felt like a chance to redo 1989 when Tim Burton's "Batman" reduced Frank Miller's take on the Dark Knight to a whole lot of empty brooding (thus giving birth to the cultural scourge that is Hot Topic).

Walker's 2002 draft had the right idea: Batman and Superman are diametrically opposed heroes thrown into conflict in what is ostensibly a post-9/11 world. Petersen's casting net was wide. Colin Farrell, who was up for every role in the early 2000s (thanks, ironically, to his breakout performance in Schumacher's "Tigerland"), was the frontrunner for Batman. Jude Law, meanwhile, had the inside track on Superman. WB had a shot at doing something remarkable with these characters, but studio head Alan Horn called the dead-armed Akiva Goldsman out of the bullpen to rewrite Walker's script. The excitement for the project fizzled overnight, leading the studio to pivot to J.J. Abrams' "Superman: Flyby," which essentially got torpedoed thanks in no small part to a scathing script review by Ain't It Cool News' Drew "Moriarty" McWeeney.

Petersen quietly exited "Batman vs. Superman" and took up "Troy," written by his woulda-been "Ender's Game" collaborator David Benioff. Hollywood is funny that way — it rhymes. 

You can find Walker's screenplay out there in the online ether and dream away. It's just one of many dreams that got away from Wolfgang Petersen.