If there’s anything that the history of cinematic superheroes over the last 30 years has taught us, it’s that casting Batman is one hell of a tricky needle to thread. Unlike so many Hollywood issues, it’s pointedly not a problem you can just throw a big movie star at, as Ben Affleck’s recent and unhappy tenure in the part made clear. It’s also a pain in the ass to cast because the character is so open to interpretation—with the directors drawn to the darkest aspects of the Dark Knight often having much different ideas of what makes a good billionaire orphan detective crime fighter than the executives actually footing the bill.
Take, for instance, the aborted Bat films of Darren Aronofsky, who was approached in the early 2000s, post-Requiem For A Dream, by producers hoping to reinvent the Bat franchise in the wake of 1997's Batman & Robin. With Frank Miller himself on the payroll, Aronofsky’s take has always been reported as being infamously brutal, hewing very closely to Miller’s Batman: Year One, and featuring plenty of Bat-Torture for Bruce Wayne to inflict upon his foes. And to headline this descent into comic-book depravity, Aronofsky wanted an actor who’s since shown a real knack for playing DC Comics characters who’ve got nothing but bad thoughts rattling around in their heads: Joaquin Phoenix.
This is per Empire, which published an excerpt from an interview it’s running with Aronofsky this month, in which he talked about the Phoenix-based collapse of his attempted Batflick. “The studio wanted Freddie Prinze Jr and I wanted Joaquin Phoenix,” Aronofsky notes. “I remember thinking, ‘Uh oh, we’re making two different films here.’ That’s a true story. It was a different time. The Batman I wrote was definitely a way different type of take than they ended up making.”
Christopher Nolan ended up being the one to actually revive the franchise, of course, with his Dark Knight trilogy ending up being only sort of a blood-soaked sojourn into the vigilante mind, and with Christian Bale’s Batman coming off as only mildly deranged. (For what it’s worth, Bale was also on Aronofsky’s shortlist of actors who could potentially play the part.) Still, it’s wild to imagine Phoenix, the future Joker—who, at the time, was fresh off films like Gladiator and Signs—stepping into the role of the Caped Crusader, splashing a little wild-eyed intensity all over the Gotham underworld. If nothing else, it would have made for one hell of a supercut a couple of decades down the line.