As anyone who has read my Smallville article knows, that show meant the world to me. From the characters to the characters, the mythology. So it may surprise you to know that its progenitor could have been even better.
In 1999, Tim McCanlies, best known at that time for the animated hit The Iron Giant, pitched a new take on the Batman mythology to Tollin/Robbins simply called Bruce Wayne. McCanlies wrote a pilot script that was nearly picked up. It is a pilot that has been all but forgotten but a pilot I re-read at least once a year.
At the time this was a revolutionary idea: a TV series exploring how Bruce Wayne became Batman. As much as I love Chris Nolan’s Batman films I can’t but feel this series would have been better at exploring Batman’s origins. The series would have had five to six-years to explore Bruce’s origin, as was McCanlies’ plan, instead of a feature.
While Fox’s Gotham does explore Bruce Wayne’s origins, it mostly about Jim Gordon. Bruce Wayne would’ve, in my opinion, given us a far more intimate portrait of Bruce Wayne and why he feels the need to dress like a bat.
Judging by the pilot the show would’ve been bookended by Alfred narration of all that has happened. At the start of the show, Alfred is bailing Bruce out of jail in Paris in a scene reminiscent of Batman Begins. The cops tell him how they put him in a holding cell with a few other offenders but that not to worry, Bruce will be fine. Alfred mutters that it isn’t them he is worried about.
This scene gives us our first look at Bruce. This iteration of that character is a lot more similar to Spider-Man then previous media iterations of Bruce Wayne. In the pilot, Bruce is only 17 and not yet mired in the cynicism that envelopes him later on. After cracking wise with Alfred, he heads back to Gotham to see the board of directors. Here we meet Charles Palantine, the man currently in charge of Wayne Enterprises.
At first, Palantine appears jovial and genuine while asking Bruce to sign papers that would ensure his family’s company is safe but between the cadence of the character’s dialogue and description, it’s painfully obvious the man is the lead villain. Even toward the end as Palentine tries to hide his surprise that Bruce is still alive, thanks in part to a young Jim Gordon who is looking into the Waynes’ murder case. Palantine offers to mentor Bruce but it comes off as forced. After reading this pilot and knowing that it morphed into Smallville, it’s easy to infer that this character eventually turned into Lionel Luthor.
Thankfully, Bruce has the far more experienced Alfred at his side, which leads Bruce to his good buddy and first-year law student Harvey Dent. This also illustrates the parallels with Smallville where the hero and villain begin as friends. Dent is a Tommy Merlyn, from Arrow, meets Sebastian Valmont, from Cruel Intentions, type character. After some well-executed foreshadowing, albeit a bit on the nose, about his future, Dent agrees to look at the papers that were going to screw Bruce out of his company. He then invites Bruce to a Halloween party and promises to introduce him to his sister.
At first glance during the party, Susan Dent thinks Bruce Wayne is just some playboy. Bruce later finds Susan volunteering at a children’s shelter and she softens towards him. This is one of the best elements of the script as well as potentially the most tragic.
Bruce’s life has always been mired in tragedy as seen in the death of parents, Jason Todd, and Barbara Gordon being shot by the Joker. By setting Susan Dent up as the great love of Bruce’s life within show’s continuity, it’s obvious that down the road something would happen that would facilitate the “Bruce Wayne persona” becoming Batman’s true mask while also serving as a potential catalyst for her brother to become Two-Face.
The promise of what could’ve been is what makes me sad reading the script. Despite there being elements of the pilot script in Gotham (i.e. Gordon’s investigation, Wayne Enterprises trying to kill Bruce) I can’t help but think of how McCanlies’s version would’ve executed things long-term. There was so much to look forward to like nods to Batman: Year One and Bruce and Harvey’s conversations. All because despite DC being known for a multiverse, Warner Bros Film division couldn’t allow Warner Bros TV division to do Batman origin TV series when they were working on a Batman origin story of their own
While this pilot was never made, I’m glad the script is out there. It serves as a fantastic Elseworlds tale about the origins of the Dark Knight. Hopefully, if people keep shouting about it, generations of Batman fans will keep discovering it and marvel at this little-known Batman epic.