In an alternate timeline, a planned cameo for Michael Keaton’s Batman in the unmade Superman Lives could have led to the first DCEU. The landscape for superhero movies prior to 1989’s Batman was a bleak one. Outside of the Superman movie franchise, the genre had little in the way of hits; even 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest For Peace had bombed. Some were predicting failure for Batman also since the most dominant image of the character in public consciousness at the time was the ’60 TV show. Director Tim Burton’s dark, gothic take on the character and Gotham City itself changed all that, with the resulting film being a landmark success.
It also spawned a hit franchise – with Burton coming back for 1992’s Batman Returns – though it still took some trial and error throughout the rest of the decade for comic book movies to find their footing. Burton had been essentially pushed out from the Batman movie series for the weirdness of Returns, but he was later hired to revive the Man of Steel with Superman Lives. The film has since become one of the most infamous unmade movies of all time, with a cast that would have included Nicolas Cage as the titular hero.
Filmmaker Kevin Smith wrote early drafts for Superman Lives, which pulled from the “Death of Superman” comic arc. This saw Superman being killed following a grueling battle with Doomsday, though he was soon resurrected. Superman Lives would have depicted both events, with Smith’s drafts featuring a funeral scene that would have included a brief cameo from Batman. It’s unknown if this cameo would have made it into the final movie, though Keaton did confirm to MTV in 1998 that he was attached to make an appearance. Had this actually happened, it may have opened up the possibility of a shared universe long before the DCEU arrived.
Burton’s Superman Lives was well into development by the time it was canceled in 1998, which included costume and visual effects tests. The two big reasons it was canned was the estimated expense of producing it, and the fact Warner Bros was coming off multiple box-office duds like Batman & Robin, Steven Seagal’s Fire Down Below and Sphere. Even if Burton’s Superman Lives hadn’t worked, it likely would have been one of the most unique blockbusters ever made, based on the concept art alone. It’s doubtful anyone involved with Superman Lives was thinking of shared universes but canceling the movie also – naturally – nixed Keaton’s Batman cameo.
Audiences would have loved seeing Keaton reprise the role, no matter how brief, which no doubt would have created buzz about a possible crossover. In the years following Burton’s Superman Lives, a Batman Vs Superman movie was put in development with Colin Farrell and Jude Law eyed for the respective superheroes, which is one track a crossover could have taken. Exploring further, had THAT movie been a success, Warners’ may have experimented with further crossovers, like Cage’s Superman meeting Wonder Woman. Of course, that wasn’t meant to be, and the DCEU didn’t properly gear up until Zack Snyder’s Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice was put in development. It’s intriguing to imagine what a pre-DCEU shared universe may have looked like – even if the early 2000s was a choppy period for comic movies too.