Few things have defined the last two decades of Hollywood filmmaking more than superhero blockbusters and, in particular, the genre’s voracious appetite for gobbling up titillating indie directors and setting them to the task of building dark and plotty worlds. This trend came to the fore in 2005, when a 30-something Christopher Nolan was named the director for Warner Bros.’ long-awaited rebooting of its Batman franchise, kicking off an era of caped-avenger movies that remain dominant to this day.
But Nolan wasn’t the only director Warner was eyeing at the time. For a while there, it looked like acclaimed indie darling Darren Aronofsky was the 30-something who was going to get to make the Batman movie. This was after Joel Schumacher had taken the franchise as far into the realm of camp as American culture was prepared to accept. Warner had already kiboshed any plans to let the Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997) director complete a trilogy and had begun to ponder a number of visionary filmmakers who could take things in a new direction: Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven), Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind), Joss Whedon. Then in September 2000, WB announced that Aronofsky — who had directed the ultralow-budget paranoid thriller Pi and whose Requiem for a Dream had played Cannes but was still several weeks away from opening in the U.S. — would partner with Frank Miller to adapt the comic author’s Batman: Year One.
In our timeline (that is, reality), Aronofsky subsequently battled with Warner Bros. over many aspects of his proposed film, including the casting of the lead role. He even sparred with Miller, who, in a 2016 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, said of working with Aronofsky: “It was the first time I worked on a Batman project with somebody whose vision of Batman was darker than mine.” After a while, the Year One project was dropped, and in 2003, Warner Bros. moved forward with a Christopher Nolan–David S. Goyer project that eventually became Batman Begins. We all know where Nolan, who’d just released his first WB film Insomnia two years after premiering his neo-noir Memento, and the Dark Knight franchise went from there.
Aronofsky went on to make his passion project The Fountain happen, eventually building an eclectic and fascinating résumé that includes The Wrestler, Black Swan, and mother! But what if film history went the other way? What happens in the mirror universe where Aronofsky made the Batman movie instead of Nolan? In this edition of “Alternate Timelines” — a regular column in which I attempt to navigate the many possible, darker realities that Hollywood might have wrought should a six-sided die have rolled differently — I’ll be answering that very question. It starts with a Freddie Prinze Jr. rejection and ends with an HBO Max catastrophe, naturally.
1. Batman Begins With a Fight for Joaquin Phoenix
2000–3: After Schumacher’s Day-Glo reign comes to its end, Warner Bros. is hell-bent on taking the franchise down a darker path. And so, in a decision that really could have gone either way, the studio decides against Nolan’s version of Batman’s early days and instead is all in on Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One. In the crucial role of Bruce Wayne/Batman, Aronofsky wants to cast Joaquin Phoenix, fresh off an Oscar nomination for Gladiator. The studio, however, is pushing for Freddie Prinze Jr., fresh off Warner’s minor-league-baseball flop, Summer Catch. Following a heated battle, Aronofsky wins and Joaquin Phoenix is our next Batman. (And Scooby-Doo’s legacy remains intact.)
2. An Even Darker Knight Takes Shape
2005: Batman: Year One opens in theaters. In the years between green light and premiere, we hear whispers about the tense environment on set, so it’s no surprise that the resulting film is, famously, an extremely dark, violent, hard-R version of the Batman story — one that impresses the critics but lowers the film’s box-office ceiling. Let’s just say it fails to gross $200 million, but its impact on the future of superhero stories proves already to be priceless. Rosario Dawson (after appearing in another Frank Miller adaptation, Sin City, the same year) plays Catwoman/Selina Kyle and is the breakout star of the supporting cast.
Meanwhile, reeling off WB’s rejection of his own Batman pitch, Nolan retreats to an old project: He’d been trying to make a Howard Hughes biopic with Jim Carrey for years but opted against it because Martin Scorsese was already in production for The Aviator. Wounded and stubborn, Nolan decides to go ahead with his own Hughes film anyway, which opens a year after Scorsese’s, is compared unfavorably to it, and ultimately flops.
Meanwhile, with Joaquin committed to Batman: Year One, his Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line gets pushed back a year. And so with Reese Witherspoon now out of the 2005 Oscar race, the door is open for Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman to take Best Actress for Transamerica for a performance as a trans woman that gets more controversial with every passing year.
3. Reese Loses the Oscar But Joaquin Wins
2006: Walk the Line eventually premieres to great acclaim, with critics and awards voters alike flipping out over Joaquin’s range. “He’s Bruce Wayne and Johnny Cash?” the buzz goes. “Give that man an Oscar!” Well, they do give him an Oscar, edging out an acclaimed performance by Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland. And while Phoenix’s co-star, Reese Witherspoon, gets a Best Actress nomination, her performance exists in Phoenix’s shadow, and she loses the Oscar to awards-season buzzsaw Helen Mirren for The Queen.
4. Christian Bale Plays Superman … Unfortunately
2006: At the same time that Warner Bros. was trying to get a new Batman movie off the ground, the studio was trying to reboot its Superman character, who had been hibernating since 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace marked the end of the Christopher Reeve tenure. The studio spent over two decades trying to get a new Superman film off the ground, with the likes of Tim Burton, Kevin Smith, J.J. Abrams, and McG attached at one point, and Nicolas Cage, Josh Hartnett, and Christian Bale among those rumored to play the Man of Steel.
Bale ends up snagging the lead role in what turns out to be Superman Returns, directed by Bryan Singer. Unfortunately, the film is no more a success in this alternate timeline than it was in ours, and its negative reception with both critics and audiences hits Bale’s career hard.
2007: One year later, Nolan rebounds from his failed Hughes biopic to make a small movie about magicians called The Prestige, casting Hugh Jackman in one of the two lead roles. Having always wanted to work with Bale after the whole Batman business, Nolan ignores the stench of Superman Returns and signs him to play the rival magician. The movie, seen as a return to Memento-style form for Nolan, does okay at the box office and becomes something of a cult favorite with audiences, enough to keep both Nolan and Bale’s careers afloat.
5. Heath Ledger Still Gets the Joker Role
2008: Bad news, gang: The Dark Knight does not exist in this timeline. Instead, we get Batman: Year Two, a much smaller, weirder follow-up film. This one still casts Heath Ledger in the role of the Joker, though, and he still wins the Oscar (posthumously) for his genre-transcending performance. But the film itself is even more violent than its predecessor, and not nearly commercial enough to ever qualify as a serious Best Picture contender. So when the Oscar nominations are announced, there’s no real backlash to a Batman snub. And without that uproar, the Oscars never make the move to expand the Best Picture category to ten nominees.
6. Nolan Scores With The Incredible Hulk
2008: The nascent Marvel Cinematic Universe still begins to emerge in this timeline, but with the Robert Downey Jr.–starring Iron Man set for a summer 2008 premiere, Marvel turns to the once-again-promising Nolan to direct its other superhero movie that year: The Incredible Hulk. Nolan casts his Prestige star Bale, despite his Superman history, who bulks up for the role (not that he has to — it’s CGI, buddy! — but you try telling Christian Bale not to alter his body for a big role). (Having lost out on the role of Bruce Banner, Edward Norton is … honestly a lot happier.)
In Nolan’s hands, Hulk sets a darker tone for the MCU from the break and garners rave reviews and massive box-office appeal. Nolan is back, baby! Iron Man, meanwhile, will go down in alternate history as the other, lighter Marvel movie in 2008. A nice companion, sure, but Hulk is the movie everybody is excited about.
7. Rosario Dawson Is Black Widow
2010: Given the box-office performance, Marvel goes with Incredible Hulk 2 instead of Iron Man 2 for its second MCU movie. This nets a huge payday for Bale, making him one of the world’s biggest movie stars. Directing again, Nolan casts Batman: Year One star Rosario Dawson as Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, beginning to put the pieces of the Avengers together.
8. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett Don’t Quite Understand The Fountain, But They Star in It Anyway
2010: As the years go by, Phoenix becomes disillusioned by his Oscar-winning stature and Batman legacy, especially in the wake of Heath Ledger’s death. And so he embarks on a beardo phase, winding his way to the faux documentary I’m Still Here and generally confounding the public.
Aronofsky, meanwhile, is done with Batman movies — Year Two didn’t make enough money to demand a third one anyway — and instead decides to devote his efforts to a time-traveling existential meditation called The Fountain. (Yup, no universe can escape it.) This time, his original stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett actually do stick around to make the movie. Having amassed a dedicated cult audience from the Batman movies, Aronofsky’s The Fountain isn’t the flop that the film was in our timeline, but it’s not a smash either, and Pitt and Blanchett’s press appearances have them frequently alluding to not understanding what the film was on about.
9. No Oscar for Natalie Portman
2010: With The Fountain on his plate, Aronofsky has no time to make Black Swan this year, meaning Natalie Portman never wins the Best Actress Oscar for her role in it. You’d think that this would open the door for Annette Bening to finally get recognized by the Academy for the indie hit The Kids Are All Right but no, she’s ultimately upset at the 11th hour by upstart ingenue Jennifer Lawrence for Winter’s Bone. (This has implications down the road when Lawrence makes Silver Linings Playbook and, having already won her Oscar, drops the 2012 Best Actress trophy to Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty.)
Speaking of the 2010 Oscars, though, our new biggest movie star in the world, Bale, still wins his Oscar for The Fighter, having drawn massive acclaim for his change-of-pace performance (and, sigh, weight loss).
10. Iron Man Dies
2012: Riding high on the success of the Hulk movies, Nolan signs on to direct The Avengers. But from the jump, there is behind-the-scenes strife as he tries to meld his darker tone with the less moody additions of characters like Thor and Captain America. Nolan ultimately leaves the project, with Marvel bringing in Joss Whedon to pick things up. Desiring heavier stakes for the finale of the film, and falling back on his years of killing off beloved characters on his TV shows, Whedon decides one of the Avengers must die. With Bale’s Hulk the indispensable A-lister of this crew, Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is seen as the right choice to sacrifice, and Tony Stark dies after saving the world from the Chitauri. The audience reaction to this is tumultuous, and for years after, a vocal subset of MCU fans will clamor for the Nolan cut of The Avengers.
11. Leo Gets His Oscar … for Inception
2014: Nolan officially breaks off from Marvel after The Avengers debacle and goes back to his byzantine basics to make Inception, which is a big, confusing hit for both Nolan and his star, Leonardo DiCaprio. Having just come off The Wolf of Wall Street, Leo has a ton of Oscar buzz surrounding him. That fervor ends up propelling Inception to Best Picture and Best Director nominations for Nolan and nabs the Best Actor win for DiCaprio at long last. (As a result, Leo doesn’t win for The Revenant the next year. You’d think that would leave the field open for a now-Oscar-less Eddie Redmayne to win for The Danish Girl, but Felicity Huffman winning Best Actress for Transamerica caused such a backlash against cis actors playing trans roles that Redmayne isn’t even nominated and instead Matt Damon wins for The Martian.)
12. La La Land Wins Best Picture
2016: With the Best Picture category at the Oscars still limited to five nominees, the prospects for small, low-budget indies are much more pessimistic. For a movie like Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, the odds of getting a nomination are too long, and without a groundswell campaign, the film ends up off the Best Picture lineup. This clears the field for La La Land to win Best Picture despite more than a few noisy detractors. In the resulting uproar over how a movie like Moonlight doesn’t even get nominated, the Academy makes the decision to expand the Best Picture category to ten films.
13. Hulk Snap
2019: At the epic conclusion of Avengers: Endgame, it is Bale’s Hulk who sacrifices himself to defeat Thanos. (Instead of Tony Stark’s “I am Iron Man,” Bruce Banner’s final line is “Hulk … snap”).
14. Robert Downey Jr. Wins the Oscar for Joker
2019: Having never become the highest paid actor in the world, cut out of the Avengers universe years ago, and still hungry for the kind of success that Bale got, Robert Downey Jr. takes a flier on a darkly comedic role in a film with his Due Date director, Todd Phillips. The movie is Joker. It’s a critical hit, it wins the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, and in February 2020, Robert Downey Jr. wins the Oscar for Best Actor.
15. Nolan Stays Home in 2020
2020: Fifteen years after their fates intersected over the Batman franchise, Aronofsky and Nolan are still visionary auteurs working within the studio system. With lingering wounds over Batman and the bad taste of the Avengers affair still somewhat fresh in his mouth, Nolan finds himself more ambivalent about big studio tentpole films than he used to be. So when the pandemic pushes his latest film, Tenet, off the summer release calendar, he decides that blockbuster films are probably not worth dying for and relents to releasing Tenet in 2021.
Meanwhile, having stayed largely loyal to Warner Bros. since Batman: Year One, Aronofsky directs the enigmatic, allegorical horror film mother!, set to be released in late 2020. But the pandemic year rocks Hollywood hard, and Warner Bros. makes the decision to premiere mother! on HBO Max on Christmas Day (it does feature a scene of the birth of Jesus, after all). The film is considered a masterpiece, but the at-home audiences loathe it. By the end of 2020, HBO Max subscribers are canceling en masse.
Columnist Joe Reid’s ongoing series, “Alternate Timelines,” will appear regularly on Vulture.