Somewhere out in the cosmos, there exists a parallel world—an Earth-Two if you will—in which Jack Nicholson was never The Joker. A reality without that iconic mirror-smashing scene or the sublime weirdness of the “Batdance.” This is a universe in which we are all still arguing about whether Heath Ledger was a better Joker than John Lithgow. (Yes, even in this weird world, the opinion of Jared Leto’s attempt in unanimous.) As Joe Dante revealed in a recent interview with Psychotronic Cinema, he was given the chance to direct a Batman film before Tim Burton ever was.
“Well, the Batman that I was going to do would have been completely different from what they ended up making,” Dante said, before explaining that the vision he and screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (an uncredited writer on Gremlins) had for the film “was certainly darker than the TV version,” which was still what mainstream audiences associated with Batman. “It started with his parents being killed, and it was a revenge story. But it was very outlandish, had a lot of giant props in it. The Joker was a major character in it. I wanted to hire John Lithgow for that part because I had met him on The Twilight Zone movie.”
Now, there are a few things you need to keep in mind here. The first is that Dante has made some very fun and extremely weird movies with some impressively dark undertones. (If you still haven’t seen Gremlins 2: The New Batch, you’ve got to put your life in order.) Another is that Lithgow would eventually go on to embody one of the most menacing villains in television history. His performance as the Trinity Killer in the fourth (and best) season of Dexter is simply masterful. So, these two guys could have made something fantastic. So, what happened?
“[F]or whatever reason, I started to gravitate more towards The Joker than towards Batman,” Dante said. “And I actually woke up one night and I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this movie—I’m more interested in The Joker than I am in Batman, and that’s not the way it should be.’ So I went and told them that I couldn’t do it, and they looked at me like I’d completely lost my mind. But in the end, I think I was not the right guy to do the movie.”
That’s a laudable attitude to take towards the creative process. Unfortunately, it’s also probably a big part of why Dante is directing episodes of Hawaii Five-O now.