Robin is simultaneously one of Batman's most beloved and most controversial supporting characters. Though Robin was introduced a full year into Batman's existence as a means of attracting young readers, he's come to be synonymous with the universe of Gotham City. Just about every iteration of the Batman story has included Robin in some form or fashion.
He famously hit the big screen for the first time since 1966 in 1995's Batman Forever, played by Chris O'Donnell. Later, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises paid homage to the character in the form of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Caped Crusader ally, John Blake (birth name: Robin). However, we almost got a movie Robin much sooner than that, and he was to be played by, of all people, Marlon Wayans of Scary Movie and White Chicks fame. Wayans got so close to playing Robin that he even collected a paycheck for work he never ended up doing. What happened is a classic Hollywood story of almosts, maybes, and tantalizing what-ifs.
- Video: YouTube
Robin Was Actually Slated To Appear In 1989's 'Batman'
The journey to bring Robin to the big screen didn't start with Batman Returns. As far back as the earliest development of Batman as a feature film property, Robin was part of the equation. Thanks to the popularity of the '60s TV show in which he was a co-lead, Robin was considered a necessary element to translating Batman to the screen. An early draft of Batman, written by Tom Mankiewicz, had a major role for Robin. The studio considered Michael J. Fox and Eddie Murphy for the role. The inclusion of Murphy on the shortlist is interesting in light of the decision to cast Marlon Wayans, another African-American comedian, several years later.
By the time the final creative team was in place for Batman in 1988, Warner Bros. and producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber were firmly in favor of including Robin in the movie, while director Tim Burton and screenwriter Sam Hamm were vehemently against it. As is often the case with tentpole films, the studio was on track to get its way. Scripts up until the thick of pre-production included Robin. Storyboards were drawn up. Actors were approached. According to a 2012 interview, Kiefer Sutherland, fresh off The Lost Boys (which, oddly enough, was directed by future Batman Forever and Batman & Robin helmer Joel Schumacher), was approached to play Robin in the movie, but turned the part down.
Legend has it the role eventually went to Irish actor Ricky Addison Reed, who was first seen in American cinemas in the sequel Return to Salem's Lot. At the last minute, Robin's scenes were yanked from the script, owing to the fact that there were simply too many characters and not enough time to include Robin's entire origin story - in which his trapeze artist family perishes in an accident caused by the Joker - within the third act of the movie. Robin would simply have to wait for the inevitable sequel.
- Photo: Batman Returns / Warner Bros. Pictures
'Batman Returns' Went Through Multiple Rewrites Before It Reached The Screen
As complicated as the production of the first Batman was, the sequel was just as, if not more, difficult. Batman was a gigantic box-office smash in the summer of 1989, and the pressure didn't let up for Tim Burton, Michael Keaton, and the rest of the creative team. The desire was to deliver a follow-up that exceeded the sky-high expectations set by the first film. An early draft by original Batman writer Sam Hamm centered on Catwoman and the Penguin hunting for buried treasure, but it got scrapped. Heathers writer Daniel Waters replaced Hamm and settled on the basic structure of the movie we know today.
Waters wrote numerous drafts of Batman Returns, desperate to satiate the studio's clear directives to include certain elements and characters for toy sales - as well as his own creative ambition. Despite only wanting to feature Catwoman, Waters was forced to include the Penguin. Christopher Walken's Max Schreck was created to be the catalyst that brings Catwoman and the Penguin together. There were even a few scenes for Billy Dee Williams's Harvey Dent that would set up his appearance as Two-Face in the third Batman movie.
Another of those directives involved Robin, whose presence could guarantee even more action figures flying off department store shelves. The next step would be bringing to life the Boy Wonder with one of the more nontraditional comic book movie castings ever.
Marlon Wayans Was Still Relatively Unknown When He Was Cast As Robin
Marlon Wayans's first movie appearance was in 1988's I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, directed by his older brother Keenen Ivory Wayans. The elder Wayans would go on to create the Fox sketch comedy series In Living Color, which featured Marlon and launched his career. But by the time Batman Returns was in pre-production, In Living Color was not yet a big hit. So, the presence of Marlon Wayans in a Batman film would have meant bringing a new face out of obscurity to take the mantle of one of the most famous comic book characters ever. Crucially, it would have also made Wayans the first-ever Black superhero in a DC Comics film.
As Robin has historically always been a white character, picking Wayans to play him would have been a revolutionary, controversial, inspired casting choice in 1992. Such practices are more common today, as characters like Spider-Man and the Human Torch have been played by actors of color in movies. At the time, Wayans was signed to a deal that would have had him cameo in Batman Returns, then come back for a follow-up in full Robin costume.
Robin Was Written As An Auto Mechanic Who Fixes The Batmobile
As in the original Batman film, the Robin scenes in Batman Returns were something of a glorified cameo. Waters told the website Money Into Light:
We had Batman pull into a garage to get the Batmobile fixed, and there's a kid with an R on his uniform. We never went beyond that. Tim even thought the R on the uniform was too much. "Can't we just have this kid, and then bring him back later?" I wasn't that interested in Robin. Even with the Penguin, I was just like, "Can't it just be Catwoman?"
Despite Waters and Burton's ambivalence about including Robin, they went ahead with their plan to feed the massive, multimillion dollar merchandising machine.
- Photo: Amazon
Rumor Has It That The 'Batman Returns' Robin Action Figure Was Sculpted To Resemble Wayans
Of course, Marlon Wayans never got to play Robin. His scenes were cut from the script late in the game, as Waters and Burton were able to convince studio executives that adding another character to the already-stuffed screenplay would have been disastrous. Wayans remained under contract with the expectation that he would return for the franchise's third installment.
Inexplicably, there was still a Robin action figure in the Kenner Batman Returns toy line that was all over stores in 1992. Toy lines at the time already had an established history of including designs and characters that didn't appear in the films or TV shows they were based on. In fact, the Kenner Batman toy line from the original film had countless designs that had nothing to do with the movie. There was even a Penguin figure scheduled for release.
Some imaginative fans have speculated that the inclusion of the Robin figure was tied to Marlon Wayans's appearance in Batman Returns, even going so far as to claim that the Robin toy was sculpted to look like Wayans, thanks to the popularity of the flat-top haircut in Black culture, which the Robin toy has. That would have necessitated repainting the figure's skin tone when Robin was cut from the film. Other fans have tried to debunk that notion, pointing to how close the Robin toy is to the way Robin was drawn by comics illustrator Tom Lyle. Whether or not the toy was meant to look like Wayans, the fact remained that Robin was an immensely popular character that sold tons of merchandise. He was going to appear in a Batman motion picture sooner rather than later.
- Photo: Batman Forever / Warner Bros. Pictures
When Tim Burton Was Replaced By Joel Schumacher For 'Batman Forever,' Robin Was Recast
Despite having a contract to appear in the movie that would come to be known as Batman Forever, Marlon Wayans never got to play Robin. Batman Returns was a box-office success, but less so than its predecessor. Critics lamented how dark, grotesque, and mature the movie was. Batman corporate advertising partner McDonald's even got involved, lobbying to have Burton replaced as the director of the Batman movies so that they could be more kid-friendly. At the time, fast food movie tie-ins were an even bigger business than they are today, so millions of dollars were on the line. If parents were turned off by the adult themes of the Batman movies, the logic went that they would buy fewer toys.
Burton stepped aside, though he did retain a lucrative producer credit on Batman Forever. The Lost Boys director Joel Schumacher stepped in as his replacement. Schumacher was far more amenable to studio demands, turning Gotham City into a cheeky, fun, brightly colored carnival rather than the Brutalist nightmare it had been under Burton. He also happily included Robin.
The cast of Batman Forever involved some of the hottest names in Hollywood in 1995: Val Kilmer as Batman, Jim Carrey as the Riddler, and Nicole Kidman as Dr. Chase Meridian. Schumacher even recast the previously filled roles of Two-Face and Robin. While Michael Keaton quit the title role after reading the Batman Forever script, the other two actors who were slated to appear in a third Batman movie were cut loose. Curiously, the two actors Schumacher replaced were both Black: Billy Dee Williams and Marlon Wayans. Two-Face was recast with Tommy Lee Jones, and the role of Robin went to teen idol Chris O'Donnell.