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Back in 1989, Tim Burton's theatrical take on Batman revolutionized the character in the minds of an audience who mainly still knew the Caped Crusader as the guy who slid down fire poles and had groovy dance moves. The movie was a triumph, but it wasn't Warner Bros' first attempt to get a Batman movie off the ground. In the early 80's, there was an entirely different version of the movie floating around, with Joe Dante approached to direct. He considered having John Lithgow cast as the Joker, which is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this movie.
According to Psychotronic Blog, after the success of Richard Donner's Superman: The Movie, Warner Bros. decided it was Batman's turn for the big screen treatment. There was (a now famous) script for the film written by Tom Mankiewicz, who polished the notoriously awful early drafts of Superman: The Movie, as well as some James Bond films like Live and Let Die and The Spy Who Loved Me. Mankiewicz's Batman was similar in tone to Donner's Superman, and would have been an origin story for the Caped Crusader. Other details include that it would have had multiple villains (Joker and Penguin) and that it had a big Bond-esque set-piece for the climax. One of the possibilities to direct the film was Joe Dante, who was coming off hot after Gremlins.
Dante was interested in the project, but ended up declining the offer. He was on the fence, and apparently he started thinking a lot about the Joker and who would have played the villain. His number one choice for the part was John Lithgow (3rd Rock from the Sun), though the actor was never offered the part. As Dante remembers there was a specific reason he realized he wasn't right for the job. He said:
I wanted to hire John Lithgow for that part because I had met him on The Twilight Zone movie. And for whatever reason, I started to gravitate more towards The Joker than towards Batman. 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.'
When remembering the script, Dante recalls that its tone was somewhere between the 1960's Adam West TV version and Chris Nolan's famous Dark Knight trilogy, and that it was very "outlandish." It's important to note that Mankiewicz's script was entirely different from Sam Hamm's script for Tim Burton's 1989 Batman. That script was created from the ground up, with plenty of classic Burton flair.
It's the Batman movie that never was, but it would be incredibly interesting to see. 1989's Batman is responsible for shaping the perception of Batman and cementing his place in movie theaters. It makes you wonder how different things would be if Tom Mankiewicz's script had ever gotten off the ground.