The top secret script sits on a desk in the Santa Monica office of director Wolfgang Petersen. It's a heavily scribbled-upon draft only a handful have seen, with a title that promises to send comic-book geeks and merchandise-mad marketers into giggly fits of glee: ''Batman vs. Superman.''
On July 8, after years of shuffling two of its biggest franchises through a development purgatory more dire than anything the Joker or Lex Luthor could conjure, Warner Bros. announced that Petersen (''The Perfect Storm'') had been tapped to direct the behemoth team-up. You can see the wheels turning in the executive suite: in one corner, Batman's $705 million haul over four movies; in the other, the $318 million take from Christopher Reeve's four earlier flights -- plus recent TV forays ''Lois & Clark'' and ''Smallville.''
Details of the screenplay (by ''Seven'' writer Andrew Kevin Walker) are under tighter security than Gotham City's Arkham Asylum, but Petersen shared a few tidbits as he gears up to begin shooting next February for a summer 2004 release: ''Batman vs. Superman'' won't dwell on the heroes' origins. Instead, the titular titans cross paths (and figurative swords) over a case involving both Metropolis and Gotham. ''Their individual crises are what pit them against each other,'' says Petersen. ''Superman [stands by] his old thing of 'truth, justice, and the American way' -- oh, boy, he gets into trouble with that one!'' Meanwhile, the brooding Batman ''gets into a case so violent that he's about to lose it. [But] it's a superhero film, so of course at the end they join forces.''
While he downplays any serious overtones, Petersen says that post-Sept. 11 he wants to create more realistic working conditions for his protagonists. ''It doesn't deal with a political situation like [the attacks], but it deals with the morality of this world right now and the gray zone we're in. Just to see how superheroes work in today's world is interesting.''
The search has already begun for a few good men (in their late 20s to early 30s) to suit up for the leads. In addition, Petersen will cast three major female roles, not to mention some still-undisclosed villains. Inspired by Tobey Maguire's ''Spider-Man,'' the director says he's looking for thesps who ''can really act and give complexity and emotions, but would have the fun of being a great superhero and maybe pump up a little bit.'' He cites proven chopsocker Matt Damon as an example, but says he hasn't actually approached the ''Bourne Identity'' star. (Damon's rep has no comment.) An agency source says Warner's shortlist includes Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, James Franco, Jude Law, and Paul Walker.