Today in Holy Sh-tcan Batman News, Warner Brothers has decided to shelve Batgirl, a feature film centered on Barbara Gordon, which was supposed to be released this year on HBO Max. The film stars Leslie Grace as Barbara, alongside J.K. Simmons reprising his role as Commissioner Gordon, Brendan Fraser as villain “the Firefly” (not the disrespecting of Brendan Fraser!), Michael Keaton returning as Batman, and Ivory Aquino, the first trans actor cast in a DC film. It was directed by the duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who recently executive produced and directed episodes of Ms. Marvel. Not only was Batgirl to give Barbara Gordon a starring moment—other than being victimized by the Joker and having a deeply upsetting sexual encounter with Batman in the animated film The Killing Joke—it is also one of the most diverse superhero films to date. And we’ll never see it.
The New York Post reported first on the sh-tcanning of Batgirl, which was a noticeable absence during DC’s Hall H presentation at Comic Con. According to the Post, test screenings for the film went so poorly the Post’s source called it “unspeakable” and “irredeemable”. Warners, now under the aegis of new entity Warner Bros. Discovery and its top boss, David Zaslav, decided to sh-tcan the movie and just eat the loss rather than let it see the light of day, which is an extraordinary decision—you don’t just shelve nearly completed feature films that cost upwards of $100 million. (You do, however, sh-tcan TV pilots all the time, so maybe this is the inevitable end of the contentification of all cinema.)
David Zaslav is indeed a cost-cutter, axing CNN+ less than a month after its launch and laying off nearly 1,000 employees earlier this year. It does track that Zaslav might order the shelving of a feature rather than spend more on marketing and distribution only to see it flop, online or in theaters. In a statement, Warners called the decision a “strategic shift as it relates to the DC universe and HBO Max.” (They also shelved the animated film Scoob! Holiday Haunt, which has nothing to do with DC, and cancelled a Wonder Twins movie starring KJ Apa and Isabel May earlier this year.) And as Variety points out, sht-tcanning the film—and Scoob! 2—means tax write downs. So it might be a better financial decision to ax the films and write off the losses than increase spending to put them in the market, though that still seems suspect as features usually have contractual and/or insurance obligations regarding release. But these are dry business decisions, Sarah, surely there is some gossip? Readers, there is.
One person I spoke to said Comic Con was “a kick in the teeth”, that they brought Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, one of the most famous and well-liked people on the entire planet, to Hall H only to get drowned out by the Marvel news that evening. The folks still left at Warners working in or near the DC Films unit—which has seen significant upheaval through two regime changes in the last few years—are high on Shazam!: Fury of the Gods (reportedly, very good), and Black Adam (not as good, but has a SUPERstar cameo to bolster it, if you catch my drift). They also have a lot of optimism for the non-DCEU stuff like The Batman sequel and the Joker sequel, which is “unexpected”, and yet, the feeling is they can never get ahead of Marvel.
“Even when Marvel is a little vulnerable, some fans aren’t liking this or that, they show up and announce sixteen new things and it’s like none of the last two years happened,” my source went on. It’s not that they expected to “win” over Marvel—though they did think The Rock would make a greater impression than “a bunch of key art and dates”—it’s the “feeling of falling on a treadmill, that no matter the effort, we’re constantly hitting the floor”. The upheaval of the last several years hasn’t helped, cratering morale and creating confusion. Zaslav is attempting to streamline things and intends to bring in a top boss for DC akin to Kevin Feige’s role at Marvel, which may help things in the long term, but short-term, the sentiment is just more frustration, especially with constant expectations from inside and outside the studio that DC Films should operate just like Marvel (“Can’t Feige go make a f-cking Star War, already?”).
Another person put it this way: “It feels like the new guy is reversing everything the old guy did.” Meaning, it feels like Zaslav is undoing the progress of former Warners chief Toby Emmerich, who was big on a more diverse direction for DC, okaying features for Batgirl with a woman of color lead—Leslie Grace is Dominican—and a Blue Beetle film starring Xolo Maridueña, which wrapped just last month, as well as a Black Canary film for Jurnee Smollett (who was teasing her return earlier this summer, but now…). Blue Beetle was originally intended to be an HBO Max release, like Batgirl, though it is currently slated for an August 2023 theatrical release. But now some people are wondering if their work on that film might be for naught if Zaslav decides to cut more losses. “He says he wants blockbusters,” they went on. “That usually means famous white guys in the cape.”
And what about The Flash? “DON’T ASK,” said my source. The film is still happening, though, and still stars the embattled Ezra Miller, though Michael Keaton’s return as Batman is “not as important as first touted”. In yet another reversal, it seems Keaton is no longer meant to become “the” Batman of the DCEU, just “a” Batman from an alternate dimension. When I pointed out the optics of dumping Batgirl—an intersectionally diverse film—but keeping The Flash as is, the response was, “I KNOW, but it is what it is. The Flash is a marquee name. It’ll be released, come hell or high water.” The feeling is The Flash can survive as a brand even if the film flops, that Miller can be recast and the franchise rebooted, if needed (some people think Miller can survive their current troubles with a charismatic performance, which…). The Flash is an important character to keep in play for a potential new Justice League film, while Batgirl is seen as more of a sidekick, who can be used as fan service, if at all.
I sympathize with that treadmill feeling, but one thing is clear to me, and that is that David Zaslav is refocusing DC Films—and Warners at large—on theatrical releases. He’s not into former Warners boss Jason Kilar’s plans for producing mid-budget films for direct-to-streaming releases, which should make fans of the theatrical experience happy. However, there seems to be some anxiety that with Zaslav’s about face comes a return of that old canard that only white guys sell at the box office. The fact that Warners isn’t rushing out assurances that Blue Beetle and Black Canary remain on track isn’t heart-warming.
Batgirl is getting all the headlines, but I feel this note from someone who worked on Scoob! Holiday Haunt sums up the whole situation succinctly: “We worked really hard, and are proud of what we did, and no one will see it. It sucks.”
It does, indeed, suck.