Warner Bros Discovery’s handling of the DCEU has reached a new low with the Batgirl debacle – can it get any worse?.
Earlier this week, Warner Bros announced that it was cancelling the production of Batgirl, a move that has left fans and critics perplexed. Not to mention the hardworking folk who poured time, skill and care into a project that despite being largely finished, will now likely never see the light of day. The studio announced the move in typical corporate fashion, issuing a dry statement that explained away the film’s demise as little more than a ‘strategic shift’ in leadership, and the hollow plaudits offered in the vague direction of the cast and crew will do little to endear Warner Bros to the legions of fans who are becomingly increasingly frustrated with the studio’s continued mismanagement of its DC Extended Universe.
More on Batgirl directly in a moment, but first let’s just add a little context.
The nine-year history of the DCEU has been littered with scandal, questionable decision-making and chiefly, an overall lack of artistic direction. It’s been almost a decade since Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel flew into cinemas, sparking Warner Bros’ attempts to create a shared universe to compete with that of Marvel Studios. And in the years since, although we’ve enjoyed a few great films, there has also been much mediocrity along the way.
There’s a bigger problem here too, beyond simply whether we get to see beloved characters such as Batgirl get their turn on the screen (be that screen big one or small). Warner Bros’ continued bungling of its superhero characters has to bear some of the blame for the fracture in the fanbase which has caused so much anger, recrimination and upset for so many people over the last few years. The treatment of Zack Snyder. The Snyder Cut saga. The Ray Fisher allegations. The alleged actions of Joss Whedon. To be clear, I’m not attempting to diminish the role of personal responsibility by blaming everything on the huge, faceless corporation. If somebody chooses to (online or in person) act in a way that impacts negatively upon the dignity of another human being, that’s entirely their choice and it reflects on them entirely. .
However, with that caveat having been clearly stated, the muddled decision-making of Warner Bros’ top brass, not to mention a few ethically-debatable manoeuvres along the way isn’t helping matters and has created the type of febrile atmosphere where this behaviour is enabled.
Without wishing to beat the DCEU by comparing it unfavourably to Marvel Studios (because that dead horse has been well and truly flogged) it’s the lack of direction, mixed messaging and general lack of corporate responsibility towards beloved titles and characters that encourages individuals to then act in equally irresponsible ways.
One quick example? After backing Joss Whedon over Ray Fisher during the Justice League scandal, the studio’s reputation was unquestionably tarnished when a host of actors took to social media to make similar allegations suggesting that Fisher’s claims about Whedon were likely true.
You’d think that might be enough to prompt Warner Bros to learn from such missteps given the damage that saga caused to its reputation but as it stands, both the Batgirl debacle and the studio’s baffling inaction with regards to the ongoing Ezra Miller situation (which continues to blight public support for The Flash movie) suggests that it has learned, at best, not enough.
Let’s talk about Batgirl then. The Hollywood Reporter this week released a follow-up piece looking at the fallout of the film’s cancellation and amid a great many ensuing problems that we’ll get to shortly.
One claim is the most baffling of all: the film didn’t test poorly with audiences. Despite other outlets citing anonymous ‘sources’ that used adjectives like ‘irredeemable’, The Hollywood Reporter offers the most comprehensive take on the film’s test screening process, claiming that ‘it is believed’ that Batgirl only tested once, without VFX or a score. Despite that, the film scored in the 60s, a result that movies like IT: Chapter One and Shazam managed on their respective ways to tidy box office profits and decent reviews.
Batgirl however, will enjoy no such opportunity. Now we all know that Hollywood Logic, like anything with the ‘Hollywood’ prefix, is prone to being more than a little unpredictable. Hollywood ‘Jail’ and Hollywood Accounting are just two phrases that have become industry shorthand for haywire decision making that is often lacking in logic and sometimes even bereft of ethics. Even applying the formula of Hollywood Logic to the Batgirl decision however, still leaves you with a decision that makes almost no sense on practically every level.
Let’s begin with the financial aspect then, because we can all be sure that’s the prism through which new Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav was looking at things when he decided to pull the plug on Batgirl. The film originally cost around $80m to produce, with that edging up to $90m because of Covid-19 costs. With Zaslav’s ‘shifting strategy’ aiming to move DCEU films away from streaming to instead become major theatrical releases, Batgirl, originally green-lit as a more modest HBO Max release, was seen by some quarters of the media as needing more money showered upon it to punch it up to that blockbuster standard.
But did it? 2019’s Shazam! released theatrically on a similar production budget and if The Hollywood Reporter is to be believed, played to test audiences who responded in a very similar fashion to those who saw early cuts of Shazam! What’s more, if we continue to look at Shazam! as a canary down the mine, it did really quite well, going on to earn around $370m worldwide, before you factor in home formats sales and other gubbins. There’s even a sequel to it on the way.
Like Shazam! before it, Batgirl may not have possessed a starry leading name (with respect to Leslie Grace whose turn in the cowl was nonetheless anticipated greatly by lots of us), but it did have a couple of aces up its sleeve that Shazam! didn’t, meaning the film may have even surpassed its predecessor in the box office stakes.
Firstly, with JK Simmons appearing as Commissioner Gordon once more, the film featured closer links to the Snyder-verse than Shazam! The Snyder-verse continues to be loved by many fans, not to mention appealing to a section of the fanbase that is proven to mobilise to support projects, with their credit cards and with their time,
Secondly? The not-so-small matter of Batman ’89. The return of Michael Keaton to a role that practically spawned all of this pop-culture-explosive-nerdism that we love to celebrate would have fired up another section of the geek fanbase desperate to see ‘their’ Batman back on the big screen again.
Finally, Batgirl was a beacon for for progressive representation. The first Latina lead in a superhero film? Transgender actor Ivory Aquino in a key role? The directors, Adil & Bilall bringing a unique perspective as Muslim, Belgian-Moroccan filmmakers? When case studies examined why Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth performed so admirably in the US, they found that it wasn’t simply because of the film’s undoubted quality (the awards acclaim would of course follow in due course) but also simply because it did what nobody else was doing at the time: it put Spanish-speaking characters and stories on American cinema screens and for some sections of the audience, that alone was enough to merit buying a ticket.
Consider the Pan’s Labyrinth effect applied to a superhero film with ‘Bat’ in the title and the possibility for success becomes clear. When you combine the potential of those respective audiences, Batgirl clearly had the chance to cross over into a mainstream success, especially given that (and sorry for repeating this) nothing has been said to indicate that the film was in any way lacking in quality.
However, here comes the kicker: let’s say for argument’s sake that our Shazam! comparison holds no water and that Batgirl did require punching-up: instead of splashing the cash like the studio has happily done in the past with reshoots and the like, Zaslav instead elected to exercise a one-time opportunity emerging from the Discovery merger to essentially write the film off as a tax break. All with the sole aim of appeasing the audience that matters most to corporations: the investors.
Yep, in a depressingly cynical fashion, Warner Bros dropped the bombshell a few days before a vital earnings call, seen by many as the first quarterly call to determine the perceived success of the mega-billions merger with Discovery AT&T. Rather than have Batgirl lingering around uncertainly like the spectre at the feast, leading to questions (and rightly so) about Warner Bros’ lack of clear direction for the DCEU, a property worth billions and billions of dollars, the company elected to simply excise the problem, making it clear that ‘purchase accounting’ would mean that Batgirl’s production and demise would be effectively written off without loss to the company’s bottom line.
The move echoes Disney’s equally cold dispatching of John Carter back in 2012, another very cynical, very public write-down that was designed to convince investors ‘not to worry if you’re unsure about this project, we aren’t sure either!’ (despite the fact that it had just premiered in cinemas worldwide, of course). Disney’s callous dismissal of John Carter whilst it was still in cinemas was a calculated move to shore up investor confidence by proving it understood its own flaws, without them needing to be pointed out by external forces. (It probably didn’t hurt that a public disavowal of its new space fantasy franchise would help to convince a certain George Lucas that his Star Wars series would be the top priority for the Mouse House as he entered negotiations to sell the property to them).
Of course, the fact that hundreds and hundreds of peoples’ hard work had to be publicly ravaged to achieve those goals was certainly not of paramount importance to Disney, but at least it had the good grace to actually release the film, even if it didn’t even wait until its cinema run was done to put the boot in. In choosing to shelve Batgirl, Warner Bros, once renowned as the most ‘filmmaker-friendly’ of all of the major studios has further sullied its former reputation as a destination for filmmakers, talent and fans. (We wonder if somewhere, Christopher Nolan is taking a moment away from making Oppenheimer to say “I told you so.’)
If anything good is to come from this abysmal turn of events, it’s that this film was set to appeal to all DCEU fans, regardless of their background, persuasion or favourite corner of the DC Universe. As a fanbase that’s been fractured for far too long, hopefully all DC fans can rally behind the single unifying belief that this is a bogus move, an unedifying strategy from a company that has brazenly placed profits before people.
Pressure has been placed on Warner Bros to reverse DCEU decisions before, pressure under which it has sometimes buckled. However, such approaches have often exacted a very human cost. We’d like to think that Batgirl will one day be seen, that the sway of public opinion could be enough to give the project its time in the sun that all involved so richly deserve.
Above all though? We hope that however people choose to make their feelings heard about this, they do it a fashion which always remembers that everybody involved in this regrettable process is a human being. Time. Effort. Careers. Sadly, the rather cynical nature of Warner Bros’ decision-making here has already negatively impacted enough lives and it would be a genuine shame were it to affect any more. As of right now though, Warner Bros’ handling of Batgirl will mark the nadir of the company’s last decade of producing DCEU films. Things can only get better. Let’s hope that they do.
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