Bad luck Batgirl: the cancellation of the DC superhero’s film is only her latest misfortune

The Gotham vigilante was patronised in The Lego Batman Movie, paralysed in The Killing Joke and underwritten in Batman and Robin. Will fans never get to see Gail Simone’s nuanced and modern version of the character?

Are they really cancelling Batgirl? Who does that, given the troubled history of Barbara Gordon’s Gotham vigilante in comics and on the big screen?

These are the questions DC fans will be asking this week after it was reported that Warner Bros is declining to release a nearly completed movie by the Ms Marvel directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, and with Leslie Grace in the title role, despite the film being in post-production. Apparently it’s all part of a massive tax write down.

Ahem, seriously? This is the same superhero who has been paralysed and (almost certainly) raped in the comics, and whose only big-screen appearances have been either bland and underwritten (Alicia Silverstone in 1997’s execrable Batman and Robin), or semi-apologetic. Remember Rosario Dawson’s Gordon’s response to the caped crusader in The Lego Batman Movie when he labels her “Batgirl”? Yep, it’s “Can I call you Batboy?

Alicia Silverstone, with George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell in Batman and Robin.
Bland … Alicia Silverstone, with George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell in Batman and Robin. Photograph: Warner Bros/Sportsphoto/Allstar

Then there was the controversy surrounding the awful 2016 feature-length animated take on Alan Moore’s iconic yet deeply suspect 1988 graphic novel The Killing Joke. Not content with adapting a comic known for its infamous depiction of The Joker shooting and paralysing Gordon, the movie added a misogynistic 30-minute opening in which Batgirl is schooled by Batman for her superhero failings, has impulsive sex with him, and basically ticks off every trope you can think of to suggest women should leave crimefighting to the men.

Warner may also want to bear in mind the history of women in comic-book movies, because the optics of this decision are terrible. Until fairly recently, studios ran scared of ever putting a woman’s name to a superhero film, largely thanks to the famously terrible box office and critical return for 2004’s Catwoman, starring Halle Berry. Never mind that it had nothing whatsoever to do with the slinky comic book catburglar invented by Bill Finger and Bob Kane (Berry plays Patience Phillips rather than Selina Kyle), and was made by someone, French director Pitof, with no previous Hollywood experience. There wasn’t another big screen DC movie with a female superhero as the title character until Wonder Woman in 2017.

Leslie Grace, centre, and Ivory Aquino, right, on the Glasgow set of Batgirl in January 2022.
New ground … Leslie Grace, centre, and Ivory Aquino, right, on the Glasgow set of Batgirl in January 2022. Photograph: Ewan Bootman/Rex/Shutterstock

What’s most upsetting is that Batgirl was experiencing a headline-making renaissance in the comics as recently as the early 2010s, when Gail Simone’s nuanced and refreshingly modern run introduced a version of the character who has survivor’s guilt and PTSD after her recovery from the injuries inflicted on her by the Joker following experimental surgery in South Africa. Some fans were concerned that Gordon’s return to the persona of Batgirl – she had been known as Oracle during her time in a wheelchair, and took on more of background role as an information broker for the superhero community – effectively removed one of the rare DC disabled characters. Nevertheless, the run was incredibly popular and broke new ground. It even featured one of the first major transgender characters in mainstream comic books: Barbara’s friend Alysia Yeoh, who was due to be portrayed by Ivory Aquino on the big screen.

We’ll probably never know whether the abandoned film was canned due to being terrible – as studio suits have clearly been briefing to the Hollywood Reporter – or simply became the unfortunate victim of a new regime at Warner Bros. But its disappearance from the DC slate will only serve to increase clamour for the studio to finally get Batgirl right.

Simone revealed in 2021 that during her time writing the comics, the DC powers-that-be refused to allow the superhero her own secret superhero base – despite this being a staple of many DC costumed titans. Taken together with all the other travails faced by Gordon over her five decades in the spotlight, it starts to look as if there simply isn’t the confidence in Batgirl that’s required for her to truly prosper amid a crowded superhero slate. That’s gutting for long-term fans of the character. Unfortunately, only DC and Warner Bros are in a position to explain why the superhero never quite gets her moment to battle through the streets of Gotham.


Ben Child

The GuardianTramp

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