If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a “funeral screening”, so were the cast and crew members who gathered for secret showings of the new Batgirl movie this August. They were in all likelihood the last people ever to see the movie. The week before, Warner Bros had announced that Batgirl would never be released but would instead be destroyed, buried, perhaps read its last rites and cremated in a little bat-shaped coffin.
Seldom, if ever, has a studio spent $90m (£79m) on a movie only to scrap it before it ever saw the light of day. Especially not one that was widely anticipated (it was a superhero movie with “bat” in its title), and which was set to be a standard-bearer for inclusion. Batgirl herself was played by Dominican-American actor Leslie Grace – who would have become one of the first Latino screen superheroes. And Batgirl’s best friend, Alysia Yeoh, was played by Ivory Aquino. Both the character and the Filipina-American actor are trans women – another first.
For good measure, Batgirl’s directors were Moroccan-Belgian duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. El Arbi was on his honeymoon in Morocco when he received the news. “They said they’re gonna kill the movie, and when I heard that I was shocked because I didn’t even realise that was a possibility,” he said on Instagram. Fallah added: “It was painful, I was emotional, it was shocking, especially for our crew and cast.”
The news was also met with alarm throughout Hollywood. “It’s viewed very negatively in the industry,” says one insider who worked on Batgirl (and did not wish to be named). “Almost everyone that I’ve talked to – from producers to executives, agents, artists, designers, writers, directors – they’ve all said that’s the most fucked-up thing they’ve ever heard. To me it’s a sign that Warners haven’t really learned a damn thing.”
The Batgirl fiasco is yet another indicator that all is not well with the DC franchise. To be honest, it rarely has been. DC is one of the best known brands on the planet – home to household-name characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. DC invented both the superhero (with Superman’s comic-book debut in 1938), and, arguably, the superhero movie (with 1978’s Christopher Reeve-led Superman). And yet Warner Bros, which has wholly owned DC since 1990, has consistently struggled to capitalise on it. While arch-rival Marvel has translated its back catalogue into a succession of interconnected, well-received and incredibly lucrative movies and small-screen series over the past 15 years, DC has been one step behind – and all over the place.
At present, the DC extended universe (DCEU) seems to be expanding in all directions at once. Last year’s The Batman, led by Robert Pattinson, was a big hit, taking more than $770m globally. But Pattinson’s Batman has no connection with the core DCEU, which is inhabited by familiar characters such as Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman. In that universe, last time anyone checked, Ben Affleck was Batman – and possibly still is.
It’s a similar story with Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. In the DCEU, he was played by Jared Leto. In Pattinson’s Batman, there were hints of a new Joker, played by Barry Keoghan (who featured in a deleted scene). On top of these we have Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning Joker, which has no connection to any of the above. Where Marvel’s superheroes all exist in the same well-ordered universe, DC fans must increasingly resort to a cork board and a ball of red string to figure out who’s who, where, and when.
Other recent DC movies have been decidedly hit and miss. Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam! were all hits; Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad, both of which introduced whole new teams of superheroes, were misses. Sequel Wonder Woman 1984 also bombed in 2021, and now sequels to Shazam! and Aquaman have been pushed back – the former to March 2023 and the latter to December 2023.
DC fans have grown accustomed to this level of chaos. Since the high point of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (with Christian Bale as Batman), the brand has regularly announced grand plans and projects, only to abandon them and change course. A decade ago, for example, inspired by the success of Marvel’s Avengers saga, DC set out to build its own interconnected movie series, largely under the stewardship of director Zack Snyder. But after rebooting Superman (with Henry Cavill) in 2013’s Man of Steel, Snyder’s 2016 superhero smackdown Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (with Affleck as Batman) was criticised for being glum, murky and hypermasculine. “About as diverting as having a porcelain sink broken over your head,” complained the New York Times.
Then DC’s big team-up movie, Justice League, was abruptly taken out of Snyder’s hands by Warners mid-production and passed on to Joss Whedon, director of Marvel’s Avengers movies. The result was another critical and commercial disappointment, which left the grand, unified vision in tatters.
“It’s been a challenge for DC to maintain momentum and put together a consistent string of critical hits and box office successes, and this has created frustration for fans,” observes Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at media analytics firm Comscore. “A wildly diverse selection of characters showcased in movies that vary greatly in tone, point of view and audience appeal have rendered the box office results uneven and difficult to predict.”
The upheaval and inconsistency are becoming a turn-off, says Grace Randolph of YouTube channel Beyond the Trailer. “DC fans are like: ‘How am I going to get invested in something that I don’t know if it’s going to even continue? Fans only have so much bandwidth for any kind of comic-book project, and Marvel takes up a lot of bandwidth these days.”
The movie Warners was banking on to straighten out this plate of franchise spaghetti is The Flash, centred on Ezra Miller’s super-speedy teenager. Currently scheduled for release in June 2023, The Flash is already five years behind schedule, with a budget rumoured to have spiralled beyond $300m – but the movie has run into even deeper problems.
In the past year, Miller has been involved in a string of concerning incidents, including allegedly burgling a house in Vermont, arrests for assault, harassment and disorderly conduct, and accusations of having groomed an 18-year-old Native American woman over several years, using a mix of “violence, intimidation, threat of violence, fear, paranoia, delusions, and drugs”.
These are not the kind of headlines any movie would want its star to be associated with, least of all one on which the fortunes of a multibillion-dollar franchise hang. The decision to stick with The Flash makes the optics of the Batgirl cancellation look even worse. As one insider puts it: “You’ve got this borderline criminal headlining The Flash and you cancel the movie with the Latina woman and the trans co-star?”
So why was Batgirl cancelled? A key factor is the recent shake-up at Warner Bros. In April, the company merged with Discovery group to form a new media conglomerate, Warner Bros Discovery, with a new boss: former Discovery CEO David Zaslav. Confronted with a $55bn mountain of corporate debt, Zaslav promised to make $3bn of initial savings. In cancelling Batgirl, he turned the project into a $90m tax write-off. From a financial standpoint, the film is worth more dead than alive.
Warners’ stated reason for Batgirl’s cancellation, though, was “a strategic shift as it relates to the DC universe and HBO Max”. What this means is that Zaslav is effectively turning the ship 180 degrees. “For the past three to four years, Warner Bros has been ‘all in’ on streaming,” explains Matthew Belloni, founder of Puck newsletter and former editor of the Hollywood Reporter.
Outflanked by rivals like Netflix and Disney+ during the pandemic, Warners concentrated on building up its own streaming platform, HBO Max. The studio even began releasing new movies on HBO Max at the same time as in cinemas – much to the ire of film-makers such as Christopher Nolan (who has since defected to Universal to make his new movie, Oppenheimer). But now Zaslav has decided Warners and DC should be making movies for the big screen, not the small screen.
“Now the priority is making money, not necessarily building up subscribers,” says Belloni. “So if they can make a few hundred million dollars in theatres, they’re going to do that, and then the movie will go to streaming.” Batgirl was always intended as a direct-to-streaming movie for HBO Max, and was therefore deemed expendable.
Belloni has met Zaslav a few times, he says. “He’s very forceful, very confident in his beliefs. He is a corporate manager, he is not a creative person – he will be the first to tell you that.” But Zaslav has been conducting a listening tour of Hollywood over recent months. “So he’s making all the right moves for someone to come in and run a company like this, but he is an outsider.” Another anonymous Hollywood figure put it less generously: “Zaslav doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.”
There is another figure who looms large over the DC franchise’s woes: Kevin Feige – the producer who has so successfully stewarded Marvel’s superhero universe on to the screen. To many, Warners’ real problem is that it has never found its own Feige. They tried to put Snyder in the role, but that didn’t work out.
Their nearest equivalent is Walter Hamada, head of Warners’ DC films division, but Hamada has neither the creative latitude nor the deep comic-book knowledge that Feige enjoys, says one creative who has worked on both Marvel and DC movies. “The people that work at Marvel know their universe by heart – they live it,” they say. “People like Kevin Feige, they came from below. Their baseline is, they’re fans. I do not feel like Walter Hamada and the people running DC were fans of the material.”
According to one insider, Batgirl directors Fallah and El Arbi repeatedly pushed to change the script to include more action scenes, but Hamada refused. “It was the opposite of Marvel, which was open to ideas and changing things.” Furthermore, where Marvel share assets, such as virtual props and sets, across movies, no such cooperation exists in the DC universe. So while the makers of The Batman constructed an atmospheric Gotham City, this was not shared with the Batgirl team, who had to build their own Gotham from scratch.
In August, Zaslav announced a “reset” for the DC franchise, and said it would be building “a team with a 10-year plan”, very similar to the structure that Disney put together for Marvel. Hamada is expected to leave, but Warners is struggling to find a replacement. The role is being described as “the best job in Hollywood that nobody wants”.
In the meantime, DC takes another roll of the dice this month with the release of its latest superhero extravaganza, Black Adam. Again, the character – an ancient Egyptian antihero with powers to rival Superman’s – is practically unknown, but he is, at least, played by megastar Dwayne Johnson, who has big plans for him. “I just didn’t want to make a one-off,” said Johnson at San Diego’s Comic-Con in July. “We wanted to create a Black Adam movie that became not only the bedrock but it also became the platform to launch other characters off of.”
There is talk of a follow-up movie, in which Black Adam would face off against DCEU core characters such as Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman (Cavill is rumoured to pop up in Black Adam). So don’t put away the red string just yet. As usual, nobody has any idea how the DC universe is going to pan out.
“Right now, they’re at a crossroads,” says Randolph. “There are two choices: either let Dwayne Johnson take over if Black Adam is a big hit. Or, I recommend that they completely scrap everything else and just go forward from [Pattinson’s] The Batman and build off of that universe.”
Funeral screenings notwithstanding, a resurrection for the DC franchise is entirely possible. In mid-August, Miller reportedly met with Warners to engineer a “course correction” and salvage The Flash. Miller (who uses they/them pronouns) issued a public apology for their behaviour and said they were seeking treatment for “complex mental health issues”.
Warner Bros also signed an exclusive deal with The Batman’s director, Matt Reeves, reaffirming its commitment to creatives and all but guaranteeing a sequel. A Joker sequel is also in the works, with Lady Gaga cast alongside Joaquin Phoenix. It is rumoured to be a musical.
Arch-rival Marvel, meanwhile, is in danger of losing fans with its endless sequels and spin-offs – most of which conform to Disney’s family-friendly ethos. DC was always the darker, edgier, more grownup label. And as Joker and The Batman have shown, there is a sizeable non-fan audience out there who just want to go and see a standalone movie without feeling they need to have watched 20 other movies first.
The disjointedness of the DC universe could yet prove to be an asset, says Belloni. “It’s a limitation but it’s also a freedom to a certain extent. Disney could not make an R-rated Joker movie. That’s not part of the Marvel brand. Warners has the ability to go there with its key characters. Could DC be more successful? Sure. DC is not in a horrible place here. It’s doing fine. They just want it to be better.”