Warner Bros. Pictures has had a string of recent successes in the realm of superhero movies and intellectual property management. But it doesn’t feel that way, huh? To be sure, Matt Reeves’ The Batman reinvigorated that character’s brand, grossing $770 million in a meager 45-day theatrical window, which is well up since the same character headlined the disastrous 2017 release of Justice League to the anemic tune of $658 million. It also wasn’t that long ago when Joker (2019) won multiple Oscars, including for Best Actor, after grossing over $1 billion on a $70 million budget.
WB is making money from, and maintaining the popularity of, DC characters… but lately not in the so-called DC Extended Universe. Movies like The Batman and especially Joker are gambits, “elseworld” takes on these characters if you want to use nerd jargon. But the mainline DC franchise that is intended to compete with Marvel Studios’ golden goose output? It’s largely been one disappointment after the next for the past half-decade (admittedly several of their releases were casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic and WB’s dubious 2021 day-and-date release strategy). Still, none of that measures up to the public humiliation that came with WB sheepishly leaking to multiple press outlets that they are putting Batgirl on a shelf. Forever.
The film, which was greenlit by former WB management back when the company was briefly called WarnerMedia, appears to be both a product and casualty of the days when all of Warners’ eggs were being placed in an HBO Max-shaped basket. This amazingly shortsighted strategy was due to WarnerMedia’s then-owners AT&T being desperate to have a streamer that could compete with Netflix. John Stankey, the former CEO of WarnerMedia (and current CEO of AT&T), famously had HBO CEO Richard Plepler resign—the man who helped shepherd into existence Game of Thrones, True Blood, True Detective, Veep, and many others at the storied premium cable service—because Stankey didn’t feel HBO was thinking “big and broad” enough about the streaming wars to come. Plepler spent years developing one Game of Thrones prequel. Now an apparent armada is on the horizon.
Similarly, Batgirl was greenlit in order to have a DCEU movie exclusively streaming on HBO Max. But the Catch-22 of that situation is the economics of streaming do not allow the type of budget one associates with DCEU movies (Wonder Woman 1984 reportedly cost $200 million). So Batgirl was made on the cheap. An even less charitable way to put it is that Leslie Grace, fresh off an electric appearance in In the Heights, and directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who arguably made a better Bad Boys movie than Michael Bay, were set up to fail when they were tasked to make a “DCEU” theatrical experience for a streaming marketplace.
Which likely makes the rug being pulled beneath them all the worse. Yet pulled it was by the newly renamed Warner Bros. Discovery, with The New York Post being the first to break from sources that the movie would be shelved from all platforms—as in it will never be released in theaters or on HBO Max. This is remarkable since Warner Bros. Discovery was allegedly so pleased by what they previously saw that the movie got an influx of budget and reshoots, raising its original price tag of $70 million to something in the range of $90 million to $100 million. But according to The Post, the film was “so poorly received by moviegoers” at test screenings that new WB Discovery management thought it was better to just hide this “DC disaster” from the world.
Conversely, Variety reports that this cancellation “was not driven by the quality of the film or the commitment of the filmmakers,” but by the desire to maintain DC features at a “blockbuster scale.”
Perhaps, although we imagine it’s cold comfort to those talents whose work was considered so lacking (and will be perceived as such by the industry) that it’ll never see the light of day. We doubt it landed any better when the talent was told—via trades like Deadline which reported this information after our article originally ran—that the decision was purely about accounting and tax breaks, with Warner Bros. Discovery learning they had a “purchase accounting maneuver” available to them where they could keep the losses of the previous regimes off the books… assuming they killed Batgirl and other undesirables in August. How considerate.
Nevertheless, we believe that new studio leadership insofar as that it’s determined to pivot away from the streaming-first mantra.
But what about the DCEU that Batgirl was supposed to be at the fulcrum of? For in addition to once appearing to be Grace’s star vehicle breakout, Batgirl previously seemed integral to the future of the DCEU. It was going to be the first film, streaming or otherwise, that made sense of the long anticipated continuity reset due to occur in Ezra Miller’s ever-delayed The Flash. While we have no insider information, it’s obvious something big is afoot in DCEU-planning when The Flash begins with Miller reteaming with Ben Affleck’s Batman and then ends with Barry Allen meeting Michael Keaton’s beloved Dark Knight somewhere in the multiverse… Keaton was then slated to reprise the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batgirl, which he was spotted on set in Glasgow filming for.
Now the mechanics of this remain murky, especially since for a brief moment it looked like Batgirl would be released before The Flash due to the latter’s continued delays, and due to the dizzying legal troubles of its star. One might even consider it mystifying that the DCEU movie featuring Keaton permanently shelved is not the one which stars a person with multiple accounts of alleged assault to their name, among other extreme legal concerns. Instead the axe fell on the one starring an Afro-Latina woman. Huh. Even so, it was clear that The Flash was meant to be a launching pad to softly reboot the DCEU after the troubled era referred to by fans as “the SnyderVerse.” This would culminate in replacing Affleck as the “DCEU Batman” with Keaton.
Given the continued ambiguous state of The Flash’s fate and now Batgirl’s complete erasure—as well as the fact that it’s been confirmed Affleck will be reprising the role of Batman in another DCEU film next year, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom—it’s become an open question mark whether Keaton’s return to the role of Batman remains part of WB’s DCEU strategy at all.
A more honest question, however, might be whether WB still has a DCEU strategy. Since well before the WarnerMedia and Discovery merger, WB has been moving away from chasing Disney/Marvel’s uniform shared universe strategy, instead allowing DCEU films to feel tonally and aesthetically different from one another, as well as simply making movies completely divorced from the DCEU altogether. This approach can be creatively rewarding, leading again to artistic and commercial successes like The Batman. It can also lead to vast confusion where fans are divided among themselves over who they want to see more of among the three Batman actors currently laying claim to the role: Affleck, Keaton, and Robert Pattinson. All the while, the future of lucrative IP like Superman is left to languish.
These projects can individually make money, but the synergetic appeal of the Marvel model is that you create an audience that’s loyal to the brand above all else—as opposed to any specific vision, voice, or interpretation of a character. Marvel fans will show up for most products, even if they have never before heard of Ant-Man, the Wasp, or Shang-Chi. WarnerMedia moved away from that approach. Now Warner Bros. Discovery seems intent to set it on fire… and maybe hope they can rebuild?
Yes, there have been high profile failures in the rarified airs of quarter-billion-dollar superhero movies, even in recent years where these types of movies increasingly become the linchpin for a studio’s entire fiscal year. The studio formerly known as Fox also had great diversified success with their X-Men brand thanks to movies like Deadpool and Logan (both of which cost less than $100 million at that), but that mattered little when the mainline X-Men films declined into ignominy via 2019’s Dark Phoenix. WB’s own sordid history around the reshoots and release of Justice League has meanwhile become the stuff of fanboy legend.
However, abandoning Batgirl after sinking around $100 million into the film—and leaving the film’s stars and directors hanging in the wind—is an extraordinarily bad look. It’s also the kind of self-inflicted wound that could very likely do irreparable harm to the DCEU brand that Warner Bros. Discovery is allegedly trying to save, with the one official image of Grace as Batgirl being consigned to the grim fate of obscure barroom trivia, just like this image of Universal’s fabled “Dark Universe.”
They knew this, but pulled the trigger anyway. Perhaps Batgirl really was that bad, and streaming is just too much of a dead end for current studio bookkeeping. Yet one cannot help but think the movie would’ve been put on HBO Max anyway, if nothing else than as a loss leader, unless… the studio wants to move away from a future where there are three Batman actors vying for fans’ attentions and affections.
Some loyal fans to the “SnyderVerse”—which consists of Man of Steel (2013), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), Suicide Squad (2016), and Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)—think this is a sign that the SnyderVerse will be “restored.” However, as it was the lukewarm reception for Snyder’s BvS from both critics and audiences that began this unraveling of synchronicity among DC titles, we find that highly implausible.
New Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav is reportedly frustrated that WB has no proper plan in place for a new Superman movie. But The Wrap report that broke this news does not suggest Zaslav is specifically interested in another Superman movie starring Henry Cavill more than a half-decade since Justice League’s failure. Consider how toxic the DCEU brand is after years of mismanagement; next realize how much more poisoned that chalice just became by Zaslav’s own hand with the killing of Batgirl. Would you drink from it? A more reasonable scenario would be to pour it out and grab a clean cup, perhaps one in the shape of The Batman’s logo?
It’s impossible for us to say with any degree of certainty that Warner Bros. Discovery wants to burn the whole thing down and start over. But if they don’t, they’re doing a damn good impression of it.
*This article was updated on Aug. 3 to reflect new information.