Warner Bros. wants to reach the heights of Marvel Studios, but it lacks the patience and understanding of its characters to ever get there, writes The Hollywood Reporter contributor Richard Newby.
Warner Bros. isn’t in the business of making bad movies. At least, that’s the common refrain on social media now that David Zaslav, chief executive of the newly combined Warner Bros. Discovery, is in charge. What seems to be a more accurate assessment is that Warner Bros. isn’t in the business of making movies that aren’t guaranteed to line company coffers.
The cancellations of Batgirl and Scoob!: Holiday Haunt, which until Tuesday were both in postproduction, have sent shock waves through Hollywood. In the case of Batgirl, social media pundits claimed the film was shelved because it was so bad it couldn’t be released. This, of course, operates under the assumption that Warners hasn’t released plenty of bad movies before — bad movies that made money. And it suggests that a regime change at Warners means we should expect nothing but straight masterpieces from here on out (anyone want to take bets?).
As for Warners, it said in a statement that the move was due to a change in corporate strategy, with the studio thanking its stars — including Leslie Grace (Batgirl, aka Barbara Gordon), Michael Keaton (back as Batman for the first time in 30 years), J.K. Simmons (Commissioner James Gordon, aka Barbara’s father) and Brendan Fraser (the villain Firefly) — and directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who were hired hot off the success of 2020’s Bad Boys for Life, and who’d recently received more good notices for directing episodes of this summer’s Disney+ series Ms. Marvel.
The Hollywood Reporter noted that the $90 million Batgirl had one test screening with unfinished effects that received a middling but passable grade. This type of score is often typical for movies with unfinished effects, including the first It, which wound up grossing over $700 million for Warners. The real reason behind the cancellation, sources told THR, was Zaslav’s determination that the film would recoup more of its budget as a tax write-down than as a theatrical or HBO Max release.
It seems implausible that a DC film with “Bat-” in the title, let alone one that brings back Keaton as Batman, would have been a financial failure. But to play devil’s advocate, let’s say that it wasn’t a major success in luring subscribers. Part of former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar’s strategy was to create middle-budget films for HBO Max that didn’t need to be blockbuster hits, but that would expand the DC Universe and allow more filmmakers to add their spin on it.
An Afro-Latina-led Batgirl movie, directed by filmmakers of Moroccan descent, and starring a transgender Asian woman (Ivory Aquino), would have generated some positive buzz for the studio that wants to assure its audience that it’s committed to diversity. And if tens of millions in budget can be granted to white filmmakers whose films don’t generate mountains of revenue, then surely a nearly completed film with a built-in audience should at least be given a shot.
Of course, the argument is that the risk of Batgirl wasn’t worth the possible reward. Yet, it so frequently seems that minority-led and -directed films are the projects considered risks. The cancellation of Batgirl is just another mark on the Hollywood myth that films led by women and people of color don’t make money. Marvel chairman Ike Perlmutter famously thought of Black Panther and Captain Marvel as risks, blocking them from being made for years. We saw how those turned out. What’s risky about a $90 million Batgirl movie? Not every superhero movie needs to be a world-ending epic. According to accounts from the test screening, Batgirl was a low-stakes superhero origin story with style and strong performances, not unlike Batgirl screenwriter Christina Hodson’s Birds of Prey (2020).
If a Batgirl movie with Keaton was considered too big a risk for Warner Bros. Discovery, that doesn’t bode well for the previously announced “in development” projects like Black Canary, Static, Hourman, Plastic Man and Zatanna. With Wonder Twins already canceled after the casting process, it seems that Zaslav has a lack of imagination when it comes to the variety of characters, tones and genres at his disposal.
Warner Bros. wants so badly to be where Marvel Studios is, but it lacks the patience and understanding of its characters to ever get there. It wants billion-dollar hits without making $300 million hits first. It wants all the marquee characters assembled without building up a world of supporting B- and C-level characters that audiences care about. It wants the easy money, which, should that thinking continue, will prove to be the death of the DCEU.
Warner Bros. has had access to DC’s fantastic library of characters since the ’70s and can’t even manage to release a Batgirl movie, let alone get a modern Superman franchise soaring. While some of the usual suspects within DC’s fandom have been celebrating the cancellation of Batgirl, thinking it bodes well for them getting the DC films they want, it doesn’t bode well for anyone who cares about these characters. If the studio would rather write down $90 million on a nearly completed Batgirl film, then it’s certainly not going to shell out for a $200 million movie not guaranteed to be a financial windfall.
Does anyone really want the future of movies to be decided by a calculator? There’s seemingly no foresight given to what these characters could grow to become, the possibilities for mid-budget franchises, or inclusivity in front of or behind the camera. Every year, it feels like Warners is simply rolling the dice with DC and starting the game over again. While leadership and ownership may have changed, Warner Bros. is still caught in the same mess as it was six years ago, letting reactionary suits shape its universe and leaving their talent out in the cold.
While Matt Reeves’ The Batman 2, and Todd Phillips’ recently dated Joker: Folie à Deux, are safe bets for now, the studio — which used to be known as the filmmaker’s studio — is warranting caution. Just a decade ago, Christopher Nolan delivered his concluding Batman chapter, The Dark Knight Rises, and helped set up a shared universe with Man of Steel. Ten years later, Nolan has gone to Universal, and general audiences are still holding out for the potential of that shared universe. Yes, there’s been plenty of good, even great, DC films to come from the studio over the past decade, but Warners has never stuck with anything long enough for it to gain real traction or a sense of escalation.
Decisions are wavered on, moved forward and pushed back until there’s just a collection of ideas and false starts. The universe is never given the chance to outrun the shadow of doubt or the narrative of failure that Warners created by doing the same billion-dollar-or-bust betting it’s still doing. It’s a narrative that’s only gotten longer with the news of Batgirl.
It’s hard to see Batgirl’s cancellation as anything other than wasted money, wasted time of the cast and crew, a wasted opportunity for minority voices in this space, and wasted goodwill from fans. In short order, Warner Bros.’ merger with Discovery has created an environment that may give creators pause before signing on to be another tax write-down. They deserve better. The cast and crew of Batgirl and Scoob: Holiday Haunt deserve better. Audiences deserve better. And frankly, it’s exhausting being asked to continually believe that this studio, as it exists now, can fly with these properties when every time it gets a running start, it gets distracted and falls over the tripwires decorated with dollar bills.