Batgirl: How $130 million DC flick was defeated by suited supervillains

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Kate EmeryThe West Australian
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Leslie Grace posts photos as Batgirl after it was announced that the film has been shelved.
Camera IconLeslie Grace posts photos as Batgirl after it was announced that the film has been shelved. Credit: Leslie Grace/Instagram

How do you spend $130 million ($US90m) making a movie and still wind up without a movie?

That’s the question gripping Hollywood this week after the surprise decision to axe superhero film Batgirl.

In an industry where movies get axed all the time, often long before cameras are rolling, what makes this situation unique is that Batgirl was in the final stages before what was supposed to be a release on the Warner Brothers Discovery-owned subscription service HBO Max. It had been slated for a late 2022 premiere.

Instead the film, which was directed by Ms Marvel directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah and starred Leslie Grace as Batgirl, will not be released in cinemas or on a streaming service because studio bosses reportedly believe it will make more money as a massive tax write down.

Leslie Grace posts photos as Batgirl after it was announced that the film has been shelved.
Camera IconLeslie Grace posts photos as Batgirl after it was announced that the film has been shelved. Credit: Leslie Grace/Instagram

Initially, Warner Brothers chalked the decision up to “our leadership’s strategic shift as it relates to the DC universe and HBO Max”. “Leslie Grace is an incredibly talented actor and this decision is not a reflection of her performance,” it said in a statement.

But days later Warners Brothers chief executive David Zaslav implied concerns about Batgirl’s quality were at the heart of the controversial decision.

“We’re not going to launch a movie until it’s ready,” he said during an earnings conference call when asked about the cancellation. “We’re not going to launch a movie to make a quarter and we’re not going to put a movie out unless we believe in it.”

“The objective is to grow the DC (Comics) brand, to grow the DC characters. But also, our job is to protect the DC brand. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

Leslie Grace.
Camera IconLeslie Grace. Credit: Richard Shotwell/Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
Directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah on the set of the Batgirl.
Camera IconDirectors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah on the set of the Batgirl. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The decision appeared to rock not just the industry itself, with insiders declaring it “unprecedented”, but the cast, which included Michael Keaton, Brendan Fraser and JK Simmons, and crew.

Grace, who shared some behind the scenes photos after the news broke, said she was proud of “the love, hard work and intention of all of our incredible cast and tireless crew”.

‘”I feel blessed to have worked among absolute greats and forged relationships for a lifetime in the process! “ she said in a statement online. “To every Batgirl fan — THANK YOU for the love and belief, allowing me to take on the cape and become, as Babs said best, ‘my own damn hero!’ Batgirl for life!’”

The directors described themselves as “saddened and shocked by the news”.

“We still can’t believe it,” El Arbi and Fallah said. “As directors, it is critical that our work be shown to audiences and, while the film was far from finished, we wish that fans all over the world would have had the opportunity to see and embrace the final film themselves.

“Maybe one day they will.”

Leslie Grace posts photos as Batgirl.
Camera IconLeslie Grace posts photos as Batgirl. Credit: Leslie Grace/Instagram

The decision to pursue a tax write-off rather than risk a reputational blow was criticised partly because Batgirl, which is based on a DC Comics character, represented a comparatively rare foray into diversity for superhero films. The directors are Moroccan-Belgian, Grace is Afro-Latina and it featured a prominent trans character, played by a trans actor.

Less dramatically, the company has also shelved another film that was nearing completion, the $40 million Scooby Do movie sequel, Scoob!: Holiday Haun., leaving film observers trying to get their heads around the studio’s apparent new strategy.

Film bible Variety reported that Batgirl was a victim of a new corporate regime at Warner Brothers that wanted to pivot away from a plan to create feature films specifically for HBO Max.

“This idea of expensive films going direct to streaming — we can’t find an economic case for it, we can’t find an economic value to it, so we’re making a strategic shift,” Zaslav said this week.

New York Post entertainment critic Johnny Oleksinski, who broke the story, told NPR Batgirl was “a lousy movie” that tested poorly with audience. But, he conceded, plenty of bad films get released.

“We have to acknowledge that Val Kilmer in a nippled Batsuit by Joel Schumacher made it to our screens,” he said. “Over at Universal, the movie Cats made it to our screens. They weren’t shelved and they were probably very aware they weren’t going to make any money, and lose a bunch of money, and be embarrassed. So this really just comes as a shock. I don’t think you could find a precedent for this having happened before.”

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