Why was the Batgirl movie cancelled?

·9-min read
Leslie Grace as Batgirl. (Warner Bros.)
Leslie Grace as Batgirl. (Warner Bros.)

The cancellation of DC Comics adaptation Batgirl set the online film press alight, but what’s the story behind this now-shelved $90m movie?

Directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, the film was greenlit as an original project for Warner Bros’ streaming platform HBO Max, but as recently as April, there was talk of the film being upgraded to a theatrical release in 2023.

Unlike Marvel, for whom El Arbi and Fallah recently worked on the acclaimed Ms. Marvel TV show, DC Films seems to have some trouble getting its ducks in a row. But unlike the array of announced but unrealised DC projects we’ve heard about in the last decade or so, this one was filmed and well into post-production when it was cancelled - it’s unprecedented territory.

Read more: Batgirl and the other movies shelved by Hollywood

Let’s take a look at what we know about the project and why it’s not coming out of Warner’s Batcave any time soon…

Batgirl begins

Yvonne Craig as Batgirl
Yvonne Craig as Batgirl" circa1966-1967. (ABC Photo Archives/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

Even since the producers of the 1960s Batman TV series requested that DC Comics create a new female counterpart to Batman, Barbara Gordon has been one of the most popular members of the Bat-family. However, her screen appearances have been few and far between, starting with her debut in Batman Season 3 in 1968, played by Yvonne Craig.

In the movies, the first and last live-action sighting of the character reinvented her as Alfred’s niece Barbara Wilson, played by Alicia Silverstone in 1997’s Batman & Robin. The Gordon version’s only screen outing to date was in 2017’s The LEGO Batman Movie, in which she’s voiced by Rosario Dawson.

A little while after that movie came the first hint of a live-action Batgirl spin-off DC’s Extended Universe, when Warner Bros announced that Joss Whedon was in talks to write, direct, and produce it in March 2017.

American actors Alicia Silverstone, George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell on the set of Batman & Robin, directed by Joel Schumacher. (Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
Alicia Silverstone, George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell on the set of Batman & Robin, 1997. (Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

This was a couple of months before the studio announced that Whedon would also take over on reshoots and post-production of the theatrical cut of Justice League, when Zack Snyder exited the project due to a family tragedy.

In the wake of the fan backlash against that cut, Whedon eventually left Batgirl in February 2018, telling The Hollywood Reporter: “Batgirl is such an exciting project, and Warners/DC such collaborative and supportive partners, that it took me months to realise I really didn’t have a story.”

Read more: Every upcoming DC movie and TV series

By April that year, WB had tapped Birds Of Prey screenwriter Christina Hodson to write a new take on Batgirl, which was ultimately greenlit with a budget of $75m. In May 2021, Bad Boys For Life directors El Arbi and Fallah boarded the project, and In The Heights star Leslie Grace was cast as Barbara Gordon.

Directors Bilall Fallah (r) and Adil El Arbi on the set in Glasgow, for what is believed to be the film set of the new Batgirl movie. Picture date: Thursday January 13, 2022.
Directors Bilall Fallah (r) and Adil El Arbi on the set of Batgirl in Glasgow, January 2022. (PA)

Interestingly, the supporting cast included a mix of newcomers to the DCEU, including Brendan Fraser, (as the villainous Firefly) Rebecca Front, and Jacob Scipio, and returning stars from assorted continuities, most notably J.K. Simmons, who last played Barbara’s father Commissioner Gordon in Justice League, and Michael Keaton, who reprises his gig from the Tim Burton Batman movies in both this and The Flash.

From November 2021 to March 2022, Batgirl filmed in Glasgow, which also stands in for Gotham City in The Batman and The Flash. All told, with COVID-19 overages, the film cost $90m, and was in post-production when the news broke that it had been cancelled.

What has the cast of Batgirl said?

Actor Leslie Grace on set in Glasgow, for what is believed to be the film set of the new Batgirl movie. Picture date: Wednesday January 12, 2022.
Leslie Grace on the Batgirl set in Glasgow, January 2022. (PA)

Leslie Grace thanked fans for their "love and belief" after the movie was scrapped just months before its planned release.

The In The Heights star addressed the news on Instagram, saying she was "#Batgirl for life".

"Querida familia!" she captioned the post, which included photos and video clips of her in character and making the movie in Glasgow.

"On the heels of the recent news about our movie 'Batgirl' I am proud of the love, hard work and intention all of our incredible cast and tireless crew put into this film over 7 months in Scotland.

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"I feel blessed to have worked among absolute greats and forged relationships for a lifetime in the process!

"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!'"

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JUNE 02: (L-R)  Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah attend Disney+ and Marvel's new Television Series
Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah attend Disney+ and Marvel's "Ms. Marvel" premiere, June, 2022. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

The film's Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah — who were in Morocco celebrating El Arbi's wedding when they heard the news — in also spoke out, admitting they were 'shocked'.

They posted a statement on Instagram saying that they wished fans could have had the “opportunity to see and embrace the final film themselves”.

"We are saddened and shocked by the news," they said. "We still can’t believe it.

“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 insha’Allah."

All change at Warner Bros.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - DECEMBER 12: Jason Kilar attends The 15th Annual CNN Heroes: All-Star Tribute at American Museum of Natural History on December 12, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Dominik Bindl/Getty Images)
Warner Bros. exec Jason Kilar attends The 15th Annual CNN Heroes: All-Star Tribute, December, 2021. (Dominik Bindl/Getty Images)

When Batgirl was greenlit, executives Jason Kilar and Ann Sarnoff were in charge at Warner Media. Their singular focus on growing the studio’s streaming platform included a contentious day-and-date release strategy for its 2021 slate, which led long-time collaborator Christopher Nolan to jump ship to Universal.

Since then, Warner Media has undergone a merger with Discovery Inc, and as of April this year, incoming CEO David Zaslav has been changing the newly formed Warner Bros Discovery’s approach to DC properties.

But where Kilar greenlit two lower-budget streaming originals, Batgirl and Blue Beetle (whose status is as yet unknown) Zaslav has reportedly reaffirmed the studio’s commitment to first-run theatrical features with tentpole budgets, including the DC Films brand.

“(DC’s plan is) very similar to the structure Alan Horn, Bob Iger and Kevin Feige put together very effectively at Disney,” Zaslav said in a recent earnings report.

“We think we can build a much stronger, sustainable growth business out of DC.

“As part of that, we are going to focus on quality. We are not going to release any film before it’s ready… DC is something we can make better.”

Ezra Miller as The Flash in Justice League. (Warner Bros.)
Ezra Miller as The Flash in Justice League. (Warner Bros.)

And running through this odd situation, there’s The Flash, a film whose summer 2023 release looks overshadowed by the erratic behaviour of its lead actor, Ezra Miller. Many are speculating that WB will undertake extensive reshoots on that film, which is also set to feature Keaton’s Batman and is apparently set before the Barbara Gordon movie. However, Batgirl isn’t on that same tentpole level where WB wants to spend more money on it.

Around the same time, Warner also shelved Scoob!: Holiday Haunt, a $40m sequel to the 2020 Scooby Doo animated reboot, and conspicuously removed several other HBO Max original films from the streamer, leading some to speculate that Batgirl is being positioned as part of a large-scale tax write-down from the previous regime, rather than mere cost-cutting.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 08: David Zaslav attends the 2022 TIME100 Gala on June 08, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for TIME)
David Zaslav attends the 2022 TIME100 Gala June, 2022. (Getty Images for TIME)

Other rumours have suggested the film itself is poor, speculating that low test-screening scores forced the studio to cancel the film. Some have seized on this as part of the still ongoing backlash over Warner’s handling of the DC projects since parting ways with Snyder, which ignores the more widespread reports about the simpler financial motivation.

Zaslav says they're now working on a '10-year plan' for DC movies for the future.

“You look at Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman — these are brands that are known everywhere in the world,” he said.

“We have done a reset. We’ve restructured the business where we are going to focus, where there is going to be a team with a 10-year plan focusing just on DC.

“We believe we can build a much more sustainable business.”

Could Batgirl ever be released?

A member of the public passes a sign in Glasgow, near the film set of the new Batgirl movie. Picture date: Wednesday January 19, 2022.
A member of the public passes a sign in Glasgow, near the film set of the new Batgirl movie. (PA)

Films go awry all the time, but not to the point where a studio would write off an investment of this size, even if the product wasn’t that good. Whichever way you slice it, this fiasco will do WB no favours whatsoever in its already fraught relationship with creative collaborators, and Batgirl is a bad omen for other streaming originals.

With this year’s smash hit The Batman, setting up yet another more solitary Batman and the shared universe slate seemingly in disarray once again, fans of Barbara Gordon might be waiting a long time to see the character return in a live-action film, but there’ll also be further intrigue around this almost-finished and yet unreleased take for many years to come.

It's very, very rare for a film of this size, scale and budget to never see the light of day. Add to that the huge fanbase of DC fans who have supported the film from day one, and Batgirl becomes an irresistible 'white whale' of a movie.

Barbara Gordon was introduced as Batgirl in the 1960s. (Credit: DC Comics)
Barbara Gordon was introduced as Batgirl in the 1960s. (Credit: DC Comics)

You could even argue that Batgirl's cancellation has generated more publicity to the film than an organic PR campaign could ever have managed. Zack Snyder's Justice League is another example of an 'unfinished' movie that sat on a shelf until fan-demand (however genuine or not it may have been) forced Warner Bros.'s hand into finally releasing it — ironically — on HBO Max, the streaming platform that just canned Batgirl.

As the clamour from fans and creatives, who poured years of their lives into the project, grows, the studio may find that Batgirl has to take flight one day.

Watch: Leslie Grace is 'proud' of her Batgirl movie

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