Warner Bros. Discovery shocked audiences everywhere with yesterday’s announcement its DCEU film Batgirl will not be released, not even on HBO Max. This is a huge blow to fans who were looking forward to In The Heights breakout Leslie Grace’s take on the superhero role, as well as to a promised appearance by Michael Keaton, reprising his role as Batman.
Why was Batgirl shelved entirely and not even given the consolation prize of being dumped on streaming? And could the decision become a new standard in superhero and genre films, a bellwether of an industry future limited to big-budget fare? Let’s consider the Batgirl decision...
Batgirl exists as a strange in-between of the DCEU. It isn’t the powerhouse spectacle of Justice League or Aquaman, but it isn’t the smaller-scale fare you’d see in The CW’s Arrowverse either. Instead, it is essentially the superhero equivalent of a TV movie, boasting a comparatively modest budget of $75 million that reached $90 million due to some unavoidable delays and protocols.
But canceling a film outright is incredibly rare. So what’s to blame? The change in management after the Discovery merger is a leading theory, with Variety’s sources claiming the tax write-down the movie would generate was the best way to recoup the film’s ballooning cost.
Batgirl isn’t the only victim of this change in hands. Scoob!: A Holiday Haunt, the sequel to the Warner Bros. Scooby Doo movie Scoob!, was also shelved. Bizarrely, HBO Max original films like Robert Zemeckis’ Dahl adaptation The Witches and Seth Rogen's comedy An American Pickle are being erased from the streaming platform entirely.
This is a huge turning point for the streaming landscape at large. It seems like the streaming-only film release is being phased out entirely from one of the most popular services. If this is the case, it would eliminate a huge opportunity for mid-budget films that may not warrant an entire theatrical release but can still find an audience on HBO Max — was arguably the streamer who defined the blockbuster streaming model.
In 2021, Warner Bros. jumped at the opportunity to establish a day-and-date release of its original films on HBO Max. Fans could catch Dune at home or in theaters on the same day. So why not give the same opportunity to films now?
Considered completely, it looks like HBO Max is undergoing a post-merger rebrand in order to focus on the kinds of projects that made HBO a premium cable powerhouse in the first place. Some of the projects that bridged the merger will be the casualties of this decision. While this may be understandable from a corporate perspective, it could set a dangerous precedent for streaming services, as the archives people count on for rewatch-ability may not be available. In the future, we may see works that don’t reflect the current culture completely pulled from streaming, limiting the scope of easily accessible content.
It’s worth noting that it is not just HBO Max’s future catalog that is uncertain but the very existence of the streaming service. Discovery has its own streaming service — Discovery+ — and it’s still unclear how the two services would combine. Today, The Wrap reported that HBO Max is expected to lay off around 70 percent of its development staff as part of a move away from scripted shows, putting the future of the streaming service further into question.
Batgirl’s shelving is a sign of the times. In this era of the streaming age, services seem increasingly wary to take risks on smaller works, especially for the franchises that superhero movies usually entail. But this ignores the on-screen superhero genre’s foundation of low-budget works like the original Superman and Batman series. If those works were able to trust their audiences to overlook low production values and less-than-stellar special effects, why can’t that philosophy carry on in the peak content mediascape of today?
Streaming services have been a way for media companies to distribute a wide swath of content and broaden audiences’ horizons in the process, but this may be our first signal that curation is the future of the streaming service landscape. HBO Max’s next evolution (if it even has one) may be as a streamer that values quality over quantity. Whether or not that will reflect well with audiences remains to be seen, but one thing is undeniable: Batgirl is the unwitting poster child of this sea change.