When Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav canceled any release of the $90 million HBO Max-exclusive movie “Batgirl” in favor of a tax break, he unleashed the hounds of hell on directors Bilall Fallah and Adil El Arbi, star Leslie Grace, and the rest of the cast and crew who devoted months or years of their lives to making it. It also told the industry that, even if you make a superhero movie, your work may be worth more dead than alive.
That’s a lot to take in, but it could get worse: Consider “The Flash.”
The trials and tribulations of “The Flash,” and its star Ezra Miller, are widely reported. Yesterday brought the most recent update, published the same day that WBD reported its Q2 earnings after the close of market: A 6,300-word Insider expose of Miller included now-familiar allegations of grooming and abuse along with claims of escalating paranoia, weapons, body armor, and even leading a cult in Iceland.
It’s hard to imagine the task of Warner Bros. effectively promoting this film for theatrical release next June, but it’s not impossible: On that earnings call, Zaslav name-checked “The Flash” as one of the DC movies he’s very proud to release. (He also said, on two separate occasions during the call, that he will not be forced to release any film in order to satisfy quarterly demands, so maybe “The Flash” could see yet another date shift.)
A moment of silence for the publicists who will work on that campaign might be appropriate. Even before the earnings call ended, the Twitterverse was up in arms over “The Flash,” ranging from passionate fans clamoring for the film’s release; those horrified by the Insider piece; those who pointed to posts from sources who said they were quoted out of context in that piece; and those who resented the hell out of Zaslav for killing a superhero film that starred a woman of color and supporting another that stars an actor who’s been accused of abusing women and/or harming minors. As marketing campaign assignments go, this one looks more like an act of self immolation.
Wild to hear WBD insist that they have to “protect the DC brand” from something like “Batgirl” and not, say, “The Flash,” whose star has allegedly been [checks notes] beating up Hawaiians and wandering Iceland with a cult and a gun
— ✨ Caroline D Framke ✨ (@carolineframke) August 4, 2022
Whatever it takes, “The Flash” will be released in theaters. Until this week, that seemed self evident; the social contract of Hollywood has always been that if you make a movie, it will exist. The contract doesn’t offer much more than that, since it may not find an audience, it may not get a theatrical release, and it may wind up forgotten in the corner of a Redbox kiosk. But it was impossible to imagine that a studio could invest tens of millions in a movie and then… just, not release it. Make it go away and take the write-off, like a failed TV pilot.
Today, we know that can happen. However, if that were to happen for “The Flash,” the fallout would be much greater than the shock-and-awe of “Batgirl.”
Zaslav’s decision to kill “Batgirl” and remove underperforming HBO Max titles from circulation was shocking, but it was also HBO Max. Budgeted at $200 million, “The Flash” is a full-on, franchise-launching, would-be blockbuster. Unlike “Batgirl,” it’s been testing well. First footage premiered at the virtual DC FanDome almost a year ago, more dropped in February, and the appearance of Flash in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” was named the most cheer-worthy film moment of 2021 at the Oscars in March.
It’s a movie that WBD needs. Warners’ 10 highest-grossing films in the current century are installments of “Harry Potter,” “The Hobbit,” and DC titles. Three of the studio’s top-five movies are based on DC characters, with 2018’s “Aquaman” earning a $1.14 billion worldwide gross. The most recent DC film, “The Batman,” performed well by pandemic standards after it was released in March with $770.84 million in worldwide ticket sales. It’s Warners’ highest grossing release since “Joker” — another DC title — came out in 2019.
Losing “The Flash” would be a blow to the exhibitors hungry for blockbuster product, to the architecture of the DCEU, and to WBD’s bottom line, which saw the studio lose $3.4 billion in Q2. Zaslav has repeatedly shown that he has no interest in throwing good money after bad (RIP, CNN+) but even a “Flash”- sized tax break can’t make up for the loss of time and effort in world building.
There’s no entirely satisfactory outcome. Even if WBD wanted to consider digital replacement for Miller, it’s prohibitively expensive and it wouldn’t resolve much. From a PR perspective it would have as much potential to pull unwanted focus as Miller himself. In theory, they could do a digital replacement with an actor they intended to use in future installments, which would make for a first-of-its-kind franchise debut. More realistically, WBD will stick with Miller and then recast in the future — even if the studio wanted him, it’s hard to imagine that Miller could be bonded for a future production — which leaves DC having to reboot its reboot.
In response to an analyst’s question, Zaslav spent a good deal of time outlining his passion for DC. “The Warner Bros. Motion Picture Group has fantastic IP and a great history,” he said. “DC is one of the top of the list for us. Look at Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman — these are brands known everywhere in the world. The ability to drive those all over the world is a big opportunity for us.”
He went on to detail the DC “reset” that includes “a team with a 10-year plan focusing just on DC. It’s very similar to the structure that Alan Horn and Bob Iger put together very effectively with Kevin Feige at Disney. We think we could build a long-term, much more sustainable growth business out of DC, and as part of that, we’re going to focus on quality… DC is something we can make better, and we’re focused on it now.”
Warners has promised DC do-overs before, but one is needed again. Collateral damage for its fan base goes beyond the specific disappointment of losing “Batgirl.” Whether it’s DC, Marvel, or Star Wars, superhero fans put an enormous amount of trust in the people who create the worlds they love. You can see it in the furious online chatter, the Cons, the demand that the universe’s expressions and lore stretch across multiple films and TV shows with biblical alignment.
At last month’s Comic-Con — where WBD announced no new titles and made no mention of “The Flash” — Marvel announced five new films stretching all the way into 2025. While that’s certainly intended to stoke enthusiasm, it’s also a promise: This is how we’ll feed all the passion that you generously provide, because we trust you to show up. “Batgirl” was a broken promise; now WBD says, ready or not, “The Flash” is one it will keep.
Chris Lindahl contributed to this report.