Dark Knight, Long Knives: As Warners course-corrects, will DC be Decimated?

Is Miller's time over? Will Gotham Knights call it a day... will Peacemaker go to pieces? Joking aside, how safe is the DC universe..?

John Mosby provides an overview of a turbulent week for Warner Bros, DC and the strategies of multimedia titans…

It’s Friday am in America and do you know where your superheroes are?

It has not, in any way, been a great week for extended DC comic-related news.  While The CW‘s The Flash announced an arguably natural-end to a nine-season run (with the show reaching the finish line early in 2023), the news that Batgirl, a movie that had finished shooting and had already cost around $90 million, was being completely scrapped and had no strategy to appear in a cinematic or streaming form, took many by surprise. There had been mumblings of discontent from what the Hollywood Reporter said was only a singular preview screening of an unfinished version (not that unusual, most films go through such a process) and some declaring it wasn’t going to be a great Bat-chapter (despite the presence of Michael Keaton and Brendan Frasier), but there have been plenty of duds that have reached multiplexes despite themselves and actually made money, so to hide it away in a Bat-cave never to be seen by human eyes seemed out of the ordinary – an extreme measure at best that didn’t fit the known creative factors.

There are those with their own theories on the factors that decision who are unlikely to be dissuaded, but the most obvious, blatant and somewhat disappointing, answer is that the newer regime at the merged media titan (and to now be known as Warner Bros. Discovery or WBD) is performing a course-correction with the screeching of brakes that can be heard for miles – one driven by profit-margins and a seeming aversion to any concentration on streaming initiatives for its tentpoles. CEO David Zaslav and his team had forensically been going over every aspect of WarnerMedia‘s film, television, digital and gaming businesses since the merger was sorted in early April. Ahead of reports of their second-quarter year earnings, they had a limited window of a few more days to assess the money they’d already spent on Batgirl and be able to write a considerable amount of it off as a tax break and decided to do so – minimising those losses and saving many millions on marketing. Batgirl was a poster-child of  what Warners didn’t want. Their new plan for DC going forward was only big, multiplex-released guaranteed blockbusters (with massive profits, please) and so Batgirl fell on its sword… or was more likely pushed on to it on the way to the bank. After all, it’s all business.

Thursday’s public declarations of intent gave some more specifics…

“Our ambition to is bring Warners back and produce great, high-quality films…We can build a long-term sustainable growth business out of DC. We’re not releasing a film before it’s ready. There’s no comparison when you launch a film in motion picture theaters. Expensive films going to streaming … can’t find an economic value for it.”” said WBD‘s President / CEO David Zaslav, in as close to an official explanation for the cancellation of Batgirl and the company’s new mission statement as anyone was going to get for the moment. As for building a movie empire and emulating Disney/Marvel‘s MCU blueprint: “These are brands that are known everywhere in the world and as part of that, we’re going to focus on quality. DC is something that we think we could make better and we’re focused on it now. The objective is to grow the DC 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…”

“We have a different view on the wisdom of releasing direct-to-streaming films, and we have taken some aggressive steps to course-correct the previous strategy…” The closest he came to active support of the streaming option for new titles was suggesting that there might be a shorter window between multiplex release and streaming release in some cases and he seemed more intent on the online platforms being a secondary window for classic and older film content.

Zaslav also announced that the company is aiming to launch a combined HBO Max/Discovery+ streaming service in the U.S. next summer – as yet without an official moniker – but that the rumour of massive cancellations of HBO material during this reconstructing of their media footprint isn’t correct.

“Quality is what matters. Quality is what Casey (HBO & HBO Max Chief Content Officer Casey Bloys) and that team is delivering. It’s the best team in the business. We’re doubling down on that HBO team. They’re all committed under contract and we’re going to spend dramatically more this year and next year than we spent last year in the year before,” Zaslav said. “There was some buzz today about HBO Max (that) we’re going to start doing less series and our strategy is to embrace and support and then drive the incredible success that HBO Max is having. It’s really to the culture and the taste of Casey and the team and the fact that they not only read the scripts, but they fight with all the creatives to make the content and storytelling as strong as possible. It’s at a very unique moment. We think it’s an extraordinary asset, an extraordinary advantage…”

All of the above may placate investors and those interested in the practical, financial aspects of the Warners empire, but it doesn’t speak to deeper concerns about the changed attitude to creative content and its delivery. Should people be worried about anticipated projects coming to nothing?  If you’re an actor, producer, director currently working on such projects, then the obvious answer is… possibly.  Decisions are, after all, being reversed quickly. Productions are being cancelled before, during and after production starts and existing films are moving without notice. If you’re a viewer…. also, yes… if only for the sake of confusion.

So what of the other projects and DC properties out there?

Black Adam, starring Dwayne Johnson as the DC anti-hero is due at the multiplexes on 21st October and with a heavy presence at this year’s SDCC showing industry and company support for the title, all should be well there. The Aquaman sequel (Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom) is completed and due for release in 2023 and isn’t in any real danger – though one would have to have hidden under a rock to not know about the Johnny Depp / Amber Heard defamation trial that led many to believe that Heard – who subsequently lost both her case and a great deal of public sympathy  – would find her character  significantly sidelined if not entirely cut out of the otherwise finished film. Speculation that both films could be pushed back appear unfounded so far.

“We have seen The FlashBlack Adam and Shazam 2,” Zaslav noted. “We are very excited about them. We’ve seen them. We think they are terrific, and we think we can make them even better…”

Announced titles that haven’t yet gone into full production look to be in more precarious shape. Right now, no-one is confidently betting that the likes of Zatanna, Static Shock, Black Canary and a possible new Superman reboot with a black lead – all formally announced over the last few years under the previous Warners powers-that-be – will ever see the light of day soon or possibly at all. A new film based around Supergirl (who will be appear in The Flash movie and is being played by Sasha Calle) was also a strong possibility under the old regime. Now that too could be on the chopping block.

Aslav’s positive, if brief, mention of The Flash belies its problems and ignores some of the extreme off-screen factors that are already in play. It remains an interesting dilemma – in another tax bracket, its budget reported to be closer to $200 million and therefore always unlikely to disappear.  Industry reports indicate that the film (currently due for a 2023 release) is in decent shape in and of itself, with preview audiences liking what they’ve seen, though just about everything else concerning the project remains a marketing nightmare. Its star Ezra Miller (who has played the role in Justice League and Batman Vs Superman) has been through a serious of scandals.  In 2020 a controversial video surfaced of Miller at a bar in Iceland where he appeared to be initially joking around with a fan, but the woman ended up on the floor with Miller’s hands around her neck and an alarmed off-camera voice shouted “Whoa, bro. Bro. Bro…” as things seemed to get more serious. Miller was subsequently asked to leave the premises. No charges were made. In the early hours of Monday March 28th 2022 Miller was arrested after an incident in a Hilo, Hawaii bar. The allegation was that Miller “…became agitated while patrons at the bar began singing karaoke.” It was then alleged that Miller had begun “…yelling obscenities and at one point grabbed the microphone from a 23-year-old woman singing karaoke…and later lunged at a 32-year-old man playing darts.”  The police report stated that Miller was “…uncooperative and refused to leave the area and continued to obstruct the sidewalk.”  Miller was subsequently arrested, charged, had bail set at $500 and then released.

That would all be bad enough but they weren’t the only incidents. In a separate event a couple asked for a temporary restraining order against him after Miller allegedly barged into their bedroom and threatened them at a hostel in Hilo. Their statement claimed that Miller ‘…burst into the bedroom of the petitioner(s) and threatened…” the alleged male victim by “…saying ‘I will bury you and your s— wife.” They also accused Miller of stealing their personal belongings, including a passport and wallet. The couple later asked for the specific restraining order to be lifted, though other charges remain under investigation.

In April there was more.  The Hawaii Police Department said in a statement  “… shortly after 1 a.m. on Tuesday, April 19, 2022, a 29-year-old visitor from Vermont was arrested for second-degree assault after an incident at a residence. During the course of their investigation, police determined that the individual, later identified as Ezra Miller, became irate after being asked to leave and reportedly threw a chair, striking a 26-year-old female on the forehead, resulting in an approximate half-inch cut.” The statement also added that: ” After conferring with the County Prosecutor’s Office, at 4:05 a.m. on Tuesday morning Miller was released pending further investigation. This is an active investigation“. It is believed that the police are wanting to speak to Miller but the last news reports on the matter say he is on a heavily-armed farming property in Vermont.

Does all that mean The Flash could still be scrapped? It possible but it remains unlikely, though support for the film via marketing may have to be closely monitored internally. It likely depends on what happens between now and the current release-date… though if things have got this far without second-thoughts, one presumes WBD aren’t up for cancelling the film under any imaginable circumstances. (Pragmatically, reshoots with a new star would be prohibitively expensive for a film that’s already got a high price-tag, but as the WBD events have shown, various financial profits and loss will be weighed up in rather cold, pragmatic fashion that could have little to do with Warners‘ opinion over Miller’s off-screen tribulations).

Future big-screen plans for two major successes seem safe. 2019’s  Joker was an Oscar-worthy study of a mental breakdown that garnered star Joaquin Phoenix a golden statuette for his performance as a prototype version of the famous Batman villain. It will be getting a sequel with Phoenix and returning director Todd Phillips. Lady Gaga confirmed on Thursday that she’s boarding the project (known as Joker: Folie à Deux) for a release in October 2024. She appears to be essaying the role of Harley Quinn in a production that tilts towards a musical style.  The Batman made a huge impact when it was released early this year and a sequel is now on the cards. Matt Reeves will direct again with Robert Pattinson continuing his role as Bruce Wayne. However, what of the proposed Penguin series on HBO Max starring Colin Farrell (brilliant, but unrecognisable under prosthetics in the film)? It essentially replaced a proposed then axed series, Gotham PD, which would have had a focus on the police department under a younger James Gordon. Penguin‘s days may yet fail to take flight.

The CW has been making a show called Gotham Knights, a story concerned with the legacy of a deceased Batman and the heroes that take up his mantle – one clearly steering to the platform’s traditional beautiful young people with unsuual problems motif. There’s been publicity-stills, trailer and confirmation of an early 2023 air-date. But now there are rumors that it too will also be dropped… what might (still) seem an unlikely rumour now given some a some weight of possibility by this week’s other events. At this point it still remains on the schedule and simply subject to the swirling rumours that are hard to nail down.

The fate of Peacemaker (the John-Cena-starring, R-rated superhero action comedy helmed by James Gunn of Guardians of the Galaxy, Suicide Squad fame) was immediately raised by concerned fans, but Gunn – currently planning the show’s second season – tweeted reassurances, seeming to suggest that the show is safe for the moment because of its solid ratings for the first season.

The Sandman, Netflix‘s eagerly anticipated version of the acclaimed DC/Vertigo supernatural title of the same name, starts Friday and given that it’s on another platform entirely will likely see no real fall-out from the Warner/Discovery machinations.

Warner Bros. Discovery stocks dropped in the wake of the announcements.


EC NEWSOpinion