The uncertain future of the DC universe

It's a problem when you have three different Batmans — and no Superman

Batman and Superman
(Image credit: Illustrated | Gettyimages)

The state of the DC universe is uncertain, especially after Warner Bros. announced a nearly completed movie will be tossed in the trash. What the heck is going on? Here's what you need to know:

Why did 'Batgirl' get canceled?

In a stunning move, Warner Bros. confirmed that its Batgirl movie starring Leslie Grace will never be released — even though it was already shot and cost $90 million.

The plan had been to release Batgirl as an HBO Max original without sending it to theaters. But since the film was announced, Warner Bros. and DC came under new corporate ownership as its parent company, WarnerMedia, merged with Discovery. Former WarnerMedia CEO Jason Kilar had put a major focus on HBO Max. But the new boss, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, said during a quarterly earnings call in August 2022 that "we cannot find an economic case" for expensive direct-to-streaming movies.

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That seems to be the biggest factor behind Batgirl's cancellation, as Variety says it was "neither big enough to feel worthy of a major theatrical release nor small enough" to make sense as an HBO Max original under this new strategy.

"We're not going to put a movie out unless we believe it in," Zaslav also said, adding, "Our job is to protect the DC brand."

Are any other films on the chopping block?

The news sparked questions about whether other DC movies will suffer the same fate, and Rolling Stone reported a Supergirl film starring Sasha Calle, who will play the character in The Flash, is now "not likely to move forward."

There is also the question of the other DC content developed for HBO Max. Jurnee Smollett, for instance, is supposed to star in a Black Canary movie centered around her Birds of Prey character, another streaming exclusive. There's also Blue Beetle, a film starring Xolo Maridueña that was announced for HBO Max (but that movie was already shifted to a theatrical release, so it might be safer).

Other DC HBO Max projects include a Green Lantern show, a spinoff of The Batman centered around Colin Farrell's Penguin, and Peacemaker, the Suicide Squad spinoff starring John Cena that was already renewed for a second season. After the Batgirl cancellation, Peacemaker creator James Gunn assured fans that season two is safe.

Still, if Warner Bros. is willing to scrap a nearly finished movie, all bets are off.

What else does the new boss have planned for DC?

In June, Variety reported Zaslav is "frustrated" that DC's "cinematic output has been inconsistent and that there hasn't been sufficient long-term planning." He reportedly hopes to tap someone who could oversee the franchise, as Kevin Feige has done at Marvel; indeed, in August 2022, Zaslav said DC will craft a 10-year plan "very similar" to the model Marvel has followed. DC Films' current president is Walter Hamada, who according to The Hollywood Reporter nearly quit over the Batgirl cancellation but has agreed to stay until at least October.

What's the state of DC's theatrical slate?

A number of DC movies from prior to the Warner Bros. Discovery merger are still scheduled. Next up in October 2022 is Black Adam starring Dwayne Johnson as the titular Shazam antagonist. A Shazam sequel, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, also debuts in December 2022. Then in March 2023, there's Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, which is already facing controversy due to the presence of Amber Heard after the Johnny Depp defamation trial.

Also slated for June 2023 is The Flash, starring Ezra Miller, and rumors suggest it will be crucial to establishing the state of the DC universe going forward. The fate of the movie has been unclear due to Miller becoming embroiled in legal hot water and facing allegations of grooming, but in August 2022, Zaslav said it will still be released. After The Flash, Blue Beetle is then scheduled for August 2023. No DC Extended Universe films have release dates after that, in contrast to Marvel, which has 10 movies scheduled through November 2025.

As a whole, the DCEU continues to grapple with the failure of its attempt to catch up with Marvel by quickly establishing its equivalent to the Avengers, the Justice League. After Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was poorly received, the climactic event film Justice League was a box office bomb in 2017.

Since then, DC has eased up on connections between its movies, some of which, like Aquaman, have been hits, while others have underperformed, like Birds of Prey. Fans continue to speculate Warner Bros. Discovery will reset the entire franchise given the poor reception to past films. But the problem is that wiping the slate fully clean would require losing well-liked stars including Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa —and Gadot is expected to return for Wonder Woman 3.

Why are there so many different Batmen?

Some of the biggest successes DC has had lately have been outside the DC Extended Universe continuity. The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson, and Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix, were hits, and sequels are in the works. But unfortunately for Warner Bros., these movies are set in separate universes, meaning there are no opportunities for the kind of crossover events that have turned Marvel into a box office juggernaut.

DC also might run the risk of creating confusion among audiences, as the use of multiple continuities means there will soon be three actors playing Batman simultaneously: Robert Pattinson portrays Bruce Wayne in the non-DCEU The Batman, while Ben Affleck plays him in Batman v. Superman and Justice League and returns in the DCEU films Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom and The Flash.

The Flash will also feature a third Batman: Michael Keaton, reprising his role from the Tim Burton Batman movies; Keaton also played Batman in the canceled Batgirl film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, he "was being positioned as akin to Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe" as a sort of "elder statesman" who would pop up in multiple films, and he shot a scene for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. But test audiences reportedly found his appearance confusing, which seemingly led him to be replaced with Affleck.

Beyond The Flash and Aquaman, it isn't clear how long Affleck will stick around.

Where the heck is Superman?

DC's marquee character has been missing in action for five years, and it's unclear whether Henry Cavill will return. Since 2019, when DCEU entries like Shazam! and Peacemaker have featured Superman cameos, we never see his face, indicating a lack of clarity on who DC's Superman will be going forward.

In early 2021, Ta-Nehisi Coates was confirmed to be writing a Superman reboot that would star a Black actor. But there have been no major updates since then, and Variety reported in June 2022 that plans for the movie haven't been finalized. Another member of the Justice League is also MIA: Ray Fisher's Cyborg, who is unlikely to ever return considering Fisher has repeatedly lambasted Warner Bros. for alleged mistreatment during the making of Justice League.

All in all, after Marvel recently held a Comic-Con panel laying out its plans in great detail, it's safe to say DC fans would kill for that kind of certainty about the future.

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Brendan Morrow

Brendan is a staff writer at The Week. A graduate of Hofstra University with a degree in journalism, he also writes about horror films for Bloody Disgusting and has previously contributed to The Cheat Sheet, Heavy, WhatCulture, and more. He lives in New York City surrounded by Star Wars posters.