Inside the Confusing State of DC, From Huge ‘Joker 2’ Paydays to the Search for Their Kevin Feige

Inside the Confusing State of DC,
Clockwise from left: Warner Bros.; HBO Max; Warner Bros. (2) / Courtesy Everett Collection

When Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav spoke to investors on Aug. 4, the very first question was about his decision, announced two days earlier, to cancel the release of DC comics adaptation “Batgirl,” taking the HBO Max production (as well as “Scoob!: Holiday Haunt”) as a tax write-down instead. If Zaslav hoped his answer might help to quell the firestorm that choice created across the industry, he appears to have done the opposite.

Zaslav made public what had been reported and rumored for months: that the company had “restructured” to create a team with a “10-year plan focusing just on DC” that would be “similar to the structure that Alan Horn and Bob Iger put together very effectively with [Marvel Studios chief] Kevin Feige at Disney.”

But the executive, who took the reins of the company in April, did not disclose who would be a part of that team, nor did he acknowledge that Walter Hamada, the executive who’s led the DC Films unit since 2018, actually has a long term plan for DC’s cinematic universe and has been in the middle of implementing it.

And while Zaslav’s newly announced “reset” for DC appeared to dismiss Hamada and his team’s preparations, the lack of specifics, and some mixed signals, has created an atmosphere of confusion — and rampant speculation — over the future of more than a dozen DC film and TV projects already in the pipeline.

As it stands, only one new DC feature project currently has a greenlight post-merger: “Joker: Folie à Deux,” which is scheduled to hit theaters in 2024. The follow-up to the wildly successful 2019 “Joker,” which grossed $1.07 billion globally, comes with a much bigger price tag than the first. Both Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips are believed to be getting $20 million paydays, and new costar Lady Gaga is getting $10 million. Those salaries, combined with the cost of producing complicated musical sequences (though one insider stresses “Joker 2” is more like “A Star Is Born” than “In the Heights”), means that the sequel will cost roughly $150 million to produce.

That’s still cheaper than most superhero movies, which often cost upwards of $200 million — like “The Batman,” for example, which earned a solid $770 million globally in a pandemic environment. Writer-director Matt Reeves is on track for a sequel with star Robert Pattinson, but the project remains in development and does not yet have a greenlight — any future film is years away. Several other DC properties have been in development as feature films, some for years — “Wonder Woman 3” (with Patty Jenkins directing), “Superman” (with Ta-Nehisi Coates writing), “Zatanna” (with Emerald Fennell writing) and “Static Shock” (with Michael B. Jordan producing) — but there haven’t been any substantive updates on these films since news of them first broke. (A spokesperson for Warner Bros. declined to comment for this story.)

Meanwhile, the idea of launching straight-to-streaming DC-branded films appears to have been abandoned — or, at least, imperiled — with the cancelation of “Batgirl.” Under Jason Kilar, DC had intended to introduce several less prominent characters on HBO Max before later integrating them into feature films that were targeted for a theatrical release. “Blue Beetle,” which features the first Mexican-American big screen superhero, had originally been part of this strategy, but even before Zaslav took the reins, the film pivoted to a traditional release with a $100 million budget. It will now open in theaters in 2023.

But “Batgirl” won’t, after a disappointing screening of a “10-week director’s cut” led to middling test scores. Insiders point out, however, that practically all movies are in rough shape that early in post-production, and “Batgirl” was designed to be watched on television, not a big screen, so it lacked the kind of gargantuan set pieces that could have goosed its score. But attempting to expand the movie into a big-screen proposition would have required reshoots, which Warner Bros. Discovery deemed to be a waste of money.

And yet, a “Black Canary” standalone movie, starring Jurnee Smollett reprising the title role from 2020’s “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” is still reportedly in development for HBO Max. And newly installed Warner Bros. Pictures Group chiefs Michael De Luca and Pam Abdy, in seeking to mend fences with “Batgirl” star Leslie Grace, are entertaining the possibility of having her continue to play Batgirl in a future DC film (or, at least, star in another Warner Bros. production).

Whatever film might feature Grace in the Batgirl cape and cowl again will likely be up to whomever Zaslav ultimately empowers to lead DC. By directly citing Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios as a model for DC’s future in the earnings call, Zaslav threw more fuel onto an already raging rumor mill over who could get the job. One example: Greg Berlanti, who oversees many of DC’s television properties, has been loudly whispered as a possibility for the role — but no one from Warner Bros. has actually approached his camp, Berlanti has not pursued the job, and insiders believe that the superstar producer wouldn’t be interested in going in-house.

Dan Lin, the producer of “The Lego Movie” and “Sherlock Holmes,” lamented on the Aug. 5 episode of the Ankler podcast (but recorded before news of the “Batgirl” cancelation broke) that his work in 2008 producing the ill-fated “Justice League” movie with director George Miller nearly had him “overseeing the entire DC franchise.” But Lin remains committed to his own production company, Rideback, and his ongoing production deal at Universal.

Marvel Studios’ style of integrated film and TV storytelling would also be far more complicated to implement at Warner Bros. Discovery. Feige runs his own fiefdom at Disney, but any TV productions for DC would also need to flow through HBO/HBO Max chief Casey Bloys and/or Warner Bros. TV chair Channing Dungey, stymieing the independence of whomever would try to coordinate DC’s film and TV storytelling. And whoever takes the job will likely inherit the unceasing headaches with “The Flash,” which faces unprecedented challenges caused by allegations of abuse by and multiple arrests of its star, Ezra Miller.

Even with those hurdles, Zaslav remains steadfast in his plan for a single DC vertical led by an executive reporting directly to him. Until that position is filled — and it likely won’t be for months — the status quo continues at the company, with Hamada overseeing DC Film under Abdy and De Luca, the latter of whom has demonstrated his fanboy bona fides in meetings and impressed people at DC with his knowledge of comic book arcana. When he was an executive at New Line, De Luca developed the “Blade” franchise and even tried to get an “Iron Man” movie off the ground well before the character launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In fact, the future of DC Film could very well be its present: De Luca and Abdy have made no secret that they want Hamada to remain at the helm of the unit. A fellow New Line alum, Hamada was brought on to stabilize DC’s film slate in 2018 and has been credited in guiding the likes of “Aquaman” and “The Batman” to box office success. Hamada is widely respected on the lot for his keen story sense and relationships with talent. He also keeps a low profile in a business of big egos, which has endeared him to staff.

But Warner Bros. rank-and-file also believe that Hamada has been mistreated even before Discovery bought the company from AT&T. They note that Hamada had to endure death threats after “Justice League” star Ray Fisher publicly accused the executive of undermining an investigation into misconduct allegations related to reshoots on that film. Many staffers believe the studio did not do enough the back their embattled executive and feel it was unfair that he became the target of Snyder-verse fans because that film was completed before he took over at DC.

The last straw appears to have been the decision to cancel “Batgirl,” which caused Hamada to nearly resign. De Luca and Abdy convinced him to remain at the studio at least until “Black Adam” opens in October. Whether Hamada stays any longer appears to be entirely up to the executive.

Even if Hamada does remain in his job, Zaslav still plans to transform DC’s film and TV efforts from a confederation of semi-integrated productions into a single, MCU-style creative endeavor. Doing so, however, complicates plans for a host of TV titles. Reeves is still planing a spin-off TV series of “The Batman” focusing on Colin Farrell’s Penguin, and James Gunn is still set to make a second season of “Peacemaker,” a spin-off of his 2021 DC film “The Suicide Squad.” Neither of those projects, however, have anything to do with each other, nor with Phillips’ “Joker” movies.

Beyond those projects, DC’s future on TV gets much murkier. Berlanti’s “Green Lantern” series is still currently moving forward; sources say it’s the biggest, most ambitious DC adaptation ever mounted by the prolific producer. But his DC anthology series “Strange Adventures” has been killed, along with a “Wonder Twins” HBO Max movie with KJ Apa and Isabel May.

The profane animated series “Harley Quinn,” currently streaming its third season, has a major following and would seem to be safe, whereas it’s still to be determined whether live-action DC shows “Titans” and “Doom Patrol” would be renewed after new seasons of both shows premiere later this year — but as with all TV series on the service, final decisions will be made once the seasons are streaming. Then there’s J.J. Abrams’ plans for a Justice League Dark series, which would be an Avengers-style show featuring DC characters from the titular team. Spinoffs featuring DC characters such as “Constantine” and “Madame Xanadu” remain in active development — “Constantine” producers have even scouted locations in preparation to start shooting in early 2023. But the everyday risks faced by any production have been compounded by the shock of the “Batgirl” cancelation and uncertainty over who will be the new big boss at DC.

Kate Aurthur and Joe Otterson contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect the current renewal status of “Titans” and “Doom Patrol.”

From Variety US