The director Adil El Arbi was celebrating his marriage in Tangier this week when news came through of a very unwelcome wedding gift.
El Arbi and his directing colleague Bilall Fallah, the Belgian-Moroccan duo behind Bad Boys for Life, had taken a week off from editing their forthcoming Batgirl film when they were informed by Warner Bros that it was forthcoming no more.
Not postponed, nor pulled back into production for rewrites or reshoots. The entire US$90 million ($145 million) project – which was led by Leslie Grace, the breakout star of the screen adaptation of the musical In The Heights, and featured the return of Michael Keaton as her caped crusading mentor – had been scrapped.
Never mind that it was sufficiently close to completion that test screenings were already being held, from which praise for Brendan Fraser's performance as Firefly, its pyromaniacal villain, had already found its way to Twitter.
Batgirl's cancellation was apparently no reflection on its quality. The dumping of their film, El Arbi and Fallah were told on Tuesday evening, was simply a "purchase accounting" manoeuvre, while a statement released by Warner Bros attributed the cancellation to "a strategic shift as it relates to the DC universe and HBO Max".
Following the studio's merger with the documentary channel brand Discovery, Inc earlier this year, the new management had no interest in releasing it, either in cinemas or on their streaming platform HBO Max. (A new computer-animated Scooby-Doo film, thought to have cost the studio US$40 million, also met the same fate.)
As comic-book adaptations go, Batgirl was a relatively modest one. It cost only half as much as the most recent Batman feature, starring Robert Pattinson, and while it had been scheduled for a full theatrical launch in the UK, it had been conceived as a streaming attraction first and foremost – something to help convert the army of DC fans in the US into HBO Max subscribers.
Even so, there was clearly a degree of ambition to it. Rather than making do with green screens, El Arbi and Fallah shot the whole thing on location in Glasgow earlier this year: during the city's film festival in March, attendees could wander down from the Glasgow Film Theatre to watch Gotham City police cars screech around George Square in between screenings.
Across the industry, the decision has been met with blanket astonishment.
On the rare occasion that finished films are disposed of, the reasons are usually obvious, however unwelcome the move itself may be. No one was especially surprised when Netflix axed their US$39 million Gore Vidal biopic in late 2017: the mounting allegations of sexual harassment against its star Kevin Spacey had rendered it unreleasable overnight.
And back in the 1970s, Jerry Lewis' self-funded Holocaust comedy The Day the Clown Cried, about a children's entertainer doggedly buoying the spirits of young concentration camp prisoners, was locked away forever after even its star admitted the whole business had been horribly misconceived.
But unlike Warner Bros' other completed superhero feature, The Flash – whose star Ezra Miller has been involved in a number of altercations and controversies this year – nothing about Batgirl whispered, let alone screamed, problematic. In fact, with a Hispanic lead actress, a transgender supporting star in Lingua Franca's Ivory Aquino, and a screenplay by Christina Hodson, the writer of the punchily pop-feminist Birds of Prey, its progressive credentials seemed immaculate.
One senior creative with a working knowledge of Warner Bros described the decision to me yesterday as "completely baffling".
"Everyone's trying to work out what on earth they're thinking," they said. "The fact that they'd get rid of something they've already invested US$90 million in makes us feel like nothing is safe."
Dropping a film this big at this late stage, they continued, was "unheard of" – "It's as if they're treating it as a pilot episode of a television show that didn't work out. But even the unaired Game of Thrones prequel pilot only cost US$30 million."
The theory the film was so bad it was internally deemed unreleasable, meanwhile, doesn't add up, they said: "There must be bigger corporate machinations at work here. It would have to be sub-Sharknado in terms of quality for it just to be dropped."
Besides, when it comes to both superhero films and the great streaming ecosystem, it can't be said that dreadfulness has traditionally been a barrier to entry.
Netflix's homegrown blockbusters are virtually brain-numbing by design, while both Marvel and DC have historically made the best of bad jobs by opening them as widely as possible, selling as many tickets as they can before word of mouth can spread.
Look at Morbius, Fantastic Four or Catwoman, or the original 2017 well-we-have-to-put-out-something cut of Justice League – a film which, owing to various behind-the-scenes boilings, was all but reshot from scratch four months from release.
This new approach, by contrast, smacks uncomfortably of the Bronx slum landlord. Rather than rescuing a troublesome property, why not just burn the thing down and cash out on the smouldering wreck?
And serious structural work was, in this case, required. In order to deliver Batgirl – that is, to finish editing it, complete its visual effects and then market it globally, which is itself an expensive process – Warner Bros might have had to spend another $80 million. So taking it as a tax write-down instead must, on paper, have made blunt financial sense.
But there's a grim upshot to this strategy: the film itself becomes legally impossible to show or watch. It can't be fast-tracked onto streaming, or even sold to a rival distributor. Instead, it vanishes for good.
This has long been rumoured to be the fate of Hippie Hippie Shake, a swinging-sixties period piece starring Cillian Murphy and Sienna Miller, and made by Working Title Films for £20 million in 2007. That film, too, was close enough to completion to be test-screened to early audiences, but by 2011 it had been shelved by Universal – in order to "save themselves a lot of tax payments", according to Richard Neville, the editor of Oz magazine, on whose memoir it had been based.
"The problem with this kind of thinking is it frames each film as just another item in an investment portfolio, rather than four years of people's time and careers," says the creative.
"From an artistic standpoint it makes your blood freeze."
For the 27-year-old Grace, a well-regarded newcomer with just one prior screen credit, a role like Batgirl could have been life-changing – if anyone had actually seen it.
But if the logical end point of the franchise era is in treating films like assets to be bought and sold – and sometimes written off – then actors and crew members will themselves start to reconsider where their time and talents should be invested.
"It's a real warning sign for anyone considering getting involved," the creative suggests.
"Say what you will about Marvel, but if we're talking in purely strategic terms, there's the vague suggestion of an overall plan." (The Disney subsidiary sets all of its series and films in the same fictional world, with each instalment selling tickets for the next.)
Conversely, the Warner situation "just looks like absolute chaos".
The appeal of the Warner Bros DC franchise was never coherence – the studio currently has three live-action Batmen on the go, in the forms of Pattinson, Keaton and Ben Affleck – but the relatively high levels of artistic freedom afforded to individual instalments.
That counts for less, though, when said artistry – or even just workmanlike craft – might not see the light of day if years later, a spreadsheet deems it commercially imprudent. Could this seismic wobble be the foreshock of the end of Hollywood's streaming boom, or its superhero era – or maybe both? Time will tell, though its immediate effects are a little easier to parse.
As the well-placed creative points out: "Who'd want to work with a studio that does this?"
5 (POSSIBLY) GREAT FILMS YOU'LL NEVER SEE
1. Hippie Hippie Shake (2010)
A woozy tribute to Swinging Sixties London, this project starred Cillian Murphy as Richard Neville, the Australian editor of satirical magazine Oz, and Sienna Miller as his girlfriend, Louise Ferrier, when the pair were put on trial for obscenity when launching the UK edition.
2. Uncle Tom's Fairy Tales (1969)
Made by Penelope Spheeris when still a film student, and starring Richard Pyror, this drama had a bizarre afterlife worthy of a thriller itself. Pyror claimed to have destroyed the only known negative, but scenes from it appeared in a tribute to the comedian. He sued Spheeris, claiming she had stolen it and the suit was unresolved at the time of his 2005 death.
3. Gore (2017)
When #MeToo allegations against Kevin Spacey surfaced in 2017, this biopic of the American writer Gore Vidal was one of the first casualties. The film was already in post-production and Netflix's losses were estimated at $39 million.
4. The Day the Clown Cried (1972)
Jerry Lewis's passion project about a washed-up circus clown caught up in the Holocaust, was almost instantly infamous. The actor Harry Shearer called it: "A perfect object... so drastically wrong." An incomplete copy is housed in the Library of Congress; it cannot be screened before June 2024.
5. Black Water Transit (2009)
Directed by American History X's Tony Kaye, this Bourne-esque thriller starred Laurence Fishburne and Karl Urban as smugglers in the ruins of post-Katrina New Orleans. It became mired in legal troubles and in June 2018 one of its producers was sentenced to eight years in prison for fraud.