I love a good DVD box set. Get me the complete filmography of some director I’ve never heard of, or a series that got cancelled after two seasons, and I’ll be content. I’ll probably never get around to watching it, I just want to own it. Bonus points if it’s a weird shape, or comes in some sort of unwieldy sculpture. The harder it is to fit on my shelf, the better.
My compulsive hoarding of pop culture ephemera used just to be one of those annoying quirks about me; one that made it impossible to move house easily or convince potential friends and lovers that I’m a functioning adult. However, as we move towards a media landscape that is almost entirely digital, where streaming companies have the power to withhold movies and TV episodes they find controversial or unprofitable, collecting physical media is becoming less of a hobby and more of a necessity.
Protecting the art we have becomes more and more important as studios begin to treat it more and more like any other commodity, able to be discarded at a whim for reasons that we may never even be privy to.
A few weeks ago, it was announced that Warner Bros Discovery’s Batgirl film would be shelved by the company’s new owners, never to be released to the viewing public despite being more or less completed. The directors of the $90m (£77m) film allege that they were unable to access the servers that held the footage after the decision had been made, and subsequent reports have emerged that the company will soon destroy all traces of the movie in order to write it off for tax purposes.
The fact that we won’t get to see yet another superhero movie about a C-list Batman character probably doesn’t strike you as the world’s biggest tragedy, and I get that. The quality of Warner Bros’s DC films has been hit and miss at the best of times, and it’s unlikely that we’re being deprived of the next Citizen Kane here. But it’s still pretty weird, right?
It’s weird that hundreds of cast and crew can have months of their hard work sacrificed on the altar of capitalism in exchange for a tax break. Was the movie really that bad? Did they accidentally get some of the script pages mixed up with my old Commissioner Gordon/Alfred slash fiction, tainting the movie beyond repair? If that’s the case then fair enough, but it feels unlikely (I keep all my fan fiction on a private server).
What’s weirder still is the fact that while Warner Bros have decided to scrap Batgirl, the company still appears to be ploughing ahead with the release of next year’s Flash movie, despite the fact that its lead star Ezra Miller has spent the past year sabotaging their own reputation.
While Miller has recently sought mental health support, it doesn’t change the fact that Warner Bros made no effort to pull the film when allegations against the actor included burglary, assault, and at one point a potential kidnapping. Seriously, did the Batgirl directors accidentally film a murder or something?
From a very basic PR perspective, choosing to scrap the fairly inoffensive girl movie but keeping the extremely controversial boy movie is such a boneheaded move that I initially thought it was going to be part of some extremely sophisticated 4-D marketing campaign. It gets worse when you consider that Batgirl’s lead character was to be an out-and-proud lesbian, and that another prominent character was to be played by a trans woman. Each of these things would have been a first for the DC Extended Universe, and would have allowed Warner Bros to make a real statement after a decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s often-anaemic gestures towards diversity).
Even from the perspective of pure, unfiltered capitalism, we’re talking about a Batman movie here. Not only that, but a Batman movie that would have seen the return of Michael Keaton’s iteration of the character from the 1989 Tim Burton film. The cynic in me wants to say that all of this has happened because Warner’s new bosses are motivated purely by profit, but after a certain point it just feels like they wanted to set a big pile of money on fire to send a message. Is the new Warner CEO the Joker? It’s as sensible a theory as anything else I can think of.
What I do know is that a movie studio giving itself carte blanche to delete art – even mediocre art – sets a worrying precedent. Studios have always had the ability to change movies as they’re being made, or to re-edit them after the fact into something alien to the original vision, but this new scorched-earth approach feels like a bridge too far.
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When you create something like a film, its value extends beyond itself and reaches out into the world, affecting the wider culture in ways both big and small. Choosing to withhold or negate that value is tantamount to cultural vandalism, regardless of the reasons behind it. When those reasons are so nakedly profit-oriented, the vandalism can feel so much more excessive and destructive.
It isn’t anything new to say that “capitalism is destroying creativity”; any first-year art student will tell you that. But the acceleration of that destruction, and the widening of its scope, is something new and very worrying. We consume art and entertainment every single day, but refuse to treat it as the vital commodity that it is, instead viewing it as some frivolous enterprise that we graciously allow creatives to indulge in.
I’m not saying that the deletion of a probably-not-even-that-good Batman spin-off is the 21st century’s answer to the bonfire of the vanities, but it’s definitely something to be wary of. Hopefully this whole saga isn’t indicative of how we’ll treat art in the future, but in the meantime I’ll keep hoarding my DVDs just in case.