The cancellation of movies and TV shows might seem like a personal vendetta against fans but it is usually for rather more basic reasons.
Yesterday, chunks of the Twitterati were up in arms because, in quick succession, Warner Brothers has cancelled plans to release a newly-shot Batgirl movie – at all, in any way, shape or form – and Netflix has cancelled the TV series First Kill after one season. You might reasonably consider that, with everything else going on in the world right now, the fate of emptily populist fantasy entertainment productions is not that important – especially as this sort of thing dominates the film and TV world right now and so one or two less is not exactly a great loss. But in the heightened world of Twitter, geekdom and the battle for victimhood status, this has been seen as highly suspect, mostly by people who have no idea of how giant media conglomerates actually operate.
The problem here isn’t just the ever-toxic world of social media fan entitlement, though God knows we see that all the time these days. It’s also because First Kill is a teen vampire series that sounds, on paper, like every other teen vampire franchise of recent years – but with lesbian leading characters – and Batgirl stars PoC actor Leslie Grace in the lead role and is directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, two Belgian directors of Moroccan descent who previously made the Disney+ series Ms Marvel. You probably don’t need me to spell out the sinister conspiracies that are being attributed to these (presumably coincidental) cancellations by some people who can’t possibly accept that either project wasn’t delivering.
It is, I suppose, just about possible that both WB and Netflix are being secretly run by virulent Nazis, so keen on ‘owning the Libs’ that one of them would piss away $90 million on a movie with impressively diverse credentials specifically in order to then bury it and undermine the efforts of those who made it, while the other will pay for and broadcast an entire season of a costly show just so that they can then cancel it after one season and upset the people who had become devoted fans. I mean, you never know. But the cynic in me can’t help but think that there might be a less diabolical and more prosaically dull reason for these two cancellations. Maybe neither project was all that good.
Certainly, it seems that quality issues (and a refocusing of direction) are at the heart of the Batgirl situation. New studio heads lose interest (and belief) in films all the time and while $90 million seems an insane amount to write off – especially on a film that is apparently complete – it’s not unheard of. This is, after all, how we ended up with both Exorcist: Dominion and Exorcist: The Beginning, and given how much money needs to be added to a film’s production budget just to get a release, it seems likely that someone has calculated that the cost of going further would just cause an even bigger loss. Notably, WB has also just shelved a new Scooby Doo animated movie but that has been barely mentioned.
The painful fact is that WB’s DC comics film franchise has not exactly been covered in glory to begin with – box office and critical disappointment seem to be the hallmarks of the series and with the much more expensive Flash movie now also facing an uncertain future thanks to its miscreant star’s penchant for kidnap and fleeing justice, perhaps the studio is finally rethinking this whole comic book Universe idea. Given how flooded the market currently is, that might not be a bad idea. In any case, I haven’t seen Batgirl – but neither has anyone else commenting on it. We should at least accept the possibility that it might not be very good, all things considered.
I’ve also never seen First Kill – we don’t subscribe to Netflix anymore and even if we did, it’s probably not really my thing. Indeed, as angry people on Twitter will doubtless be very keen to tell me, it wasn’t made for the likes of me anyway. But as it turns out, the show wasn’t attracting enough of the people that it was made for either. Like many streaming services, Netflix is rather secretive about viewing figures – ‘ratings’, as we used to call them – so no one really knows just how many people were watching the show, though apparently it amassed 100 million global hours of views. I have no idea just what that translates to in terms of bums on seats but it is seemingly better than some shows that have been renewed for a second season. However, that doesn’t tell us much about viewer retention or how much the series cost to make – if a show costs twice as much to make as another show, then it might not matter if it has more viewers or not in terms of cost v. profit, especially in the world of subscription TV where you can’t just charge advertisers more money for having their ads in a popular show. As we know, Netflix is haemorrhaging subscribers at the moment and First Kill has clearly not reversed that. Presumably, they weighed it all up and decided that it wasn’t in their interest to carry on. This wouldn’t be the first TV show to be cancelled because of how costly it was to make even though it had solid viewing figures.
Nevertheless, entitled fans are furious. Buzzfeed ‘journalist’ Nora Dominick said “First Kill deserved season 2 for numerous reasons and it’s just so incredibly sad that these lgbtq+ netflix shows aren’t given a chance. A lot of my favorite shows took more than one season to hit their strides and it sucks that ONE freshman season now makes or breaks a show.” I’m assuming Dominick is too young to remember the days when shows would be cancelled after three or four episodes if they weren’t performing well enough. Getting a full season doesn’t seem that bad, all things considered.
It’s also worth noting that, despite what Dominick implies, Netflix is not on some sinister vendetta against LGBTQ+ shows. The gay romantic drama Heartstopper has just been renewed for a second and third season, presumably because it has a better cost/viewership ratio – and surely if Netflix had some odd ideological down on queer representation, they wouldn’t be making these shows to begin with. Trying to ascribe malicious reasoning to the actions of ruthlessly commercial film and TV companies seems woefully misguided – these companies will show anything that they think will make them money and drop anything that they think won’t. They are all about the money and this is all product at the end of the day.
Look, I know what it’s like to have something you like (or intended to like) cruelly snatched away. I’ve seen plenty of TV shows and comic books that I enjoyed cancelled, bands I was into break up, and favourite foods are suddenly yanked from the market. Hell, at one point it seemed that as soon as I found a product that I liked, it would then almost immediately cease production. That’s life – full of disappointment because not everyone enjoys the same thing and sometimes, you’ll be in a minority of people who like something and there won’t be enough people who share your taste to make that thing commercially viable. First Kill might be a sincere, top-quality show (or it might be, as the Variety review said, a cynical and derivative mess where “representation becomes a collection of clichés and buzzwords for a network trying to thrive on the brownie points of including it at all”) but it has no divine right to stay in production just because some people really, really like it. Of course, if the show is as popular as its supporters claim, then surely it’ll be snapped up by another streaming service or TV network.
As for Batgirl, it’s unlikely that it will actually vanish. At some point, it’ll slip out on Blu-ray or pop up on Netflix or Amazon Prime or the like. Who knows? Maybe it’ll become a sleeper hit or build a cult following over the years. But maybe – and I know that this is a radical idea – it’s just not a very good movie, one that simply doesn’t justify the cost and effort of a major release. Time will tell.
As it is, the overly hysterical reaction to both projects being cancelled says a lot about the mindset and self-importance at the heart of modern nerd culture, which has gone from a niche subject to the dominant form of entertainment. Along the way, the fans have become increasingly demanding and needy, talking about bloated, FX-driven, obscenely expensive franchise movies from greedy mega conglomerates that are effectively created by committees as though they are great works of creative art that are made with integrity and sincerity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with empty-headed entertainment – even when it takes itself ridiculously seriously – but it is hardly as though the fans of this sort of thing are underserved, no matter how much they like to still pitch themselves as being misunderstood outsiders. The reaction from a surprisingly large part of fandom to being given everything that they could possibly want is, rather than a sense of gratitude, to constantly demand more – not just more content but more control. Studios have been oddly indulgent of this, pandering to the whims of social media outrage and whipped-up campaigns – but there are limits, and this might be the first sign that we’ve finally reached superhero overkill.
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