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Can Joss Whedon’s ‘Batgirl’ Save DC?

His reported movie might be exactly what the franchise needs

(DC Comics)
(DC Comics)

Variety has spoken: Joss Whedon is in negotiations to write, direct, and produce a Batgirl movie. It’s purely exciting news on its own terms — Joss Whedon, the comic-movie whisperer, is going to make a movie about Batgirl. But the report sends a more mixed message about the state of the sprawling, multinational venture it’s a building block of. Can Whedon rescue the DC comics movie universe? And what does it mean that he’s the guy tasked with doing so?

We’re in the midst of celebrating the 20-year anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, making this a particularly auspicious time for Whedon to announce his return to the world of plucky, ass-kicking young women considerably more competent than the men around them. Barbara Gordon, daughter of Commissioner Gordon and valued ally of Bruce Wayne, fits that description to a T, and while she was seen on the big screen as recently as The Lego Batman Movie, we haven’t gotten a proper live-action Batgirl since Alicia Silverstone in Batman & Robin.

When you factor in Whedon’s notoriously trying experience on Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, the decision to make a single-lead movie with a lower-stakes protagonist makes even more sense. Whedon may be the only creator in the world for whom managing a marquee comics character qualifies as a downshift, but it’s a welcome downshift nonetheless. Whedon will get to tell a story rather than shepherd a property, and a story he’s particularly well-suited to tell.

But there’s also some symbolism to this DC heroine swooping into a notoriously masculine franchise to save the day. The Warner Bros.–stewarded DC expanded universe is having an especially tough year: not only is it trailing behind Marvel in both dollars and acclaim, it’s been newly lapped by Fox’s X-Men venture, which has managed to bottle the Deadpool lightning and unleash it twice thus far in 2017. (Yes, Legion counts — it may not be crude, but it is wacky.) And so, with derision raining down on its recently unleashed Justice League trailer for looking, as my colleague Chris Ryan memorably put it, like “Avengers, but a pile of shit,” DC is bringing on … the man behind Avengers. DC isn’t copying Marvel’s playbook so much as poaching its Super Bowl–winning coach (and lifting its playbook in the process). Whedon, after all, inaugurated the world-domination phase of Disney’s master plan; presumably, the hope is he’ll finally do the same for Warner Bros.

There’s another way to spin this, though: After Marvel drove one of its most valuable assets away, DC has managed to lure him back to the land of blockbusters — and to a style and character that couldn’t fit him any better. We can’t count our chickens just yet — DC lost a promising director to the same “creative differences” problem just last fall — but there’s no denying that a Joss Whedon–helmed Barbara Gordon movie sounds like a damned good idea.