With these origins, the most famous iteration of Batgirl has been intertwined with the world of live-action storytelling since the very beginning. Tragically, despite having origins rooted beyond the world of the comics and her enduring popularity, Batgirl has not fared well in live-action media. Whether it’s movies or TV shows, Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl has been left behind in the expansive superhero media landscape.
A key reason for why has to do with the reason the Bette Kane version of Batgirl was abandoned in the first place. Batgirl was removed because the character was perceived as too ridiculous by the comic’s editors. While Gordon’s Batgirl would subsequently reappear in the comics in a recurring capacity after she was introduced, fears of being perceived as preposterous kept curbing further appearances of the character in outside media. It’s a similar phenomenon that Patrick Willems noted surrounds Robin; in a desire to be “cool,” a lot of Batman media outside the comics has eschewed a critical character in Batman’s lore.
In live-action media, a flesh-and-blood take on Batgirl wouldn’t emerge until Batman & Robin in 1997. The character here would be played by Alicia Silverstone and, on paper, it seemed like a natural character to introduce into the Batman movies. With Batman Forever introducing Dick Grayson’s Robin (Chris O’Donnell), its follow-up would deliver another key member of the Bat-Family. In a best-case scenario, this could’ve introduced a whole new generation to the character and given Batgirl a new lease on life. Unfortunately, Batman & Robin, fairly or not, quickly became a punchline for comic book movies.
Batgirl didn’t receive all the flack for the film’s shortcomings (that honor went to the Bat-Nipples and Mr. Freeze’s ice puns) but being associated with such a divisive movie further dulled her reputation in live-action media. After this project, Warner Bros. decided it was time for a reboot. Alicia Silverstone would never get a chance to play Batgirl again, while all the concepts for a Batman reboot centered on origin stories that wouldn’t involve any members of the Bat-Family. With the big screen out of the question, for the time being, it seemed it was time for Barbara Gordon/Batgirl to set her sights elsewhere for live-action storytelling. Perhaps even towards television, where Smallville was redefining what comic book adaptations in this medium could look like.
In 2002, Birds of Prey debuted on The WB. Named after a superhero group that Barbara Gordon helped found in the comics in the mid-1990s, Birds of Prey saw Gordon (Dina Meyer) teaming up with Helena Kyle/Huntress (Ashley Scott) and Dinah Redmond (Rachel Skarsten) to fight crime in Gotham City. The show leaned heavily enough on the comics to utilize Gordon’s infamous plotline from The Killing Joke comic, in which The Joker shoots Gordon and paralyzes her. This necessitates her using a wheelchair in her subsequent comic appearances and taking up the new superhero mantle of Oracle. The Birds of Prey show begins with Gordon already confined to a wheelchair and using the Oracle name while she trains Kyle.
Going this route allowed this version of Gordon to immediately separate herself from the 1960s Batman and 1990s Batman & Robin incarnations of the same character. It was a wise move, but it wasn’t enough to keep Birds of Prey on the air for long. Though a show in which Oracle leads a team of vigilantes to fight crimes secretly being concocted by Harley Quinn would seem like something that would become must-see TV for nerds everywhere, Birds of Prey only lasted 13 episodes. Meyer would get to reprise the role of Barbara Gordon through voice-over during the Crisis on Infinite Earths Arrowverse crossover event, but otherwise, this was another version of Barbara Gordon that was not going anywhere.
After this show went bust, live-action versions of Barbara Gordon largely went into hibernation, though the character did make somewhat of an appearance in one of the most popular live-action versions of Batman in the 21st century. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy never had much use for the members of the Bat-Family, mostly because it was chronicling a Batman who just getting into the swing of fighting crime. Robin, for instance, was relegated to being a cutesy last-minute reference connected to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake character in the epilogue of The Dark Knight Rises. However, Barbara Gordon did make an appearance in the 2008 film The Dark Knight…technically.
In this movie, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), Barbara Gordon’s father, must deal with Harvey Dent/Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart) kidnapping his family in the film’s finale. Dent proceeds to threaten Gordon’s wife, son, and a daughter portrayed by Hannah Gunn. This child is never given a name, not even in the film’s credits, while there are no indications in her personality that she acts much like adolescent versions of Barbara Gordon. Audiences never got to know more about this potential iteration of Barbara Gordon, since The Dark Knight Rises begins with the reveal that Gordon’s wife has left town and taken the kids with her. That was the end of Barbara Gordon’s extremely brief presence in Nolan’s vision of Gotham city.
After The Dark Knight trilogy concluded, a new opportunity emerged for Barbara Gordon/Batgirl to get a proper live-action incarnation with the premiere of the CW show Arrow, which birthed the Arrowverse. Unfortunately, Gordon’s presence across these programs was nonexistent, despite plenty of other teenage superheroes getting chances to shine in the limelight here. Gordon’s presence here was limited to her Oracle persona getting name-dropped in an episode of Arrow. Stephanie Brown, the fifth person to take up the Batgirl mantle in the comics, did appear in Batwoman portrayed by Morgan Kohan. However, she only appeared in a solitary episode and never put on a Batgirl outfit.
Outside of the Arrowverse, Gordon hasn’t fared much better in other live-action TV programming of the 2010s. She only appeared briefly on the Fox program Gotham, for example, a show she, admittedly, would’ve had trouble fitting into since the show was about a teenage Bruce Wayne. Still, the fact that the show made time for Professor Pyg and starred her father made it strange that Gordon wasn’t a more prominent part of the proceedings. Meanwhile, the TV show Titans was initially set to have Gordon as a main character inhabiting a role evoking her Oracle persona. This never came to pass, though the third season of Titans did see Gordon appearing as a series regular portrayed by Savannah Welch. This was a welcome departure from Gordon being M.I.A. in live-action media over the last two decades.
And then there were the movies. The initial features in the DC Extended Universe did not make any space for Barbara Gordon, despite the franchise featuring an older Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). The Dark Knight’s age in these films seemed to open the door to the existence of Barbara Gordon/Batgirl, unlike earlier live-action versions of the character that focused on Batman’s origins like Batman Begins or Gotham. There was no such luck, though, with the initial DC Extended Universe titles making no time for this superhero. However, just because Batgirl wasn’t immediately swinging across the silver screen didn’t mean that Warner Bros. wasn’t gestating some plans for the character.
Joss Whedon was hired in 2017 to write and direct a solo movie for Batgirl, a concept that seemed to indicate that this character was coming back to the big screen in a massive way. While there were plans for Whedon to start shooting the feature in 2018, the filmmaker walked away from Batgirl in early 2018 after struggling to figure out a story for the movie. Two months after Whedon’s departure, Christina Hodson joined the production to write a new screenplay for Batgirl. Three years later, Batgirl got some more significant momentum when Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, hot off directing the hit 2020 movie Bad Boys for Life, joined the feature as its directors. For the first time in decades, Barbara Gordon/Batgirl seemed to have a promising future in live-action media.
From here, Batgirl experienced all the usual steps in production a superhero movie goes through before getting released. Casting a lead actor. Getting a big-name performer for the villain role. Securing some familiar faces from other comic book movies in the supporting cast. Undergoing principal photography. Finishing principal photography. Releasing first-look photos of characters in costume. All seemed to be normal, the first solo vehicle for Barbara Gordon/Batgirl looked like it was on the right track. Rumors even persisted that it was being prepped for an upgrade from an HBO Max premiere to a theatrical release.
Then the terrible news that shook the world happened. Warner Bros. announced that it would be shelving Batgirl despite it being deep into post-production. There were no plans to ever release the title, reportedly so that the new owners of Warner Bros., Warner Discovery, could ensure that Batgirl could function as a tax write-off.
Tragically, this kind of abrupt and frustrating development is no anomaly in the history of Barbara Gordon in live action. Her sole appearance in a major live-action movie to date was in one of the worst-reviewed Batman movies ever, while her solo WB TV show barely lasted a whole season. TV shows that utilize the most obscure corners of DC Comics mythology, like the ArrowVerse programs, still won’t call on Batgirl to help save the day. No matter what, this character in live-action keeps getting the cold shoulder. The only consolation for fans is that she does get much better treatment in animated productions ranging from The LEGO Batman Movie to the Harley Quinn TV show to Batman: The Animated Series.
The same factors that have kept Barbara Gordon/Batgirl out of live-action media are primarily the same issues Willems highlighted as being responsible for why so much Batman media is uninterested in Robin, namely an obsession in film and TV with depicting Batman as a grim loner. For Gordon/Batgirl, though, there’s the extra problem that her stories tend to resonate especially powerfully with women, particularly teen girls. This is a target demo often seen as expendable in most mainstream media, while lots of projects are often hesitant to highlight teen girl characters out of fear of alienating male viewers. Considering that the former head of Warner Bros. allegedly said in 2007 that the studio was no longer interested in making movies with women leads, it’s not hard to imagine that gender-related woes have played a part in this characters lack of notable stints in live-action productions.
The demise of the new Batgirl movie is just the latest in a long line of disappointing developments on the prospect of seeing Barbara Gordon/Batgirl swing into any kind of live-action media. Though she at least got to be a memorable part of the original Batman show, the character has otherwise been stuck in obscure and/or reviled pieces of Batman media or been outright excluded from other corners of the franchise. What a shameful track record of representation for a character whose been such a critical part of the Batman mythos for decades. Perhaps The Batman 2 for Matt Reeves can finally correct this terrible oversight and give this beloved comic book hero the proper treatment she deserves.