Filmmaking team Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are currently making the press rounds for their bold new film, Rebel — a timely story about two Muslim brothers who are coerced into enlisting in a jihadist militia fighting for the Islamic State. But the duo, who are known professionally as Adil & Bilall, can't stop reminiscing about the (Bat)girl who got away.
"I think about Batgirl every day," El Arbi admits to Yahoo Entertainment about their permanently shelved DC Comics-based film, which starred Leslie Grace as Gotham City's newest champion and DC's first Latina hero. "I replay the making of the movie in my head, thinking, 'What should we have done differently?' But as we say, that was God's plan. We can only hope to come back to DC one day."
Originally intended as a movie for HBO Max, Batgirl pitted Grace's vigilante against costumed arsonist, Firebug, played by newly-minted Oscar winner, Brendan Fraser. Luckily, she had another caped crusader in her corner: Michael Keaton reprised his role as Batman in the film, continuing a comeback that was supposed to begin with The Flash. Batgirl would have been joined by Blue Beetle as a streaming-only DC movie led by Latinx actors.
Principal photography on Batgirl had been completed when Warner Bros. officially became Warner Bros. Discovery under the leadership of David Zaslav in early 2022. That August, Zaslav made headlines when he decided not to complete the film, locking it away in the WB vault in order to recoup a tax credit. Meanwhile, Blue Beetle was promoted to a theatrical feature, and opened last month to strong critical response, but less-than-heroic box office numbers.
El Arbi and Fallah say they were too busy working on Bad Boys 4 — the sequel to their franchise-reviving Bad Boys For Life starring Martin Lawrence and Will Smith — to see Blue Beetle in theaters. "We're going to have to catch up," El Arbi says with a smile. And they don't even have any of their Batgirl footage they can show, having been locked out of the studio's servers after the movie's cancellation. But they describe their never-finished movie as a cross between Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy and Tim Burton's Batman and Batman Returns.
"It was really a blend between Nolan and Burton," says El Arbi. "Gotham City was a more realistic world, and the story was very straightforward and emotional. It was more of an actor's movie without a lot of visual effects. We don't really like CGI, so we used a lot of miniatures. There was this one great action sequence where a truck crashed into a tunnel and we did it with miniatures like Burton did in Batman. It remains the coolest thing we've ever done in movies — it was old school filmmaking and we'll do it again!"
In the meantime, the directing duo are eager for audiences to see Rebel, which they hope will become the definitive anti-ISIS movie of the 2020s. "Our intention was to make our version of Platoon or Schindler's List," El Arbi notes. "In 10 to 20 years, we want people to watch the movie as a historical document of the era. I think audiences are going to see a story they might not have known: They know about ISIS and they know about terrorism, but they don't necessarily know how it all happened."
1. Would Batgirl have been a hit had it been released?
El Arbi: It's tough to say — the movie didn't have a high budget, and I think that that's a big part of it. We had to keep the budget low, so it was a very grounded story. But the fact that the budget wasn't that high already would have helped it be a success. People do love the Bat family: they love Batgirl, they love Gotham City, they love Michael Keaton and Brendan Fraser gave an Oscar-worthy performance in the movie. And the movie was supposed to be for streaming, which allows you freedoms that you don't get in theaters. If it was a theatrical movie, we might have needed to have had bigger action sequences than we had. But we'll never know! Hopefully we can come back to DC and show what we can really do. It's like unfinished business — we've got to prove ourselves one day.
2. Why did they decide to incorporate musical sequences into Rebel?
Fallah: There's something with music, dance and poetry that touches people on another level and you can't explain it with words. That's why we thought of music: Even if you don't understand the words, you feel it and understand it in these difficult moments. Also, ISIS is against female voices, instruments and music, and in Arabic culture dance and music is extremely important. So we thought the real way to make an anti-ISIS movie is by including these musical moments.
El Arbi: Our choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, is also one of Beyoncé's choreographers and he proposed a dance for Tara Abboud [who plays Noor, who has a romantic relationship with the eldest brother] to portray the emotion we had written in the script. We had a song, but we didn't have the dance yet, and we felt that we had to go all the way with it. Just seeing the movements, we became emotional, because it was another level of poetry, music and dance.
It was maybe the most difficult sequence of the whole movie, because not only did we have to convey the story, but everyone also had to be dialed-in. But it's also the sequence that we're most proud of. It's an homage to what all Muslim women went through in the Middle East, Syria and Iraq where ISIS is controlling them. Ever since 9/11, we've felt as Muslims that the religion was used and abused to do evil, and you have to fight back against that.
3. What's going on with Bad Boys 4?
Fallah: The AMMO team is back in the game, and they're definitely part of the story. Everybody has his arc in the movie, and it's interesting to see how we expand the Bad Boys universe in the movie. It's going to be super-fun in a theater, that's for sure.
El Arbi: It's going to be much more of a comedy than the previous one. We didn't use any miniatures, but we tried to avoid CGI as much as possible. Coming from European filmmaking, you don't have the budget or the means to do that, and we just like practical effects a lot more. Hollywood movies have an overreliance on CGI and when things are real, they may not be perfect, but there's a realism that gets audiences more excited. So we only use CGI when it's absolutely necessary. Visually, Bad Boys 4 is going to be even more funky than the previous one. They really let us go loco on this one!
Rebel is currently playing in limited theatrical release.