Despite resting at an extremely respectable 80% on Rotten Tomatoes, Warner Bros Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) opened well below its expected 50 million projections. The R-rated girl-gang film came in almost $20 million lower earning $33.2 million. According to Comic Book Movie, this is the worst start for a DC Comics adaptation since Jonah Hex. Yeah, Jonah Hex. The film also replaces Shazam! ($53M) as the lowest opener in the DCEU.
The Margot Robbie vehicle did fare slightly better overseas with a $48M international cume, which brings its global total to $81.3M. The movie hasn’t secured a China release, which means the only major market left to come is Japan.
Sooooo, what went wrong? The obvious questions will be asked? Are audiences tired of CBM films? No. I have no doubt, unless they are terrible, that Black Widow and Wonder Woman ’84 will both be blockbusters.
Was the premise too feminist for a genre which still attracts a mostly male demo? While the female empowerment theme was strong, I don’t think this was another Charlie’s Angels which was a terrible film. Also, female-driven superhero films have done extraordinarily well looking at Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman.
To blame it on a strong feminist POV is probably too easy and simplistic. I believe there are other reasons to look at for the film’s underperformance.
1. Harley Needs Joker more than Joker needs Harley
Last night, Joaquin Phoenix took home an Oscar for his portrayal of Batman’s arch nemesis. Todd Phillips’ film, while 68% on Rotten Tomatoes, still grossed over $1B worldwide. While Joker is Batman’s biggest villain, Harley Quinn is not the biggest female in the ‘Bat-verse.’
That mantle belongs to Catwoman. Then Batgirl. Without the Joker or Batman (even Bruce was in Joker), Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) asked audiences to go on an adventure with Quinn and lesser known DC characters.
As maligned as he was in Suicide Squad, it may have been better in hindsight to include Jared Leto’s Joker. While Harley proves to be immensely popular in the DCEU, she may need Poison Ivy or Mr. J to warrant a vehicle of her own. The new animated series on DC Universe includes both and is a success.
2. Poor Marketing
The marketing for Birds of Prey was not very good. Actually, it sucked. While the posters were fanciful and bursting with color, they didn’t convey what kind of a story Birds was. Was it a comedy? Drama? Apparently, with its R-rating and violence, Kill Bill Vol. 1 comparisons have been thrown around for the film. That was never conveyed in trailers.
It was a lot of mugging for the camera by Robbie. The plot doesn’t come through in the posters. Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask was nowhere to be seen and when he shown, it was without his mask. We only saw the iconic mask in the final trailer.
The audience really didn’t get a sense of what kind of conflict Harley was getting herself into.
This film should have been titled Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey rather than that ridiculous subtitle.
3. R-rating weakens “Girl Power”
While Suicide Squad was not critically well-received, the film did gross $746.8M worldwide. Much of that was due to the popularity of Robbie’s Harley Quinn. And who did Harley mostly appeal to? Young girls. The tween set to be exact, who are some of the biggest supporters of female-driven films.
Yes, there were many “slutty” Harley costumes worn by millennials (who are also for female empowerment), but the bulk of Harley’s appeal skews younger. The R-rating automatically blocked the younger fangirls and parents of those fangirls.
The same could be said about Olivia Wilde’s wildly great Booksmart which sported an R. A PG-13 Birds of Prey would have helped draw in younger, popcorn eating audiences.
The R-rating also put Birds up against Bad Boys for Life, which is still showing box office strength. Perhaps the film should have waited a week.
The film scored a B+ from Cinemascore, but it played better with younger audiences (who did see it) than older ones. WB should perhaps consider releasing a PG-13 version.
4. Speaking of ‘Suicide Squad…’
The DCEU has certainly started to make a rebound after the sour receptions for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League and yes, Suicide Squad.
The earlier films gave both critics and fans fear of investing more money into a DC Film. That has since changed with Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Shazam! and Joker. But there is still a bitter residue left from those films.
Out of all of them, Suicide Squad was the biggest, most incoherent mess. Harley and Will Smith’s Deadshot were the best aspects of David Ayer’s film. There are also persistent rumors that the original version was way darker and better, but Warner Bros, being terrified, turned to Trailer Park to edit the theatrical version.
The general movie who didn’t like Suicide Squad may have been forever turned off to anything related, including Harley.
5. Lack of Respect for the Source Material
Cathy Yan and Christina Hodson absolutely had a vision for the creative. And kudos to WB for allowing them to see it through. However, Birds of Prey, both the comic book series and the defunct WB TV series, is about Batgirl, Black Canary and Huntress. Not Harley Quinn. No Batgirl equals turn off for true fans.
Harley Quinn is a feature player in Gotham Sirens and Suicide Squad. But Robbie, as producer, ignored the former title. She and Warner Bros took a title that is beloved and altered it without regard for the audience.
From all the previews and set pics. the costumes are terrible. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) does not look like Huntress. Black Canary’s (Jurnee Smollett) costume doesn’t come close to Black Canary. The film completely changed who Cassandra Cain is in the comics.
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While Patty Jenkins took Wonder Woman to a new level, she did not forget the goddess’ sexiness. It was there on display along with her strength and kindness.
With this R-Rating, Harley was also de-sexualized. Margot Robbie and Cathy Yan in fact made the entire group very unsexy. If you are going to make that kind of a stand, then the film needs to be PG-13. If you are going to keep Harley true to her comic nature, then R works.
In addition, while these three characters are not that known to the general audiences, they are loved by comic book readers everywhere. To take away their costumes or something that is an adaptation, is an insult to the audience.
With strong reviews and possibly strong word-of-mouth (those who have seen it really like it) Birds of Prey still has time to recover. The film has a relatively small budget ($84.5M) so it can theoretically recover if it shows legs.
The Geek is a working screenwriter, director and screenwriting instructor.