By now you might have heard — Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn bombed at the box office. Raking in $33 million at the North American box office, and a total of $81million at the worldwide box office.
The trades haven’t been kind to the film’s disappointing box office, tearing the film up with blunt and sometimes vicious headlines.
One would have thought the trades would be kinder towards the year’s first “big” movie, and after Warner Brothers’ disappointing 2019, but that did not stop the bad press.
I personally enjoyed Birds of Prey and found it to be a fresh enough take on the comicbook film. While not a mind blowingly good film as some have made it out to be, it certainly wasn’t a dumpster fire of a film.
With a B+ Cinemascore, the few people who did go and see the film seemed to really like it too. Critics have given the film general acclaim, with Birds of Prey sitting fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a 80% RT score at the time of writing.
In theory, the film had every ingredient to perform well. It featured fan favourite Harley Quinn, promised intense action, and the marketing of the film painted it to be a fun time (which it mostly was).
But with that box office cume, Birds of Prey ended up being the lowest opening DC Film in the current DC film slate. Not a record it wanted to get.
Shazam! seemed to have faced a similar predicament. With an A Cinemascore and 90% RT score, the film opened to a low $53 million stateside.
Birds of Prey reaches new lows off the back a character with far greater name recognition, and one that captured the pop culture zeitgeist when first introduced. So what went wrong?
Christina Hodson’s Script
Birds of Prey was penned by Christina Hodson, only her second tentpole film. Prior to this, her other claim to fame was 2018’s Transformers spinoff Bumblebee.
Both films share interesting parallels. They both were critically acclaimed films, loved by the people who went to see them, but both were also new lows for their respective franchises. While their critical success is commendable, their box office failures are certainly not to be overlooked.
I do not think Christina Hodson is a bad writer. I really enjoyed what Bumblebee brought, and for the most part, I enjoyed Birds of Prey. But it seems that I am in the minority.
With both her films now having underperformed it seems general audiences are not that interested in the stories she wants to tell with these characters.
Warner Brothers and DC are going all in on the Hodson train however, tapping on her to pen the Batgirl and Flash films. With Birds of Prey’s soft box office, I wouldn’t be too surprised if they brought in more writers to contribute to those scripts.
It Didn’t Understand Its Audience
Variety reports that 54% of the people who did go to see Birds of Prey were men with 65% over the age of 25. It is not at all surprising, comicbook films tend to skew male and as we will discuss later, the R-rating would have limited the film’s exposure to younger audiences.
Something the creatives should have kept in mind when producing the film.
I appreciate Margot Robbie’s push to make Harley Quinn a girl power symbol with the film. I seem to be in the minority here but I think it was a good choice to make, especially considering how so many people connected with the character in Suicide Squad.
Where it stumbled was how it handled its male characters. While nowhere as bad as Charlie’s Angels (2019), the film often painted its male characters in a bad light.
I can see why they made Black Mask the way he was, but making every single male character wrong Harley and gang in some way might have pushed things a little too far.
With an audience that skews male, Birds of Prey might have leaned in too much into the girl power angle for their liking. With more female led action films coming out, creatives should be mindful to not tear down the main demographic that supports these films or risk turning their films into commercial duds.
Instead, they should look towards films like Wonder Woman. That film did empowerment and representation right, it didn’t belittle any demographic in obvious or subtle manners.
Wonder Woman successfully allowed Diana to stay close to the qualities of women, without bashing the male ego to prove superiority. To have to do so is to acknowledge that there is a “better” gender.
That film instead chose to play up how Diana and Steve complemented each other. They never belittle each other but shared opinions and beliefs without being preachy. I will always look to Wonder Woman as a shining example of a film that empowers, because it does it so exceptionally.
Harley Quinn First, Birds of Prey Second
Perhaps the most important reason, this was marketed as a Harley Quinn film but named a Birds of Prey film.
In what was a big marketing misstep, the film’s unwieldy title gave audiences no incentive to rush out to catch Birds of Prey on opening weekend. In fact, from the get go, many referred to the film simply as Birds of Prey instead of its full name. Not hard to see why.
Warner Brothers’ seemed to have realised this following the film’s underwhelming box office, embarrassingly renaming the film to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. Arguably the name that they should’ve gone with from the beginning, though really not as fun.
If the marketing team at Warner Brothers did not attempt to get the name changed right from the beginning, it would be a major egg on their faces. It’s pretty plain to see, SEO wise general audiences would search “Harley Quinn” more than “Birds of Prey”.
Perhaps the plan was to really market the hell out of Birds of Prey and put that name in the forefront of people’s minds. If so, they clearly did not succeed.
The film was marketed as a Harley Quinn picture also, with zero effort to introduce the other characters in the film proper. Just take a look at this trailer that introduces Black Canary, it inexplicably ends with “Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”:
It was a problem that boiled down to the film itself. Despite Harley proclaiming at the beginning how it is not just her story but the story of all these ladies, none of them had enough screen time to be fully fleshed out characters.
Instead, through the sheer force of acting, these characters are given so much more life and personality than the script cared to. And it’s a shame, the supporting cast (which ironically should have been the main cast according to the title) were all terrific and almost widely praised.
There was just barely enough Huntress or Black Canary in the film for audiences who wanted more.
Adding further insult to the Birds of Prey name was the costume choices. Everyone but Harley was given outfits that were made to blend in, and not stand out.
While Harley went through various outfit changes and regularly wore eye grabbing outfits, everyone else was dressed in dull colours and comparatively safe choices.
It was a weird choice to make for a film titled Birds of Prey and makes you wonder if producer Margot Robbie really had the best interest of the film in mind or just her interests in mind.
The framing of Birds of Prey with Harley front and center seemed to create a disconnect with general audiences.
While really not indicative of audiences everywhere, when I spoke to friends who were not frequent movie goers, many knew a Harley Quinn film was coming out but they did not realise Birds of Prey was that Harley film.
The R-Rating Was Not Needed
Birds of Prey joins a short short list of comicbook films with a R rating and is the first DCEU film to be rated R. With big wins from R rated comicbook films from Deadpool, Logan, and most recently Joker, it is understandable why many were excited on the prospect of a R rated superhero film.
One can certainly see why Warner Brothers would be, with the lower production costs and high box office returns, it seemed like a sure-win. But with Birds of Prey stumbling, it could hurt the green light on future R-rated comicbook films.
Will Warner Brothers allow James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad to be rated R, or will they force him to rework it into a family friendly PG13 film?
Early social media reactions to Birds of Prey painted it to be a brutal action film, but upon seeing the film, it really isn’t.
Yes there are action sequences that are hard hitting, but nothing that warrants a R rating. Anything that would have pushed the boundaries were carried off-screen, and what action that was on-screen was nowhere near the intensity of something like the John Wick films.
I imagine Birds of Prey would have been a huge hit with younger audiences. The film also felt very much like a direct sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad which was PG13.
It wasted its R rating and alienated a large portion of its audience. The R rating would make parents hesitant to bring their kids to catch the film and any chance of this being a sleepover type film also gets further diminished, hurting its chances in the ancillary market.
There is nothing wrong with R rated films, they’ve shown that when done right, they have the capacity to go beyond expectations. Birds of Prey did not manage that, instead it wasted its R rating and alienated its audience in one swift stroke.
Some Wrote It Off Before Seeing It
When trailers debuted for Birds of Prey they never really set the internet on fire, even with major reveals. Instead, conversation surrounding the film seemed mainly to revolve around how it is Deadpool-lite.
It is easy to see how that argument comes about but Birds of Prey isn’t a knockoff Deadpool film.
The film does wear its inspirations on its sleeve, and it’s not hard to draw the Deadpool parallels but Birds of Prey really felt way more like Looney Tunes in tone than it did Deadpool in my opinion.
It blended all its inspirations together to create a film that was its own thing, while remaining familiar enough to the comicbook genre. Sure it wasn’t nearly as witty or as intense as Deadpool but it wasn’t really trying to be.
Birds of Prey might not be the comicbook film to reinvent the genre but it is a pretty fresh blend that I found a lot to enjoy with.
The Asian Box Office
With the cornavirus outbreak in Asia shutting down the box office, Birds of Prey can only rely on the Western box office to smash. Where Aquaman’s box office was able to ride on the back of the international box office to new heights, Birds of Prey cannot.
I caught Birds of Prey in Singapore. Once crowded malls were dead towns, you could count on your hands the number of people in any shop at any moment. And this was on a weekend.
The cinemas were barren, where queues used to form now stood restless staff behind counters waiting for something to do.
Even with enhanced measures taken to assure customers of their well being, my screening of Birds of Prey was not even half filled. Looking at the slots later in the day, even during the peak evening times, none of the halls were near half filled.
It’s safe to say, Asian audiences would probably wait for this to stream.
We shouldn’t discount how the virus situation in Asia would affect the box office of films. Birds of Prey had no China release scheduled, but even so, it clearly could have used what little else would have come out of the region.
All hope is not lost though, Birds of Prey might leg out over Valentine’s Day weekend with no new competition entering the fray. With word getting out that Birds of Prey is actually the Harley Quinn film that’s being advertised all over, it might give audiences the push to go see it.
Though if the film’s best bet is only the potential to leg out, that’s a sad commentary of its success in my opinion.
We might not get an immediate Birds of Prey sequel anytime soon but DC films and Warner Brothers will be fine. With Wonder Woman 1984 coming out later this year and immense goodwill building from the first film, it would take a huge misfire for that film to bomb the way Birds of Prey did.
Harley will be back in next year’s The Suicide Squad, when the Birds of Prey will return is up in the air. One can only hope that Huntress and Black Canary won’t get benched the way Cyborg is, especially since there seems to be a lot of goodwill towards this version of these characters.