Why Birds of Prey Struggled at the Box Office, and An Examination of the Current State of DC Films

So, Birds of Prey has been available to the public for only four days, and already has a new title. The film’s original title, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), was changed after a disappointing opening weekend at the box office. The film is now called Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. Like I said, this change came after the film greatly underperformed financially during its first weekend. Birds of Prey grossed just $33 million over the weekend, which was around $20 million less than the studio’s anticipated return, and made it the worst opening weekend for any DCEU film.

There has been a great deal of speculation as to why this film struggled at the box office. I want to look at some of the possible reasons, while also sharing my own thoughts on the quality of the film, which I saw on Friday.

I had been interested in seeing this film for months now, in fact, I even included it on my Most Anticipated Movies of 2020 list. Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn was the best part of the 2016 critically maligned film Suicide Squad, which Birds of Prey is a spin-off of. I was excited to see what director Cathy Yan, and the rest of the filmmakers behind this project, could do with this character in her own story. I became encouraged and optimistic when the first wave of reviews to come out about this film were mostly positive. However, I was extremely disappointed upon actually viewing the film. I’m sorry to say, but this is not a good movie.

There are only a few high points in this otherwise misguided and messy film. Robbie’s performance is once again the strongest aspect of the film. She clearly has a strong grasp on how to pull off this character, and I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather see in this role. Also, there are some very well shot fight scenes. But unfortunately, besides those two things, this film just does not have much going for it. The film utilizes voiceover narration, which dominated about 90% of the first 15 to 20 minutes of the film. It is essentially a way for the filmmakers to just unload a whole bunch of exposition onto the audience. I’m not one to criticize the choice to use narration any time it shows up in a film. There are certainly some filmmakers that find ways to to use it more effectively than others. In this film though, it just feels lazy. Instead of the filmmakers finding unique or interesting ways to present information about the story and the characters, they elect to have Robbie, as Quinn, come in with a voiceover constantly and just tell us everything we may need to know.

This leads to me another one of my big problems with the film, which is the lack of characterization. Besides Harley Quinn, I did not leave the theater feeling like I knew really anything at all about the main characters in this film. This is especially a problem when they are attempting to market this as a “Birds of Prey” movie, and not just a Harley Quinn story. Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell make up the Birds of Prey. While all of their performances are fine for the most part, I found myself unable to become truly invested in their stories because I just didn’t know enough about the characters to care. Furthermore, even though I highlighted Robbie’s performance and just stated I didn’t have any major problems with the other three main performances, there is little to no chemistry among these actresses when they’re on screen together.

Another issue I had with the film was its complete disregard for logic at certain moments. Obviously, any superhero film is going to require some suspension of disbelief, and as a fan of this genre I generally accept that. However, there are things in this film that just do not make sense for a movie that sets itself in some version of the “real world.” For example, there is a scene in which Harley Quinn enters a police station in order to retrieve something. She walks in, starts shooting people with rubber/some sort of fake bullets, takes down every cop in her path, and moves around the station with relative ease. You would think that walking into a police station full of police officers in uniform, presumably with their guns on them, would be a problem for someone without a real weapon, but apparently it was not.

This film is also told in a very convoluted way, which is in part due to the aforementioned use of narration. I’ve heard arguments that the frantic nature of the storytelling is purposeful, and supposed to mirror the frantic nature of Harley Quinn’s mind, since we are seeing the film from her point-of-view. While I understand this argument and find it somewhat interesting, at some point it just feels like poor filmmaking when you interrupt the flow of a story for a 10-15 minute flashback/explanation of a character’s history comprised almost entirely of voiceover. In contrast with the convoluted way the story is told, another flaw in the movie is the simple, basic, and unoriginal plot of the film. The film’s plot mainly centers around a young girl, who is a pick-pocket, who happens to steal something of value to the main villain in the film, played by Ewan McGregor. From there, some people try to protect her, while the “bad guys” attempt to track her down. This is an idea we’ve seen done many times in several other films from the past. Birds of Prey just does not bring anything new or innovative to the table in terms of story, which was incredibly disappointing for me. One of the reasons I was excited for this film was because it felt like they had a chance to go down a weird, unexpected, unconventional route, and tell an interesting story. Instead, like many DCEU films before it, all of this film’s creativity and interesting aspects belonged to how it looks, rather than what it is about. The stylized look of a film can only take you so far, at some point you need a great story, interesting conflict, and memorable characters as well.

That essentially covers my main issues with this film. I wanted to get that out of the way to start, because I do believe the poor quality of the film played some part in its disappointing financial numbers. Like I said, reviews were initially positive for Birds of Prey, but as time went on they seemed to become much more mixed, with many critics echoing some of the sentiments I just shared. To be fair, this film still has an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, both its average rating of 6.79 and its Metacritic score of 60 perhaps tell a more truthful story about critic’s view of this film. This film was clearly not universally loved by critics, and I think that had something to do with its struggles to get people to the theater. Don’t get me wrong though, I think there are several other factors at play here. Often times when a movie fails, people want to find one thing they can blame the failure on. However, most times it is a combination of things. I think this is especially true for Birds of Prey.

I started this blog off by mentioning the title change, and while I don’t believe the original title was the biggest factor behind the bomb, I do believe it played a part. Most people who are not die-hard comic book fans, including myself, do not know who the Birds of Prey are. This film should have been marketed primarily as a Harley Quinn film from the start.

This film’s ties to Suicide Squad probably hurt its box office numbers as well. It’s no secret that there is a great deal of criticism when it comes to Suicide Squad, which I think has only grown the longer it has been out of theaters. Even though most praised Robbie’s portrayal of Quinn in that film, I believe some people were still turned off by the idea of seeing any film tied to David Ayer’s 2016 movie. It is also possible that some people did not know if this film was a true spin-off to Suicide Squad, or more of a sequel with other actors returning to this film to reprise their roles along with Robbie. This confusion may have turned them away.

The R-rating of Birds of Prey is also being looked at as a possible reason for its underwhelming debut. I personally don’t think this is a huge issue, and am glad they did not compromise their vision and decided to make this an R-rated film. However, it is true that when you make your film R-rated, you are shrinking your potential audience size a bit. But, at this point we have seen enough R-rated comic-book movies be successful, so I don’t think the rating can really be blamed.

One thing that has not been mentioned much during all the speculation as to why the film bombed, is the fact that it came out on the weekend of the Oscar’s. I do believe this had an effect on the performance of the film. It is a hard weekend to release a film on, because so much of the film-world has their focus on something else. People going to the theater on the weekend of the Academy Awards are probably more likely to see a nominated film they have not seen yet, rather than a new release. This is because there is a sense of urgency to see the films being celebrated at the Oscar’s, and the new release does not feel as important during that particular weekend. I think it would be naive to say the Academy Awards have no effect on the box office the weekend they take place.

The last possible reason for Birds of Prey‘s lack of success is another topic I want to explore in this blog, which is the current state of the DCEU. I think a great deal of confusion still surrounds the DC Extended Universe for a lot of people. Around the time Shazam! came out last year, Warner Bros, the studio that owns DC, came out and said they are more focused on standalone films, rather than building a connected universe. The studio saw standalone films Wonder Woman and Shazam! receive critical acclaim, and perform well at the box office. Aquaman was a commercial hit, and at least more positively received by critics as compared to the studio’s “team-up” films. Of course, 2019’s commercial hit and 11-time Oscar nominee Joker is not a part of the DCEU, but was still a major success for the studio. Unlike these films though, the studio received a great deal of criticism for it’s non-standalone films, including Batman V Superman, Suicide Squad, and Justice League. At the time I thought the Warner Bros decision was the right move. I appreciated that they were going to stop trying to recreate Marvel’s formula, and work out their own way of doing things. The problem with switching to this decision after years of attempting to build a connected universe come when you are attempting to release a film like Birds of Prey though. This film was a spin-off from one of those unsuccessful “team-up” films, and starred a group of characters people were not familiar with. I honestly believe audiences were confused by if this film was a part of a connected universe, and if it was, how it connected. Also, in today’s world, it is hard to introduce unknown characters like these without the support of a connected universe behind them. As unfortunate as it is, people are just not going to be as interested in seeing the film.

I’m curious to see how Warner Bros and DC adjust their strategy after Birds of Prey, if they do at all. They are releasing Wonder Woman 1984 this summer, which should do much better at the box office. Then next year, they are slated to released James Gunn’s Suicide Squad film, Matt Reeves’ The Batman starring Robert Pattinson, and the Shazam! spin-off, Black Adam, with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. If all three of those films are indeed released next year, that is an incredibly interesting slate. But also, one that probably won’t decrease the amount of confusion surrounding DC’s films. I say that because it contains The Suicide Squad, which is a potential remake or reimagining of the 2016 film, with some, but not all, of the cast returning. The Batman will introduce a new Bruce Wayne just four years after Ben Affleck’s last movie portraying the iconic superhero. And, Black Adam is another spin-off, but not sequel, similar to Birds of Prey. Regardless of all this potential confusion, I’m hoping for the best for all three of these films, and I’m still very much looking forward to Wonder Woman 1984 later this year. I think there is still a lot to sort out with DC’s movies, but the best way to get on the right track is to make good films. Hopefully they are able to do that with their upcoming slate, because they really missed the mark with Birds of Prey.

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