Why did Birds of Prey fail to take flight at the box office?

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Despite solid reviews (80% critic score on RottenTomatoes as of the time of writing) Birds of Prey… or… Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey after a late minute title change had a rather disappointing start at the Box Office this weekend. In the Friday-Sunday frame (including Thursday previews), the film grossed $33 million, much lower than even the conservative $45 million tracking estimate. That’s officially the lowest DCEU opening, lower even than the relatively disappointing performance of Shazam last spring.

Harley Quinn as a character is popular however. Margot Robbie’s interpretation was one of the only successes to come from the disastrous Suicide Squad (which notably debut with a monumental $133 million back in the Summer of 2016). So why was it that a character so primed for success failed to deliver similar (or even close to similar) box office results to the last film she appeared in; a film that was much worse than Birds of Prey.

Twitter trolls would have you believe that it’s because of the highly female-centric narrative the film pivots around. It has has been labelled anti-men, feminist propaganda and “woke” since its inception, and its lack of success has quickly been characterised as a form of backlash. But that argument holds little water. For instance, this kind of criticism seems to come around whenever a superhero film is headed by a woman. Last year, Captain Marvel was hit with terrible press due to star Brie Larson’s supposed hatred of white men, yet the film went on to gross over a billion dollars. Audiences don’t seem to have a problem seeing films with women in starring roles, and are generally fine when it comes to overtly feminist messages. The movie received a B+ Cinemascore from opening day audiences, suggesting there is no mass movement of hatred against it. There needs to be other reasons for the lack of interest besides what trolls would have you believe.

In my view, the lack of success comes from the film’s confusing inception and place within the DCEU. It’s a tenuous sequel to Suicide Squad, with the only link coming from Robbie’s Quinn. No reference to the rest of the squad in the movie or title, as well as the upcoming release of The Suicide Squad in 2021 makes Birds of Prey feel a little like an anomaly rather than a must see sequel to one of the most successful DCEU properties.

The logical path to clearing this up would have been to directly call the film Harley Quinn (which they have done since they’ve renamed it). As I said in my review, she really is the dominant force in the movie and the rest of the team take a major backseat. It’s a little odd that they wouldn’t capitalise on the name recognition of Quinn and would instead opt for a name which only avid comic book readers would recognise. Yes, the film’s original title did include the needlessly indulgent and the fantabulous emancipation of one miss Harley Quinn (fire whoever came up with that), but it seems bizarre that they wouldn’t just go for Harley’s name at the front, so that there would be no confusion as to who this film was about.

The R rating is also an issue. Having seen the film, while violence and language make the R applicable, the film could easily have done without those elements. Unlike DeadpoolJoker and Logan, the appeal of Birds of Prey did not come from the fact that it’s a more adult movie. The advertising campaigns of those movies capitalised on the violent and darker narratives whereas Prey portrayed a similar tone to Suicide Squad, which itself was rated PG-13. If they’d gone for the jugular and emphasised the mature aspects of the film, they could have galvanised older audiences to go out and see it. As it stands, it’s marketed as a kid/teen film that kids can’t go and see.

All in all, the situation with Birds of Prey is a bit of a mess. It’s not a complete disaster. We’ll have to see what the second weekend drop looks like before we call it a flop. Audiences may respond to the positive word of mouth in the next few weeks and help the film make up for it’s weak opening. But as it stands, the movie is anything but a success, something the DCEU needs when facing off against the juggernaut that is Disney Marvel.

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