Film in the internet age Part 2: Birds of Prey

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Welcome to the second part of my analysis of the state of film on Social MediaIt’s interesting that the follow up to the last entry (focusing on Joker) also discusses a DC movie. The turbulence of the discussions surrounding these films are unrivalled, and provide for interesting insights into the cross-section between blockbusters and politics, social issues and the world we live in. I’d even go so far as to say when it comes to Birds of Prey, the conversation on Twitter and the wide variety of conflicting reactions are substantially more interesting than the film itself.

It’s worth beginning this discussion by contextualising the release of the film within the rest of the DCEU, and how the franchise as a whole has been received previously. Through this, the state of the Birds of Prey discussion becomes interesting not only through how divided it’s been but also because it marks a significant shift in attitudes towards the DC Universe itself.

Since its inception in 2013, the franchise has always been the “lesser” Marvel. While The Disney-owned Kevin Feige machine was continuously churning out fan favourite billion dollar entries into an ever-expanding universe (which remarkably managed to stay relatively coherent), the DC attempt struggled to strike the same chord with either critics or audiences. The MCU has never received a RottenTomatoes score below 60% (a staggering achievement considering there are 23 movies and counting) whereas the first three DCEU films were all rated rotten, decreasing in score with every entry.

There was of course a contingent of passionate fans. Indeed, DC and Marvel rivalries date back to the golden age of comics, so loyalties have extended to the films. The opinions of mass audiences and critics do not necessarily diminish the hardcore support from DC comic book readers. The conflict between this fanbase and the wider viewing public arguably reached its peak with the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016. Enthusiastically trashed by critics immediately despite a gargantuan opening weekend box office, the film’s core fanbase reacted against the hate with equal fervour. A conspiracy theory formulated shortly after the film’s release claiming that Marvel paid critics to give the film a bad review. No longer was the discussion a straightforward discourse between critics and audiences about the film’s quality, but a perceived attack, requiring defence rhetoric from fans. For me, Batman v Superman is one of the most incoherent comic book films ever made, so the insinuation that critics were bribed into giving it poor reviews hilariously assumes that in reality, it’s some repressed masterpiece.

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(A still from Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), a film widely panned by critics and general audiences)

That sort of adversarial discussion continued with the release of Suicide Squad a few months later (the first to feature Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn). A 27% aggregated score on RottenTomatoes (the lowest in the franchise to date) once again portrayed the DCEU as a critical flop but many still defend the feature, especially Quinn, who instantly became a cosplay icon at Comic Cons across the world. The box office also continued to hold strong, breaking the $700 million mark worldwide despite featuring a relatively little known superhero ensemble. Suicide Squad cemented the franchise’s presence in the public online consciousness as fractured.

The release of Wonder Woman is where that conversation began to change. Throughout production, reports of troubled filming and early screenings branding the final product a “mess” had the press and public convinced that the DCEU would continue down the road of failure. But to the surprise of everyone, the film became one of the most critically acclaimed superhero movies of all time, and grossed over $400 million dollars in the US alone (the most out of any DCEU film). The franchise was no longer a complete dud but one which now contained a quality film, even amongst the quagmire that was the rest of the series. But Wonder Woman’s significance may be less to do with how it changed perceptions of DC, but notable as the first superhero film to have political resonance. Before the likes of Captain Marvel were released, Wonder Woman proved that female superheroes could succeed at the box office and galvanised female journalists especially to champion and debate how the film’s success could be used going forward. Bustle’s Kadeen Griffiths argued that Wonder Woman’s appeal could be improved through an emphasis on intersectionality in terms of race, with other publications opening the possibility of exploring sexuality, gender identity etc. The floodgates had been opened and blockbuster cinema began its interest in social commentary on top of blind entertainment

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(Still of Gal Gadot in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman (2017) a film with “strong as hell” feminism)

It’s through the combination of the context of adversarial opinions on the DCEU, as well as the advent of political commentary surrounding superhero films (something furthered by the likes of Captain MarvelBlack Panther and Joker) that we come to the cocktail of crazy that is the internet’s conversation surrounding Birds of Prey. On the one hand, critics have responded relatively well to the film. The Wrap’s Alonso Duralde (who gave the the tonally and stylistically similar Suicide Squad a 5/10) is one of the biggest complementers of Birds of Prey, awarding it an 8.3/10 and praising the “female gaze” of Director Cathy Yan, as well as noting its representation of LGBT characters through Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya.

Scrolling through the review site Metacritic (where the film currently stands at a solid but not mind-blowing score of 60), the top two listed reviews by Joe Morgenstern and Molly Freeman note the “formidable female” at the centre of the film and call it an “empowering girl power superhero romp”. For these critics, its representativeness, female-oriented message, casting and tone are one of the film’s positive features. Morgenstern sees a vast improvement from Suicide Squad as he gave that film a zero.  I definitely think that Birds is a better film, funnier and with a more knowing script, but it’s very much in the vain of David Ayer’s film, sticking to his uncontrollable pace and chaotic sequences. To suggest that Birds of Prey is leaps and bounds above Suicide Squad is clearly a statement on more than simply the film’s quality.

Moving to fan reaction on other internet outlets, the film’s notability for its political and moral worth is even more evident. Scrolling through user reviews on IMDB, I came across numerous references to this movie’s supposed “anti-male” agenda, and reviews which didn’t traverse into the ideological comment did so through notifying readers that they weren’t going anywhere near politics. It’s evident that this film cannot be discussed without mention of its message both through critical discussion as well as the conversation that fans are having. In a way, it’s not too dissimilar to the debate surrounding DC a few years ago, except the sides have switched. The film is now staunchly defended by some critics and attacked by a contingent of fans. Who would have thought we’d end up here upon the release of Batman v Superman in 2016?

In the last couple of days, Twitter has become the main source of direct Birds of Prey debate (because of course it has). #ReasonsToSupportBoP has recently begun trending, with those reasons including its championing of an Asian female director, the abundance of queer characters (more specifically queer women) and the importance of showing badass women on screen. To those who love the movie, it is clearly more important to see it for its importance rather than its quality.

It’s extremely interesting to see how the online discussion surrounding Birds of Prey differs from where the DCEU began. There is still the intense divide that characterised all of the films in the franchise, but in this case, the tables have turned, with fans punishing it and critics championing it. Ever since Wonder Woman, superhero movies have taken on a greater meaning. This is only natural. They’re the highest grossing genre of movie and thus have a sort of responsibility and opportunity to represent all walks of life that others do not. Birds of Prey is dynamite for both those who rail against the politicising of blockbuster entertainment whilst being a microcosm of everything critics and the Twitter community want to see in these movies. The DCEU is reliably divisive, but with Birds of Prey, opinions are split in entirely new and unique ways.

Links to articles and pages I have referenced can be found here in order of appearance:

https://www.vox.com/2016/4/2/11348262/batman-v-superman-conspiracy-critics

https://www.bustle.com/p/wonder-womans-feminism-is-strong-as-hell-but-its-not-intersectional-62798

https://www.cinemablend.com/news/1545400/patty-jenkins-responds-to-rumors-that-wonder-woman-is-a-mess

https://www.thewrap.com/birds-of-prey-film-review-2020-margot-robbie-dceu/

https://www.metacritic.com/movie/birds-of-prey-and-the-fantabulous-emancipation-of-one-harley-quinn

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7713068/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0

 

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