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12 February 2020 22:32

Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

When Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) was announced, plenty of outlets began discussing what a mouthful the title was. What appears, on the surface, to be a simple problem (a too-long and confusing title) has turned into an albatross for the otherwise stellar film. Disappointingly, Birds of Prey underperformed at the box office, falling almost $20 million short of its North American domestic prediction for the opening weekend. Worldwide, Birds of Prey made $81 million, which is, in some ways wrongly, being framed as a flop. Though even we have to admit that as fans we're disappointed, many factors contributed to poor opening-week turn-out.

Why Birds of Prey disappointed at the box office, but wasn't *really* a flop at all

And it's also important to note that the movie has a long run ahead of it. With the increasingly positive word of mouth the film is getting, it will likely surpass its break-even amount ($250 million). First, the title: it caused a lot of problems both on its own and in conjunction with other marketing materials. With the title frequently shortened to Birds of Prey, casual movie-goers (and even more dedicated comic-book fans) would have no idea that the film was told from Harley's point of view – that she is the lens through which this whole story unfurls. In fact, as a response to this misunderstanding, Warner Bros has renamed the film for many US cinema website's to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey so tickets would be easier to find. As we've learned, comic-book films often do better when they have recognisable IP (intellectual property), which Harley Quinn certainly is. Even beyond her appearance in Suicide Squad, the character is well known amongst all types of fans – television, movie and comic book alike. In effect, the title wholly buried the lede, and thus the draw for anyone who wasn't glued to their screens waiting for news on Harley Quinn's solo caper. Another failure of the marketing was in the trailers. Warner Bros learned from Sony's mistake with Charlie's Angels and didn't market the film on a social-justice platform of feminism (despite the film being hella feminist) but the trailers also misrepresented the film's sweary tone. Birds of Prey is rated R in America, and 15 in the UK. This rating is predicated on a few things, but a major contributing factor in Birds of Prey's case is swearing. The film is full of F-bombs, even from the youngest member Cassandra Cain. The trailers, however, played it safe, positioning Birds of Prey as a fun, comic-book-style heist film (none of the more gruesome violence or swearing was featured). The demographic to which it was speaking (teenaged comic-book fans) may not have realised that they couldn't actually see the film without a parent or guardian in attendance. Margot Robbie was clear from the get-go that Birds of Prey would be R-rated. This likely gave her the freedom to explore Harley's layers, now that she's emancipated from the Joker. But we have to wonder if Birds of Prey needed the R rating at all. There is only one scene of truly gory violence (which establishes Black Mask as more than just a comedy villain) and though there are some other creepy, icky moments, we have to believe that the weight of the rating comes from the frequent swearing. The Motion Picture Association of America's policy is that if more than one use of 'f**k' occurs, the film automatically gets an R rating (though we'd argue that there are things far worse than errant curse words). Had the script included only one 'f**k' and received a softer PG-13 rating it would likely drawn much bigger crowds (teenagers and their guardians) in the US. These issues have together impacted the film's opening, yes, but it's important to note that a film's value – monetarily and culturally – is much more than its opening weekend. Birds of Prey has been getting very positive reviews, and there's still time for 15 year olds to convince their parents to take them to the cinema. What Birds of Prey does for comic-book movies is make the audience view a story through a female gaze, and it works to resounding success. Scenes like the hair-tie moment are blended into the Birds of Prey world-building in subtle but powerful ways. Though the movie wasn't marketed from this point of view (it didn't have to be, the marketing material made it clear that the film was about women by women, at least) you can't separate from this conversation the misogyny that dogged the film. Before Birds of Prey was even out, there were criticisms over a lack of sex appeal, and many fans (predominantly straight-cis men) apparently felt that the movie wasn't made with them in mind. Though Birds of Prey wasn't as targeted to the same extreme as Captain Marvel, it has suffered from the same discourse. At what point does a film about, starring, or by women become solely women's work? It's the same question we ask about films like Little Women. As a society, we have been conditioned to believe that a white-male point of view is the default setting; anything else is a deviation from the norm. Birds of Prey, like Captain Marvel and Little Women, is one such "deviation". And some of the tepid box-office response can be attributed in part to the fear of some comic-book lovers that they won't like the film because it has women in it (or, perhaps, that if they like it they'd somehow be betraying their ilk). Birds of Prey is being measured against other comic-based films in a way that just doesn't make sense. Birds of Prey can't be compared to Justice League. For one, it didn't star Batman or Superman, and for two, the Birds of Prey budget was almost half that of Justice League. This is best summed up by critic Brett Arnold, who tweeted: [watches an R-rated movie made for teenagers with a second-tier comic book character that features a villain who cuts people's faces off] why didn't this make $200 million dollars???? Even comparing it to Deadpool misses the mark – despite both being rated R, their tones are wildly different and the Deadpool movies were CALLED DEADPOOL! The exact same criticism can be levied against the comparison to Joker. All this is to say, yes Birds of Prey's opening weekend wasn't the smash success we hoped for, but that's okay. The $81 million global taking straight out of the gate only sets the stage for the money it will make as it continues its run, with its new title. Birds of Prey is now playing in cinemas Digital Spy now has a newsletter – sign up to get it sent straight to your inbox. Want up-to-the-minute entertainment news and features? Just hit 'Like' on our Digital Spy Facebook page and 'Follow' on our @digitalspy Instagram and Twitter accounts.