Birds of Prey; Why Did the Best Film of 2020 Flop So Bad?

The end of 2020 is almost here, and it felt like it would never come. It’s been a turbulent year for everyone, and it’s certainly rocked the future of the film industry, what 2021 means for moviegoers, cinephiles and popcorn lovers is mostly unclear, but we have had a chance to soak up as much entertainment as we can. Starved of new films, people flocked to see Tenet‘s opening in August, and plenty left feeling disappointed, unfulfilled, and worried they might have gone deaf. The streaming services have been fighting for people’s attention, but Netflix’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things split audiences and critics down the middle, some loving it, some hating it and no one understanding it, and Disney+ released Mulan onto their platform with an extra fee that was met by some very bad reception. It’s safe to say that it’s currently a very dire time for the industry and fans alike. But at the start of the year DC released their second female-led superhero film after having paved the way (before Marvel) with Wonder Woman (WW84 is out on 16th December in cinemas and on HBO Max) which although was hit with a fair amount of criticism, is easily the best thing to come out of this year so far.

Now you’ve probably read the title of this article and thought to yourself that I’m biased towards Harley Quinn’s first solo big-screen adventure, and you’d be right. I was highly anticipating the film’s release ever since it was announced, with hopes that it could at least be better than 2016’s Suicide Squad (not a tall order, I know) and for me it was a brilliant viewing experience, and I only enjoy it more each time I revisit it. But I love Margot Robbie and more specifically her incarnation of the now 28 year-old character (first appearing in Batman: The Animated Series in 1992), so why didn’t it sit well with more general audiences?

Hey, I Know That Guy!

After the critical failure of 2016’s Suicide Squad, Warner Bros. were not keen at all to market a sequel to the film, and although Birds of Prey isn’t a direct sequel, it wasn’t permitted to tie any of its promotion to the film, and beyond the small teaser that featured Robbie’s Harley Quinn proclaiming that she’s ‘so f***ing over clowns’ it was never clear how much impact the open-ended conclusion of Suicide Squad was going to have on Harley and her solo exploits. And although this seems like a fairly safe decision, the fact remains that Birds of Prey doesn’t rewrite Harley; she’s the same character that audiences fell in love with in 2016 and it wouldn’t have hurt the film’s promotion to reinforce that fact. Suicide Squad‘s director David Ayer has been credited as saying that he believes the film is ‘halfway to cult status’ and although this is the same guy that passionately (and immaturely) said ‘f**k Marvel’ it does sit with an audience score on Rotten Tomatoes that is more than double its critic score and an IMDB user score of 6.0 against a Metascore of 40. So although it’s not entirely beloved by fans, it might have been a smarter move to lean on some of that positive reception. A few weeks into Birds of Prey’s theatrical run the title of the film was changed in cinemas from; Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, to: Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. Obviously a hasty attempt to try and draw anyone in who thought they might actually be sitting through a nature documentary if they bought a ticket for Birds of Prey, but what it looked like to moviegoers was that the film was clearly struggling and the cinema chains were desperate to draw people in. Regardless of your empathy towards movie theatres, a name change in the middle of a film’s run just screams one thing: this isn’t going to be worth the price of admission.

Harley ‘Freakin’ Quinn

I remember seeing the trailers for the film and being so excited at the prospect of how much Harley-action we were going to be treated to. I also remember being so relieved that the line; “…I’m Harley freakin’ Quinn!” was censored only for the purposes of trailers, and that in the film, ‘freakin’ was replaced with a much more satisfying expletive, making the iconic moment feel a lot more natural and true to Harley’s character. And although the film’s rating did allow for it to not hold back, it did also perhaps greatly lower its target audience. I for one love the movement of the genre into mature territory, Logan is a perfect example of why ‘adult’ comic book adaptations are essential, and Birds of Prey plays to its 15 rating (R in the US) by utilising action that it wouldn’t otherwise get away with at the 12A (PG-13) level, and it does heighten the film. But nothing gets bums on seats more than family-friendly adventures do, with heroines and heroes with good morals and minimal violence *cough Wonder Woman *cough* so Harley, a character who is known primarily as a villain or at the least an antiheroine is not going to sit well with the average parent (although their kids definitely want to see it). It’s not surprising that the film started to make more money when it was made available for VOD (Video On Demand) where kids can lie to their parents about how much violence and profanity they’re about to sit through.

Are You Dummies Still Sittin’ There?

2020 has become the year of home-viewing, but even before the global pandemic that kept cinema doors closed, a decline in moviegoers was starting to become quite apparent and for a while now the future of cinema has been a subject for apprehensive discussion amongst fans and companies alike. A consumer survey carried out by Variety in May this year stated that 70% of the 1000 movie goers that took part said that they would not go back to watching films at the cinema with the significant convenience of VOD available to them. And even when streaming charges seem a little pricey, in the long run it will always save you money than going to the cinema, with the added price of food, drink and possibly travel. And then there’s the joy of sitting in a dark room with a whole host of strangers. As someone who worked in a cinema for three years, I can say I both love and hate the experience of going to watch a film, because whilst it truly provides a level of excitement and satisfaction you can’t get from sitting at home, more often that not you can too easily find your enjoyment of the experience at the mercy of other moviegoers who seem determined to make you miserable. Talking during the film, going on their phones, throwing food, getting drunk, snoring, even getting busy with a partner, I can make a whole long list of the bad experiences I’ve had sat in a movie theatre and in a world that constantly raises our stress levels, can people really be putting up with the small chance that you won’t experience some discomfort or annoyance after the amount you’ve just payed for your viewing pleasure? Birds of Prey had a disappointing theatrical run, only managing a worldwide box office of 201.8 million USD, (Suicide Squad made nearly $747 mil) but could it have done better if it was released digitally at the same time as theatrically, as is the plan for WW84 and a whole slate of upcoming Warner Bros. films? James Gunn‘s soft reboot The Suicide Squad will premiere in the same way and has already garnered enough excitement to make it look like it will have a successful opening, wherever it ends up.

Everyone Can See All This Trippy Magic Stuff, Right?

In 2016 David Ayer tried to revolutionise the DCEU and the comic book genre with his adaptation of Suicide Squad. When I sat and watched it in the cinema for the first time, I loved it and I’d attribute this to a phenomena I’ll coin as ‘Phantom Menace Syndrome‘ put simply; sometimes when your excitement for a film reaches a high magnitude, it’s almost impossible to accept any evidence that the film isn’t amazing, great, or even good. (In 1999 audiences worldwide praised The Phantom Menace upon its release) And Suicide Squad was none of those things, it was awful, and whether that was down to Ayer’s poor direction or it really was Warner Bros. messing with production or both, what remains is that it dug a pretty deep grave for the DCEU. If the film can be praised for anything, it’s the inclusion and performance of Robbie as Harley Quinn. Straight from the success of 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street (Robbie’s film debut) the actress threw herself into the role of Joker’s insane confidant, dedicating herself to creating something that new and old fans alike could rejoice at. And it worked. The next step, of course, was to let the character find her own footing, as Gal Gadot‘s Wonder Woman had done so brilliantly the following year.

Step in director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson to craft Harley’s first steps as a lone (anti)heroine. Yan only had one feature film under her belt, and Hodson four but between their work, Birds of Prey feels very competently crafted. So what did the film do right?

Oh, No, No, No. Not That One. Sentimental Value

From her DCEU beginnings to her current status, Harley’s characterisation and design has shifted from the male to female ‘gaze’. Gone is her ripped shirt, tiny pants, and ‘grabbable’ long pigtails, in 2020 Harley is presented in colourful and fun clothing, her hair is no longer seductive but short and cute, the most that she shows off is a touch of midriff, and she looks like she has styled her look herself; it’s endearingly kooky. And of course in-universe this relates to her no longer being with Joker and losing his hold over her as a puppet, but it’s still a transition we could (and should) have) seen in Suicide Squad. Birds of Prey features nine different looks for Harley, all of which are vibrant and creative, wardrobe designer Erin Benach (who also worked on The Neon Demon and Drive) clearly captures the essence of the character through breakup trauma, white-knuckle sports, drunken nights on the town and wall-to-wall old-fashioned brawls.

You Know What They Say: Behind Every Successful Man Is A Badass Broad

In a cast dominated by men, Margot Robbie was the best thing about Suicide Squad, in Birds of Prey she’s joined by a kick-ass girl gang consisting of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s revenge-seeker Huntress, Jurnee Smollett‘s toughened singer Black Canary, Rosie Perez’s steadfast detective Renee Montoya and Ella Jay Basco’s cunning street thief Cassandra Cain. Whilst the film’s narrative prominently features a male antagonist (Ewan McGregor‘s delightfully evil Roman Sionis) the main focus of the film is on Harley’s journey to become self-sufficient and a role model to Cass. Emancipation isn’t just a fancy word put in the film’s subtitle to make it sound more whimsical; it’s an important part of the main characters’ development as they progress through their arcs. Harley learns how to be free from the Joker, Huntress breaks free from the restrictions of her tragic past, Black Canary escapes the controlling clutches of Sionis, Renee breaks away from the colleagues that hold her back and Cass learns to live without taking from others. The narrative is held together by its heroines and although Sionis does make a compelling villain, he’s not the reason you buy a ticket, and with or without him, this is an awesome girl-power action flick.

You Want This Diamond Back? I’m Your Gal

Birds of Prey takes awesome strides for Harley Quinn and for women in film, Robbie has voiced many times how passionately she feels for the character and her development and her voice was just as prominent in production as Yan’s and Hodson’s were. Robbie put an insane amount of effort into filming Suicide Squad, even going as far as learning how to hold her breath for five whole minutes for an underwater scene, it’s no surprise that she goes just as hard in Birds of Prey, dipping into her fantastic range as an actress to present all new facets of the character that both hark back to her origins and show the character in new and exciting light. Seeing Harley go through the stages of a breakup is one of the most underrated aspects of the film and her arc, how often do we get to see such realism in relatability through comic book characters like Harley? It makes her feel more rounded and easier to like as a character. Robbie has expressed that she wants to continue playing the character for as long as she can, and she’ll be returning as Harley in next year’s The Suicide Squad, which promises to be bigger, bolder and more badass than its predecessor.

Call Me A Softy…I Dare Ya!

Birds of Prey has definitely set a precedent for the industry to follow; female-led superhero films can work, and can work superbly well. As more and more female voices continue to be heard, it’s films like Birds of Prey that are all-round achievers, that advocate the importance of female talent and strong voices within the film industry, hopefully it won’t just be Harley’s future endeavors that benefit from this tale of fantabulous emancipation.