Birds of Prey is Not Flying High, But Nor Has It Crashed and Burned

By Tom Beasley on at

If you believe the internet, the clunkily-titled Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a monster flop. Any flick through Twitter will provide you with an onslaught of (predominantly male) voices gleefully telling anyone who will listen that the movie has fallen on its face and that the world has rejected the woke agenda of Hollywood's snowflake liberal cabal... or something.

It's certainly true that DC's latest blockbuster has been something of a financial disappointment. But to call it a flop is to woefully misinterpret the statistics. One could almost argue that some people have a vested interest in spinning the numbers of a female-written, female-directed, female-starring action movie into a disaster. The hysteria marks a failing, more than anything, in the way we talk about box office.

Whenever a major blockbuster – especially of the superhero variety – is released, the box office reporting turns to records. Sometimes, those records are legitimately amazing – Avengers: Endgame is now the highest-grossing film of all time, after all – but often they're so specific as to be essentially meaningless. Is it really worthy of note when a movie has the highest Tuesday gross in June for a superhero origin movie released in the Year of the Rat in which a character is named Clive? Probably not.

The problem here is that everyone is discussing the Birds of Prey box office in the hope of spinning some sort of narrative, whether positive or negative. Scott Mendelson, writing for Forbes, hit the nail squarely on the head when he described the movie's box office start as “the most frustrating performance, in terms of analysis”. He added: “Because of what the film is and what it represents, there are folks on either side of the divide with an interest in pronouncing it a giant flop or a stealth hit. The truth is that it’s really neither of those things.”

It might not be sexy to say it, but Birds of Prey is doing totally fine.

Firstly, the movie's budget is considerably smaller than that of the average superhero blockbuster. Cathy Yan's colourful take on Gotham cost somewhere in the region of $80m to produce – half the price of the average Marvel Cinematic Universe outing and considerably cheaper than every other movie in the DC Extended Universe. The usual rule of thumb is that a movie needs to double its stated production budget to break even, which accounts for the outlay of distributing and marketing the finished film. As I write this, two weeks after the movie's debut in global multiplexes, it's pushing its way past that milestone and has grossed just shy of $180m worldwide. It also still has some key territories to go, including Japan.

But that's not an ideal scenario for a superhero film. Comic book movies typically rake in the cash at a considerably quicker rate and mop up dollars like James Bond in a high-stakes poker game.

Birds of Prey made $33m domestically over its opening weekend, rising to $81m worldwide. Those numbers were respectable, but below what tracking had suggested – roughly $110m globally – and the lowest in the DC Extended Universe to date. The fact DC and Warner Bros responded by rolling out a more SEO-friendly title – say hello, Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey – to various multiplex outlets shows that they were a little concerned about the fate that was befalling their latest superhero blockbuster.

The scythe of the reaper of reporting was swift and merciless. Deadline declared that DC had “hit a pothole”, Collider said it “underwhelmed” and many, many less scrupulous outlets simply declared it a “flop” and a “bomb”. The narrative formed very quickly that this movie was a failure, and that's a narrative that nobody involved with the film – or emotionally invested in its success – wants to see take hold.

Interestingly it's not a narrative which greeted Oscar hopeful Ford v Ferrari – known in the UK as Le Mans '66. That movie opened in the US in November with $31m domestically and $52m worldwide from a budget of around $98m – higher than the quoted budget for Birds of Prey – and was immediately christened a major success. Now, that movie ultimately turned out to have impressive legs at the box office and is currently sat at a decent $225m worldwide. Its marketing spend was almost certainly smaller than that of Birds of Prey – and box office expectations for a prestige drama are obviously lower than a comic book blockbuster – but it's notable that a similar box office performance for a similarly budgeted movie was, just a few months ago, considered to be a strong success.

The strange misinterpretation of box office figures continued into Birds of Prey's second week in play, which fell over the Presidents' Day long weekend in the United States. The movie fell 48% over the Friday to Sunday period and just 40% if you include the holiday Monday. These figures were wildly distorted in a tweet by box office analyst Jeff Bock, who shares figures with 35,000 followers via his Exhibitor Relations Co. account. He unfavourably compared the box office drop of Birds of Prey over that weekend with several other major movies on general release – despite the fact those films had been out for several weeks longer and thus would be expected to experience smaller drops.

In fact, when you look at more relevant comparisons, Birds of Prey's drop is relatively in line with expectations. The ultra-successful Joker fell 42% in its second weekend, while Avengers: Endgame dipped by 59% and Spider-Man: Far From Home tumbled 51%. The last time Margot Robbie's take on Harley Quinn appeared on the big screen in Suicide Squad, the movie plummeted by 67% in its second weekend, followed by a further third weekend dip of 52%. Admittedly, each of those movies started from a higher opening than Birds of Prey and thus had further to fall, but the fact remains that Cathy Yan's movie did not have a particularly poor second weekend. The opening might've been low, but week two was entirely in line with expectations.

So where does this all leave us? Well, as Mendelson stated, the true narrative coming out of Birds of Prey from a box office perspective is a frustrating one. It would be ludicrous to put Birds of Prey in the same category as female-led comic book hits like Wonder Woman ($822m worldwide) and Captain Marvel ($1.13bn), but it would be equally silly to chuck it in with high-profile failures like Charlie's Angels ($71m).

The problem, as ever, is that movies made by women and led by women are not given the room to succeed or fail on their own terms. In certain corners of the internet, the relatively low numbers greeting Birds of Prey are not a backlash to the disappointment of Suicide Squad or a side effect of the movie's R-rating – despite the plausibility of those explanations – but rather a rejection of Hollywood's “liberal agenda”.

However, those who've seen Birds of Prey seem to really like it. The film has an approval rating of 78% among critics on Rotten Tomatoes and an identical score from confirmed audience members, as well as a B+ grade from audience pollsters Cinemascore – the same grade as Joker. The problem has been convincing those who haven't yet seen it to take the plunge on tickets.

Harley Quinn might be a household name for comic book readers, but she doesn't have the same reputation on the big screen. Suicide Squad was handed a boost by the presence of Will Smith in a lead role, the promise of an appearance from the Joker and hints of a Batman cameo in its marketing. None of this bolstering was there for Birds of Prey, which featured an unknown roster of heroes played by actors who, with the exception of Robbie and villain Ewan McGregor, are far from A-list. There's also a trust issue at play with DC Comics movies at the moment. Birds of Prey might have looked, to the casual observer, like a sequel to Suicide Squad  – a film that almost nobody really enjoyed – and, as a result, it's easy to see why many have stayed away. Once bitten, twice shy.

So the issues at play with Birds of Prey when it comes to box office were myriad, but it's absurd to suggest that it's some sort of referendum on the notion of female-led and female-directed superhero movies. 2020 is set to be a banner year for women helming major blockbusters, with Cate Shortland's Black Widow and Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman 1984 still to come before the year is out. The relative disappointment of Birds of Prey is not going to stop the gradual diversification of the blockbuster filmmaking field, and nor should it, whatever the anti-woke whingers have to say from the comfort of their keyboards while massaging their multiple copies of the Joker Blu-ray.

The fact is, the story here is not the one that either side of the debate wants to tell. But the internet leaves little room for nuance and both sides feel the needs to declare themselves victorious. Really, the only winners are those who have taken the time to head out and see Birds of Prey. It's a kinetic, colourful riot of a movie that proves Margot Robbie as a true cinematic force of nature.