It feels like every other day of the week everyone on the internet and social media works themselves up into a bad-tempered lather over the discourse (the internet’s new favourite word) over a film, its quality and box office performance.
So, it has been over the last week that opinion on the commercial performance of Birds of Prey has been debated about until everyone is blue in the face. Now, it goes without saying, the box office performance of the film has been a fascinating one, with theories, think pieces and all sorts of opinion formulating as to why a major comic book film from Warner Bros. based on DC Comics (and I never get the impression that DC is making these films in the way that Marvel is, everything at the DC end sometimes does feel as if it’s stemming from the corporate entity of Warner Bros. Studios as opposed to the comics division itself) has ended up doing…well…fine. Not brilliant. Not poorly. Just okay, although given the tones of some very click-bait driven headlines, you would be forgiven for thinking we had the new Heaven’s Gate on our hands.
This being the day and age of the comic book blockbuster, the genre has found itself producing many movies that break records without breaking a sweat it seems and rewriting the history of box office records every couple of months.
Birds of Prey arrives in terms of film production as somewhat of a game changer. It’s directed by a female filmmaker, written by a female screenwriter with a narrative and story driven by characters played by a female ensemble. It’s a sequel of sorts to 2016’s Suicide Squad, a film that was critically panned but which pulled in a sizeable box office performance of $745 million, so the fact that this film has performed below expectations has been somewhat of a surprise.
Unless you’re a heterosexual male who thinks the only way for a film like this to be successful is to appeal to your male gaze-driven look at the world where women are only here for your sexual gratification. In which case, you might be led to believe that your invalid point of view has been validated, but you are, sadly mistaken, let’s be clear about that and we shall leave it there. Okay? Thanks.
Truthfully, Birds of Prey is a lot of fun. For all its faults, 2016’s Suicide Squad did boast an instantly iconic turn from Robbie making her debut as Harley Quinn in the character’s first appearance in live action (that cameo in Arrow aside where the character’s shadow is glimpsed behind a cell door but never actually seen). A big problem was of course the character was filmed in a very male gazey way at every opportunity and her story very much defined by Jared Leto’s Joker.
Director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson (who wrote the wonderful, also female centric Bumblebee) have surrounded the character of Harley with other key female characters, Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). Like last year’s similarly feminist take on Charlie’s Angels, Birds of Prey has its cake and eats it. There is a toxic male villain to defeat in the shape of Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) and his psychotic henchman Victor Szasz (Chris Messina, very convincing in psychotic mode), and the film runs with themes of female empowerment over toxic male figures while being loaded with hugely enjoyable set pieces that really catch the eye and with pace and style that is very infectious.
The action is violent and over the top, and the use of voice over, colourful on-screen graphics that introduce characters and Harley’s moments of breaking the fourth wall, not to mention a voice over that knowingly explains the plot to the audience as if the film and the character knows that it is a work of fiction, recall Deadpool, but honestly, the film is possibly better than that. The jokes land well, they don’t rely on constant ‘dick’ jokes and none of the female characters are ever ‘fridged’ in the way that Morena Baccarin’s was in the Deadpool sequel.
Admittedly the structure is a little messy, and while that’s possibly intentional, sometimes that thing of continually flashing back to show you how characters got to the point where they are can be a little wearying and it sometimes does leave you wishing that the film would just stay on a more linear line of storytelling rather than having you try to figure out where in the film’s timeline you are.
What works brilliantly here is how unapologetically feminine the film is. Many male viewers who have a way of looking at the world may feel excluded, but they need to grow up; Birds of Prey is a blast and a fun time. It looks gorgeous, managing to make Gotham City look imaginative, colourful and gritty all at the same time, the dialogue sparkles and is more funnier than the majority of most comedies and the final act boasts a brilliant piece of action choreography in one key set piece that other films of this year are already in competition with and it’s all driven by female characters and actors. At one point, Harley hands Canary a hair tie in the middle of the chaos, a small detail that a male filmmaker would never in a million years put in.
In the middle of it all is Margot Robbie who in the space of this and Suicide Squad has truly made the character of Harley Quinn her own. Like Christopher Reeve, Chris Evans or Gal Gadot, Robbie owns her comic book inspired role in a way that almost feels as if she’s been playing the role forever, and this is only the second time.
A controversial character as well as a beloved one, she makes Harley fun to be around, but unafraid to make us hate some of the decisions she makes, managing the incredible feat of being fun, complex, colourful and yet darkly and tragically put together in a way that almost seems impossible to pull off and yet the combination of Robbie’s performance, Hodson’s writing and Yan’s direction make it look effortless and easy.
The film ends up celebrating female companionship and super heroism brilliantly by the time the end credits are set to roll, with Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Mary Elizabeth Winstead fully formed into the titular characters.
So, it’s a shame then that a larger audience hasn’t been willing to give it a go. Some have put it down to the R-rating in the US (15 in the UK) which meant younger fans were unable to see it (yet Deadpool broke box office records with the same rating), while others think the sour taste of Suicide Squad carried over (which was a sizeable box office hit despite the reviews and which was also a 15 in the UK).
The film has also been used as a vessel to talk about their own social and political views as to why the film isn’t clicking with audiences; too feminist, doesn’t pander to male viewers, and female fronted action films don’t work with audiences are all theories that have been bandied about, and coming off the back of the lacklustre performance of the similarly enjoyable and better-than-you-think Charlie’s Angels reboot doesn’t help.
The film doesn’t have to be political or reinforce your point of view of the world to be good. It’s an action film, with female characters, with great set pieces, great humour and a great atmosphere. It is perfect? No. Is it great fun? Yes. Massively great fun. Here’s hoping we get another.