It’s not a flop, thanks to an under-$90 million budget, but DC Films’ Birds of Prey is going to open closer to X-Men: Dark Phoenix than Shazam!.
I guess I can’t use a “superhero fatigue” headline this time around since DC Film’s Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t breaking out this weekend. The Margot Robbie vehicle topped the Friday box office with just $13.025 million in its first day. That includes $4 million in Thursday previews. Even taking the $82 million budget and the R-rating (more on that later) into account, we’re talking about an opening day that’s about equal to what the first Ryan Reynolds’ R-rated and $58 million-budgeted Deadpool earned in Thursday previews four years ago. Considering that Harley Quinn has often been thought of like DC Comics’ Deadpool (or vice-versa), this is not a good start.
Even with strong reviews, a popular lead character and a brand (DC Films) on an upswing from four years ago, the moviegoers (thus far) have not shown up. At best, we’re looking at a $39 million opening, and that’s if it rebounds like Kong: Skull Island ($61 million from a $20.1 million Friday in March of 2017) or Jumanji: The Next Level (a $59.2 million debut weekend from a $19.722 million last December). More likely, we’re looking at an over/under $36 million opening weekend, about on par with last year’s (on the same weekend) $34 million launch of The LEGO Movie 2, and that pesky R-rating means it probably won’t get a bounce from kid-powered matinees.
Birds of Prey is an unapologetically feminist, but also unapologetically violent and profane female-led ensemble girl gang flick. It’s helmed by Cathy Yan, a young female director (of Asian descent) fresh off the indie circuit with a screenplay courtesy of Christina Hodson (Bumblebee). It features a cast made up of the likes of Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ella Jay Basco. It’s visually distinct, with terrific action sequences and plenty of gal pal interaction, and no Batman/Joker nonsense, which is partially why the reviews have been mostly positive (86% fresh and a 6.89/10 average critic score on Rotten Tomatoes) heading into the weekend. Artistically, WB and DC did everything right.
At a glance, this is another frustrating case of a studio offering what the media claims moviegoers want only for those films to play to empty auditoriums. But I would argue the R-rating backfired in a big way. First, as I damn well feared when I wrote about this in May of 2018 (I hate being right), the choice to go “hard” meant that the kids who loved Harley Quinn (and the related Birds of Prey characters) couldn’t go, and the adults didn’t feel like springing for a babysitter. There are plenty of R-rated female-led action movies, think Atomic Blonde, Resident Evil, Underworld and Salt, along with the brutally violent PG-13 likes of The Hunger Games.
That’s part of what made Wonder Woman stand out three years ago, as well as (relatively speaking) Black Panther two years ago. That MCU mega-hit stood out by being relatively kid-friendly in a space otherwise occupied by Blade movies, Bad Boys flicks and Denzel Washington “righteous revenger” movies. Speaking of which, Birds of Prey arrived amid a flurry of R-rated movies, including the much-bigger-than-expected Bad Boys for Life, which stole its “first blockbuster of the year” thunder. Just as Venom stood out as a PG-13 franchise flick alongside A Star Is Born, Halloween and (the adult-skewing) First Man, so too would a PG-13 Birds of Prey have stood out alongside 1917, The Grudge, The Gentlemen and The Invisible Man.
It’s possible that the bitter aftertaste from the very successful ($325 million domestic a $745 million worldwide) but not necessarily beloved Suicide Squad created a Tomb Raider Trap (where a superior sequel to a mediocre hit predecessor stumbles because audiences are once bitten/twice shy). But paying audiences didn’t hate Suicide Squad as much as critics (it was leggier than summer than Captain America: Civil War). WB spending $82 million on Birds of Prey versus $175 million for Suicide Squad showed an awareness that Suicide Squad wasn’t primed for a breakout sequel and that this movie lacked Ben Affleck’s Batman, Jared Leto’s Joker (audiences love that Joker) and Will Smith’s Deadshot (audiences love that Will Smith in franchise mode).
Suicide Squad was a late-summer event, offering the first live-action appearance of Harley Quinn along with Will Smith in superhero/supervillain mode. But, again, I would argue the budget accounted for any and all “Birds of Prey won’t come anywhere near Suicide Squad” variables. Blame the R-rating or blame overconfidence in the “marquee character” draw of Harley Quinn (especially among moviegoers old enough to see an R-rated movie). Robbie isn’t an opener by herself, and this wasn’t a kind of legacy flick akin to Hugh Jackman’s Logan or (in terms of years and years in development) Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool or Tom Hardy’s Venom. Maybe Harley should have teamed up with Poison Ivy and Catwoman.
It’s possible, all other variables being equal, that a PG-13 Birds of Prey might have opened closer to Shazam! than X-Men: Dark Phoenix. This isn’t a catastrophe. The movie is pretty damn good, and audiences seem to like it. It didn’t cost over/under $200 million like Dark Phoenix or Terminator: Dark Fate. Moreover, the LEGO Movie series is/was a domestic-specific franchise. The LEGO Movie earned $258 million domestic and $411 million worldwide while LEGO Movie 2 earned $103 million/$191 million last year. We can only hope that the DC Films flick will leg past $100 million domestic and pull something closer to 62% overseas (like Shazam) as opposed to 46% overseas like The LEGO Movie 2.
Aquaman and Joker both topped $1 billion worldwide, with the latter likely to win an Oscar or three tomorrow. Birds of Prey is the fifth of six recent DC Films offerings to get majority-positive reviews. This performance is less harmful to the DC Films brand than it is to Warner Bros. They struggled all last year, with failed franchise offerings (LEGO Movie 2, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) and a deluge of utterly ignored “what we claim we want in theaters” dramas and genre flicks (Richard Jewell, The Kitchen, etc.). Oh, and this soft opening will give ammunition to some the worst idiots on the Internet, so that’s just a cherry on top of this (relative) s**t sundae.