What Birds of Prey’s box office numbers really tell us (and it’s not that women-led movies can’t succeed)

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Birds of Prey has failed to light up the box office over its opening weekend, prompting misogynists everywhere to jump on the “go woke, go broke” bandwagon. Sigh. 

We all know that 2016’s Suicide Squad was a Bad Movie. Its muddled plot, thinly written characters and choppy directing led to it achieving a meagre 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics and fans alike insisting that the film was pretty much unwatchable.

The only good thing about it? Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, of course.

As the baseball bat-wielding bad girl, Robbie gave us a supervillain that was furiously fun to watch – and seriously complex, too. Unlike her two-dimensional counterparts, Robbie’s Harley felt venomous, vulnerable, vivacious, all at once. She was a vivid burst of neon in a murky world of slurries and sloppy writing. Is it any wonder, then that Robbie’s character was given her own spinoff Harley Quinn movie?

What have critics said?

Birds of Prey follows Harley Quinn (Robbie) after she breaks up with Jared Leto’s Joker. She goes through all the stereotypical breakup motions: she cuts her hair, she eats a lot of ice cream, and she adopts an admittedly unconventional pet. Amid hanging with hyenas in bathtubs, though, Harley lands on the wrong side of Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), a misogynistic gangster.

Cue Harley enlisting the help of Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), as they join forces to help protect a young woman (Ella Jay Basco) in danger. And, y’know, partake in some high-octane rollerskating sequences.

Suffice to say, the film has gone down a treat with critics, scoring mostly positive reviews across the board – not to mention a very respectable 80% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s been praised for its wit, extravagance and delightfully violent action scenes. It opened at the top of the box office charts. And Robbie’s performance has been singled out by critics once again for her all-too-believable degrees of menace.

Unfortunately for Birds of Prey, though, this blockbuster has so far failed to transform any of this praise into financial gain. 

How has Birds of Prey performed at the box office?

The film’s domestic takings of $33.25 million means it now holds the record for the weakest opening of a Worlds of DC release. Thanks to its ‘soft’ release overseas, it has so far only grossed an estimated $48million from 78 international markets, lifting the total weekend gross to about $81million.

And, predictably, some misogynists are leaping on this fact as ‘proof’ the world doesn’t want to see any empowered female superheroes

Birds of Prey cast photo
Birds of Prey follows Harley Quinn (Robbie) after she breaks up with Jared Leto's Joker.

“When you spend more time on trying to be woke and less time on substance this is what happens,” reads one such tweet about Birds of Prey. “From the moment I saw the preview I knew they were doing some girl power bullshit and wasn’t gunna see it. Never will. Just make what works.”

“Hollywood’s ‘woke culture’ is infecting popular franchises and characters, and then they get outraged for failing,” seethes another. “It’s like going to McDonald’s, ordering a burger and getting a vegan donut. You don’t pay the McDonald’s employee for altering your order, so why would we pay you?”

“I’m a fan of the DC movies, but the wokeness killed this one,” screeches another. “We don’t need girl power. We don’t need representation. We don’t need sisterhood and lectures. We need good characters in a good story, but that’s not what they were marketing here. Get woke, go broke.”

And still one more reads: “Hollywood wants to make movies with characters/franchises that have a built-in audience, but it also wants to twist and rape everything about it into something unrecognisable for their ‘woke culture’. And then they scold you for not showing up to support that bullshit!”

Ugh.

Misogyny at the movies

In 2016, we saw male hissy-fits take place all over the internet when Paul Feig’s women-led Ghostbusters hit cinemas. A year earlier, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road (centered on Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa instead of Max) saw “anti-feminists” call for a “boycott”, citing the film’s “feminist agenda” as the reason.

In 2017, Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who was met with outrage on social media. The female-only screenings of Wonder Woman were deemed “sexist,” “illegal,” “tacky,” and “bigoted.” And 2019’s Captain Marvel became the subject of several negative user reviews posted to Rotten Tomatoes by people who hadn’t even seen it, blasting Brie Larson’s performance and accusing her of being sexist against men. All, however, still achieved big numbers at the box office – so much so that Whittaker, Larson and Gal Gadot’s heroes have all been granted a second outing.

The problem isn’t solely true of superhero movies, either. Earlier this year, it was reported that male members of the Academy had failed to attend screenings of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women before Oscar voting closed. And Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, despite brilliant reviews, earned just $8.6 million over its opening weekend in the US.

“We need your support. Don’t give studios an excuse not to green-light movies made by and about women,” Wilde tweeted at the time.

What can we do about it?

We need to support female-led movies where it matters most: at the cinema. Because, let’s face it, money genuinely does talk. To quote Charlie’s Angels director Elizabeth Banks: “People have to buy tickets to this movie. This movie has to make money. Because if this movie doesn’t make money it reinforces a stereotype in Hollywood that men don’t go see women do action movies.”

She’s 100% right, of course. If a female-centric movie fails to succeed, then everyone who didn’t bother to go because it wasn’t for him has his decision a little more justified. Worse than that, though? The next time someone decides whether or not to greenlight a ‘women’s picture’ he will be less likely to do so.

As Harley Quinn herself puts it: “Yeesh, ya make one little mistake and they never letcha forget!”

We need to break the cycle, sure, but the responsibility to push for positive change in Hollywood shouldn’t rest solely on the shoulders of womankind. The chokehold that misogynists have on the film industry needs to be pulled off, one finger at a time… and we can’t do it alone.

With this in mind, we’d like to echo the words of Stylist’s Lucy Mangan and implore male allies everywhere to open their minds and go see Little Women, Birds of Prey, Wonder Woman 2. Because, without the support of their cinema tickets, we’re destined to see yet another Oscars without any female nominees in the Best Director category. 

“To break the cycle once and for all we need more,” she says. “We need men to stop thinking of themselves as the standard from which all else deviates. And we need men to stop being the standard.”

Exactly. So, whoever you are reading this, please throw caution to the wind and book tickets to see Harley Quinn in action this weekend. For you, it’ll be a few hours sat munching popcorn in the frenetic glow of your local cinema screen. For Hollywood, though, it could be the single grain of rice that tips the scale.

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Images: World of DC

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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