By Dana Jones | Film | February 9, 2020 |
By Dana Jones | Film | February 9, 2020 |
Birds of Prey is underperforming at the box office. It’s not an outright bombing, and by no means a financial disaster, just on track to be a barely-break-even kind of movie. But to someone who loves Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn—as I do—this seems very bad news.
Writing about film as an industry, rather than an art form, has an insidious effect on the mind. Films cease to exist as self-contained works, and instead become mere cogs in an ever-grinding machine of box office totals, Rotten Tomatoes scores, and franchise discussions. To make matters worse, you can’t ignore the din because it’s this very machinery that decides whether or not movies get to exist in the first place.
Birds of Prey is a beautiful, self-contained work. It’s a joyous, riotous, hilarious, shamelessly girly good time. Rosie Perez spends around half of her screen time wearing an oversized T-shirt that says “I shaved my balls for this?” A breakfast sandwich gets dramatically fridged. There’s a poorly taxidermied beaver in a tutu. Harley gets closure on a bad break-up by launching a truck into a chemical plant and stylishly swaggering away from the multi-colored sky-high explosion. Then, in the climactic final battle Huntress rides a random goon down an amusement park fun slide, stabbing him all the way.
Outside of the movie theater, though, the bubble bursts and the noise swells. Because Birds of Prey isn’t just any film; it’s a franchise comic book movie with female leads, directed by a woman, and written by another woman. It cannot simply exist. It has to prove itself as if it was the first time a female-focused comic book existed. The burden of proof is heavy every single time.
One of the great curses of the internet is that the stupidest and most ignorant voices can control the narrative simply by yelling the loudest. They don’t come louder, stupider, and more ignorant than sexist comic book fans. Then, the alt-right grifters amplify these toxic hot takes for clicks. When women dared try to organize women-only screenings of Wonder Woman (to escape the din for just a couple of hours and enjoy the first female superhero movie in twelve years) these were the guys who decided that they had to go to that specific screening and smugly challenge anyone to try and stop them.
With the kind of myopia that demonstrates a total lack of awareness regarding how anything in the film industry works, those same men are now gloating that the reason Birds of Prey has faltered at the box office has nothing to do with marketing missteps, its R-rating that cuts out underage fans, the usual risks of releasing a movie in the January-March slump, or the spinoffs’ association with 2016’s critically-maligned Suicide Squad. No. It’s because it’s too feminist, too “woke,” and it didn’t show enough tits and ass.
Consider Captain Marvel, in which Carol Danvers is a woman capable of smashing entire spaceships in half with her cosmic superpowers. There’s a climactic scene in which she is challenged to a fight by a man who has conveniently shifted the goalposts to a place where all of her previous wins are worthless. It’s an experience that felt painfully familiar at the time, and it feels especially relevant again. Less than a year after Captain Marvel crossed the billion-dollar mark at the box office, Birds of Prey has been challenged to prove that female-led comic book movies can succeed at the box office, as if neither Captain Marvel nor Wonder Woman ever existed.
Why must Birds of Prey be a blockbuster? So that it can get a sequel, of course. The film industry and the discourse surrounding it has poisoned our minds with the idea that movies are only as good as their sequel potential. Does it matter that Birds of Prey is great, the characters are wonderfully writ large, its scenes are carried along by a lovingly-crafted soundtrack, it never explains why exactly there’s a stuffed beaver in a tutu—if it doesn’t get a sequel? Hollywood blockbuster culture would have us think it’s all this is in service of making money and spawning a franchise. As a fan, this leads to a cycle of desperately needing each movie to succeed by the only metric that counts (money), so that one movie can guarantee another one, which you won’t be able to fully enjoy because you’ll be too anxious about it succeeding so that it can guarantee another one.
It’s hard to shut out the din. It’s hard to shut out the noisy resentment of men who feel that somehow movies like Birds of Prey are taking something away from them. It’s hard to shut out the algorithms (both social and digital) that reward the loudest, stupidest, and nastiest voices with the most attention. It’s hard to shut out our own anxieties, the fear if Birds of Prey doesn’t make enough money, Hollywood will slam shut the few doors it has opened. That this ferocious, fun, and feminist film might put an end to female-led superhero movies once and for all, even though there are two more on the way in 2020 alone!
Here’s the thing, though: the dudes crowing about Birds of Prey’s supposed failure are wrong. They’re wrong to think that studios are suddenly going to stop making female-focused comic book movies if just one of them underperforms. There’s a very clear trend in the film industry right now, and it’s definitely fewer female superheroes on the big screen. Every new movie paves the way for another. Just three years after DC Films first ventured out into No Man’s Land with Wonder Woman, we got something as weird and bold and beautiful as Birds of Prey. With all the work it took to get to this point, we might as well appreciate it while it’s here instead of worrying about tomorrow.
Failing that, look at it this way: if a meteor strikes the planet before Black Widow arrives in a few months, and Birds of Prey really is the last comic book movie starring women that’s ever released, at least the genre will go out on a high note.
And that high note is Socially Awkward Huntress’s Super Stabby Fun Slide.
Header Image Source: Warner Bros.