Hollywood has yet to learn its lesson that audiences want to be entertained, not lectured. The release of a new movie Friday, “Birds of Prey,” thrust this lesson into the spotlight when the film didn’t do as well as expected — and, of course, men were to blame.
In this latest Warner Bros. release of a DC Comics property, Margot Robbie reprised her popular role of Harley Quinn, the emotionally damaged villainess she originally played in the mess-of-a-film “Suicide Squad.” Despite the blatant fiasco of that film, Robbie was clearly the bright spot, and her character deservedly received her own film. But Robbie deserved better than “Birds of Prey.”
Tracking the film ahead of release, industry experts expected it to do a healthy business, predicting it would earn at least $50 million on the opening weekend. Instead it took in far less, opening with only $33 million. As the studio grappled with what transpired and how this assured hit went sideways, some in media activist circles had little trouble coming up with a cause. It was men’s fault.
Feminists didn’t hold back in accusing misogyny. If only men were not such an infantile sex, they could open themselves up to the possibilities of women being strong characters on screen, goes the narrative.
Comic book and movie legend Gerry Conway also weighed in on the film’s demise, saying, “I’m so disappointed by ‘Birds of Prey’ box office and what it says about the male audience for superhero films. Here’s my controversial take (don’t hate me): the movie didn’t pull teenage boys because Margot Robbie didn’t want Harley Quinn to be sexualized as she was in SS.”
Just to add to the testosterone dysphoria, the superhero culture site Comic Book Resources attributed some of the failure to the fact that male movie reviewers were unfairly harsh in their criticism of the film. Besides the common refrain that men are to blame for the film flop, “Birds of Prey” criticisms possessed another commonality: no evidence to support them.
Don’t Let the Facts Blow up Your Misogyny Narrative
“Birds Of Prey” follows a trend I noted to be in full swing throughout 2019,:the failure of films championed as feminist “message” pictures. A predictable pattern emerged across numerous genres: whenever a movie was touted as a female message picture, it was sure to be DOA in theaters. And those film casualties were sure to be blamed on men.
In this weekend’s “BOP,” as the hip feminists refer to “Birds of Prey,” a similar agenda was at play. Warner Bros. elected to give the film to director Cathy Yan, who had only one prior motion picture on her resume, and writer Christina Hodson (“Bumblebee”). The female-power lecturing was apparent, as Ewan McGregor, who plays Black Mask in “Birds of Prey,” described:
What interested me with Birds of Prey is that it’s a feminist film. It is very finely written, there is in the script a real look on misogyny. And I think we need that, we need to be more aware of how we behave with the opposite sex. We need to be taught to change.
We covered much of this on the last episode of “Disasters In The Making.” Paul Young, from Screen Rant, saw a preview of the film and noted that feminists were carrying out their message primarily through misandry. They tear men down and portray them as avaricious beings in order to venerate the female characters.
As Young described it, an early scene of the film shows McGregor’s character to be sadistic. The creators fully established his villain credentials then, but later, they portrayed him as even more vile when he publicly degrades an innocent woman.
So the messaging is in place, but did that actually drive men away from seeing the film? The answer is a flat no. While the charge by the film’s defenders of sexism being the ruination of its success seems a natural explanation, the metrics do not support their claim.
‘Birds of Prey’ Failed for Non-Sexist Reasons
The first problem they run into: Men did in fact turn out to see the film. Audience measurements showed that more than half of the film’s attendees were males, at 54 percent. Claims that male entertainment writers were unfairly dumping on the film also fail to land, as Rotten Tomatoes sports a very strong 80 percent, with a matching audience score. Any harsh criticisms were surely drowned out by praise.
So absent sexist excuses, what went wrong? The first issue is the basic fact that the movie content was muddled. This film centered on Harley Quinn but was named after her support staff, who were not so prominently featured. Some were confused by Quinn’s presence, while others felt she was in a reduced role. This is evidenced by the fact that Warner Bros. later retitled the film “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.”
The release date may have also been problematic. This weekend was the Academy Awards, a notoriously slower weekend in theaters, but one that especially hit home — film marketers recognize females do not go to theaters the Sunday of the Oscars. The biggest stumbling block, however, may have been the content.
While Conway surmised that teenaged boys were not motivated to go to the film, he failed to measure that most could not go. “BOP” is rated R, so the under-18 crowd was largely prevented from attending. Exit metrics showed that the 17-and-under audience was a paltry 9 percent. Focusing on the teen boys is also a misfire; Harley Quinn is very popular with girls because of the TV animated series that features her. That built-in audience was all but cut out of attending the film.
It turns out this film’s failure cannot be attributed to toxic sexism, but rather mostly to studio decisions and the development of the property in general. When feminists make irrational, emotion-based measurements of an industry, however, they’re unlikely to listen to any amount of statistical analysis — just like the studios continuing to push the feminist product that consistently fails to deliver.