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Culture

Why Birds Of Prey Is Bombing At the Box Office (Hint: It's Not Misogyny)

By Lauren Chen·· 7 min read
harley quinn
Birds of Prey / Warner Bros. Entertainment

In an era when so many movies and TV shows are adaptations of existing franchises, the intellectual properties surrounding Ghostbusters, Terminator, Charlie’s Angels, and DC’s Harley Quinn must have smelled like easy money to studio executives. Not only would writers not have to spend time coming up with original concepts and characters, but existing fans and name recognition would make marketing any reboots much easier.

That was probably the thinking that went into greenlighting Ghostbusters (2016), Terminator: Dark Fate, Charlie’s Angels (2019), and the recent Birds of Prey: The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. However, as the box office would eventually prove, these projects ended up being far from the safe bet investors were likely promised.

Ghostbusters lost about $70 million as a box office bomb, Terminator a whopping $120 million, and, assuming that Charlie’s Angels’ marketing budget was about equal to its production budget (~$50 million), its $71 million gross likely translated into losses of around $30 million for its studio. Birds of Prey is still showing in theaters, but with some estimates saying a gross of $250-300 million would be required just to break even, it’s current $145 million box office is doubtlessly cause for concern for Warner Brothers.

“See My Movie, or You Hate Women”

And while the failure of films to connect with audiences is usually due to a number of factors, critics were quick to blame the losses of all these films on one specific thing: misogyny. According to some, the prominent role of women in these films was the reason behind their commercial failures and negative audience responses.

Ghostbusters and Dark Fate had more predominantly female casts than any of their franchises’ previous installments, and although Charlie’s Angels was already a “girl power” themed property, giving the formerly male role of Bosley to Elizabeth Banks (who also directed, wrote, and produced the movie) definitely made the film one of the most female-centric in 2019.

Similarly, Harley Quinn has always been a fan favorite, but Birds of Prey, which focuses exclusively on Margot Robbie in the lead role with an all-female supporting cast, is the first time the character has appeared on the big screen without better-known male characters like Batman and The Joker.

According to some, the prominent role of women in these films was the reason behind their commercial failures and negative audience responses.

So perhaps, it’s been theorized, the majority male audiences who watch these franchises simply weren’t ready for this level of female representation. Maybe, some suspect, these fandoms just have a problem with women.

How About You Just Make Better Movies?

Yes, it’s true that the failure of certain female-led films seems to be establishing itself as a pattern lately. However, to assume that the fan rejection of these movies is simply due to their inclusion of female roles is to ignore what fans have explicitly stated were their reasons for not seeing these movies. Hint: it wasn’t because of sexism.

The first criticism that films such as Ghostbusters (2016) and Dark Fate tend to receive is their inability (or refusal) to remain loyal to their franchises’ source material. It appears as if the only reason the new Ghostbusters film was shoehorned into the Ghostbusters universe, despite having absolutely no connections to the original films, was to capitalize on the existing fanbase. As for Dark Fate, without giving away any spoilers, let’s just say that the plot was such a departure from what the series had previously established in terms of timeline, that some fans are simply refusing to consider it canon.

Regarding Birds of Prey, sure, Harley Quinn is an established character in the DC universe, but the decision to omit Gotham’s most famous (and male) characters, like The Joker and Batman, from the story seemed like a strange choice and missed opportunity. Not to mention, their absence, coupled with the film’s effort to paint Harley Quinn as an independent feminist icon which is arguably at odds with her infamous co-dependent relationship with The Joker, gives the impression that the writers cared more about portraying a feminist message than they did about delivering a faithful DC adaptation.

And furthermore, something that the people in charge of making these films and the activists keen on defending them continue to ignore is that maybe, maybe, these movies just…aren’t that good.

Maybe these movies just aren’t that good.

The humor and writing in Ghostbusters was juvenile. Dark Fate was a jumbled mess. Charlie’s Angels didn’t have enough action to be an action movie or enough humor to be a comedy. Birds of Prey had a contrived plot and tried too hard to copy Deadpool.

The industry justifications we’ve seen for why these women-led movies keep failing all focus on problems with the audiences, as if the movies themselves had no faults of their own. However, as anyone who has seen any of these films can confirm, that’s simply not the case.

Men Don’t Hate Women, They Hate Man-Hating

Another complaint that many, many fans have voiced is their dislike for the political, and frankly anti-male, messages that were included in these films and their marketing materials. There is a huge difference between being pro-woman and being anti-man, but, unfortunately, Hollywood is intent on conflating the two.

In Ghostbusters, the only major male characters were the villain and the incompetent sidekick. In Dark Fate, previously strong and vital male characters were sidelined in favor of new, female roles. In Birds of Prey, there was literally not a single speaking male role that wasn’t a villain in some capacity. Aside from being disrespectful to these franchises’ original concepts, the idea that to lift someone up you have to push someone else down is not only bad, two-dimensional writing, it’s also disturbing to audiences who catch on to the subtext.

And to top it all off, the fact that several of these films’ marketing campaigns dealt with valid criticism by dismissing long-time fans as “bigots” was for many just adding insult to injury.

There is a huge difference between being pro-woman and being anti-man, but, unfortunately, Hollywood is intent on conflating the two.

The Truth about Fans

For generations, sci-fi, fantasy, and action franchises - as well as their fandoms - have embraced the idea that women can be strong, competent leaders and every bit as valiant as their male counterparts. Characters like Xena, Sarah Connor, and Ellen Ripley, for example, showed us that character, not gender, is what shapes heroes.

Even today, many of the largest fandoms are built around works that have prominent - and arguably empowered - female roles. Wonder Woman (2017) was a commercial and critical success, and Marvel characters like Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, and Gamora have been embraced by fans of both genders. In the realm of TV, the recently ended Game of Thrones as well as Netflix’s new The Witcher series both feature women as some of the most powerful characters in their respective universes.

Of course there are trolls out there who genuinely do hate the idea of movies with female leads, but in no way do they represent most, or, heck, even a substantial minority of fans. Creators do have the right to make whatever shows or movies they want, but just as important is the ability of the audience to voice their criticisms without being called names.

Characters like Xena, Sarah Connor, and Ellen Ripley, for example, showed us that character, not gender, is what shapes heroes.

Closing Thoughts

In short, no, fandoms aren’t sexist. So how about we go back to focusing on creating good stories, instead of causing needless division?

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