Kids love murderous clowns. No, really! Remember when you used to sing “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells, Robin laid an egg; the Batmobile lost a wheel, and the Joker got away?” Back in the ’90s, said murderous clown, the Joker, got a side-kick named Harley Quinn in the famous and beloved Batman: The Animated Series. Since then, that anti-hero Harley has undergown numerous transformations, most notably her big-screen debut in 2016’s Suicide Squad and now, in what is presumably her own movie, Birds of Prey(And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.) But, in terms of making money at the box office, Harley’s big moment is a total disaster, and at only 33.5 M for its opening weekend, it is the lowest-grossing DC Comics movie of all time. But why? Unlike the film, Suicide Squad, in which Margot Robbie’s Harley first appeared, Birds of Prey isn’t rated PG-13, it’s rated R. This means, for some reason, DC and Warner Bros actively prevented tweens and teens — probably girls — from seeing the Harley Quinn movie, made for them.
Rated-R superhero movies might seem to be the norm right now. I mean, nobody would advise you to take a little kid or tween to see Joquin Phoenix’s Oscar-winning role as the Joker in Joker. Still, that film and Logan and Deadpool are actually outliers when it comes to Rated-R comic book movies doing well at the box office. Or, to put it another way, families might take a chance on a PG-13 comic book movie with their 12 or 16-year-old, but they certainly aren’t going to mess around with an R-Rated comic book romp, even if their kid thinks Harley Quinn is pretty cool.
This analysis isn’t just anecdotal, either. Several film experts and critics agree: Birds of Prey’s failure to gain any real connection to the audience was because of three factors.
- Its title didn’t showcase “Harley Quinn” clearly enough.
- The film opened on a weekend that is historically bad for movies
- It was Rated-R, which prevented people who wanted to see the movie from seeing the movie.
Writing for Deadline, Anthony D’Alessandro pointed out: “By making this movie R, the studio has potentially sidelined the younger female-skewing Harley Quinn fanbase…” Other outlets, including CinemaBlend, supported this premise, and it’s not hard to see why. Harley Quinn is a wise-cracking, punk-rockish anti-hero; mostly for girls. She typifies the 21st-century cosplay generation of comic book fans, and her brand of anti-heroism is certainly connected with female empowerment. And while we could debate about the merits of Harley Quinn as role-model, I can personally tell you kids do love her.
I’ve attended a lot of Comic-Cons in my life as a professional journalist, and one thing that gets missed a lot in mainstream coverage of these events is not the adults in the impressive costumes, but instead, the children who are there with their parents. Once, while waiting in line for a panel at New York Comic-Con, and I got to hear an 11-year-old’s perfect voice imitation of Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series. This was about 3 years ago. That young person is still not old enough to see Birds of Prey on her own. And that’s kind of a crime.
I’m not sure if this was Margot Robbie’s fault or Warner Bros fault, or the fault of someone at DC Comics. But it was a mistake. Debating about the merits of Birds of Prey isn’t really what I’m interested in, because, I don’t think I’m the target audience. Unlike Suicide Squad, which made a lot more money, the early reviews for Birds of Prey were pretty good. But, the problem is, those reviews were written by adults who could see the movie.
Generally speaking, we don’t have tweens and teens review comic book movies at professional news outlets, but the failure of Birds of Prey at the box office makes you wonder — what if we did? What if every time a comic book movie was coming out — no matter how serious or gritty or artistic it was supposed to be — the director, writer, and studio all decided to consider hiring a 13-year-old to review the movie? And, if at any point that studio realized they couldn’t let the 13-year-old watch the movie, then maybe it’s time to pump the breaks.
Harley Quinn may have become emancipated from her dysfunctional relationship with the Joker in Birds of Prey, but her biggest fans won’t get to see that emancipation until they grow-up. So, to whoever made the final call to keep Birds of Prey an R-Rated movie, I ask you this: Was it worth it?
Birds of Prey is out in theaters now.