Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey opened in theaters on February 7 and within just days, the internet had declared the film a failure. Bringing in $32 million domestically during its opening weekend, most reasoned, indicated that the film was set to be a flop, a misstep for the DC Extended Universe. It didn't take long for people to speculate about what mistakes had been made leading to this so-called failure and Warner Bros. even made a quick name change, rebranding the film from its lengthy original title of Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Except, despite the lower-than-expected box office, Birds of Prey wasn't a failure in its first week. The film made around $81 million globally during that first weekend, a sum that either recouped or came close to recouping the film's budget depending on what budget figure you use, meaning anything beyond that could arguably see the film in the green.
Flash forward to this weekend and the film is now sitting at a worldwide gross of $145 million. It's a number that is, currently just a bit shy of half of Shazam!'s entire theatrical run, just for reference (and we’ll get to that more in a moment). While the film does have a long way to go and admittedly didn't meet the projections for its opening weekend, the fact remains that people are going out to see the film. Word of mouth is helping with Birds of Prey, especially when fans take to social media to note that the film is a far cry from the widely panned Suicide Squad that first introduced Harley to the DCEU. The film hasn't bottomed out in its second week the way, say Dark Phoenix did. Yet, the headlines are still hung up on the idea that the film is a "flop".
It's not and we would all do well to shift our perceptions a bit.
Birds of Prey was never going to be a massive blockbuster. Unlike most films in the DCEU, Birds of Prey didn't have the lead we've seen in previous films, the way Justice League benefited from Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. All Birds of Prey really had was Suicide Squad, which isn't really an establishing film in the same way Man of Steel was for Justice League. other than to introduce audiences to Harley and set up the idea that she was, at one point, dating the Joker. The film also didn't have the fan recognition of its major characters the way Joker did. Yes, Harley is popular with DC fans, but the Joker is a character that transcends the fandom. Even a person who has almost no interest in superheroes is aware who the Joker is. The character has become, for better or for worse, a cultural touchstone of sorts. Measuring the film against Joker and the rest of the DCEU is therefore a little unfair. The films are just not the same.
It's also a little unfair to compare Birds of Prey to another, smaller DCEU film, Shazam! While both Birds of Prey and Shazam! have the smaller film with lesser known characters similarity, there's also the massive difference that Shazam! is very obviously a superhero movie. Even on the movie's posters you've got the Big Red Cheese in his brightly colored super suit looking for everything in the world like he could comfortably stand right up next to say, Superman, and fit in. The same can't be said for Birds of Prey and, in fact, even when you see the movie it doesn't feel like a superhero film. It's an action film that just so happens to have comic book characters and a superpower with Black Canary's epic cry.
The takeaway? Birds of Prey isn't a standard superhero movie and shouldn't be judged as one, but there's something more to consider as well when looking at how Birds of Prey is discussed. On Twitter, a few people have compared the language of how headlines have addressed Birds of Prey to the language used to describe a film with a similar budget and similar opening haul: Ford v Ferrari. In the case of Ford v Ferrari, it's opening weekend was described as "racing to first place" or as a "strong" opening with $31 million domestic while Birds of Prey had distinctly negative phrasing with words such as "disappoints" and "went astray" with its slightly better take of $33 million. Similar budget, both are smaller films with an action-oriented slant (though Ford v Ferrari features cars rather than brawling), Ford v Ferrari even had something that Birds of Prey did not have in the way of major star power with Christian Bale and Matt Damon in starring roles. One can even argue that they are both niche films yet Ford is praised for its modest box office take while Birds of Prey is sneered at for the same dollar amount.
The difference? Ford v Ferrari is a film written by men, directed by a man, and stars men in roles that see the characters doing stereotypical male things. Birds of Prey is written by a woman, directed by a woman, produced by two women, stars mostly women, and centers around women being badasses as they fight against men. The "male" film "wins" while the "female" film "disappoints." All differences beyond that aside, it's not a good look.
Ultimately, Birds of Prey may not be the massive blockbuster that other comic book films have been, but the true tale of the film's box office is far from over and it's far from being a flop or a failure. The film is doing well with critics and those who have gone out and seen it. It's not a failure. It just didn't smash a bunch of records and maybe that's the real story here. Maybe we need to adjust our expectations that everything has to be massive at the box office in order to have value.
But we certainly have to stop declaring things a failure when they're not.