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The Real Reasons Birds Of Prey Had A Disappointing Box Office Debut

Warner Bros. and DC Films' latest outing, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)failed to exceed original projections for opening-weekend box office by about $10 million — making "only" $34 million rather than the expected $45-50 million. It was a bullish estimate built on good release-day numbers that turned out to fall short, but in this modern age of endless cape film hype and expectations that every new chapter break a previous earning record, Birds of Prey's more modest take has been framed by some as an outright flop. After all, it's almost expected these days that any sort of superhero movie or comic book adaptation take home a billion dollars. 

But Birds of Prey being a box office bomb simply isn't true by any financial metric. As of this writing, the Margot Robbie-led flick has earned back 150 percent of its entire $84.5 million budget (including marketing) for a total $145.4 million worldwide after finding a second wind during Valentine's Day and the long holiday provided by Presidents' Day. For any other non-superhero-film on Earth, that's a perfectly acceptable box office pull on a film that was relatively cheap to make. 

All those caveats listed, however, Birds of Prey still didn't quite live up to the hope many who were cheering for its success might achieve. Rather, it had a disappointing box office debut that spurred people to mark it as a failure. Let's take a look at the reasons why Birds of Prey certainly isn't a failure, but why missed an ultimate high mark it had an opportunity to score.

Birds of Prey's R rating is a calculated risk of alienation

While there are indeed several reasons worth listing as part of the problem, Birds of Prey's R rating is probably the biggest for its underwhelming opening weekend. An R rating immediately cuts off a substantial proportion of the traditional comic book movie audience: kids, and their parents most of the time as well. Yes, Deadpool and its sequel made oodles of money, but it was a first-of-its kind attempt at an R-rated comic book movie, which was a novelty, and Deadpool as a character boasts a gigantic fanbase going back further than even Harley Quinn's existence.

Overall, it's not quite correct to make apples-to-apples comparison with Birds of Prey — we also have to admit that Deadpool gains the benefit of a certain subset of the male comics-consuming audience that will outright refuse to see a female-led ensemble film, no matter how poorly it reflects on them as people. Birds of Prey justifiably doesn't make any attempt to be accessible to that kind of comics fan anyway, either.

An R rating will put a lot of casual consumers off, too, who might shy in the face of more peaked violence and language. Deadpool has an extended history of edgy, adult-targeted content so well-understood that even people who didn't read the comics had some casual knowledge of beforehand. This isn't so for Harley Quinn, who was an invented antagonist for the beloved kids' show Batman: The Animated Series. That version, despite the much more recent Suicide Squad (yes, we'll get to that), is still the most immediately recognizable iteration of Harley — all the way down to the average passing moviegoer.

Birds of Prey was designed to be R-rated, however, so Warner Bros. definitely understood what it was doing when it permitted the movie to be made under that prospect.

The February release date worked against Birds of Prey

The entire movie release cycle is slowly changing due to the now-constant influx of high-profile franchise films. What we considered a summer tentpole release season 10 years ago has widened so drastically as to render the description of "summer" pointless. (April isn't summer, Avengers: Endgame – it just isn't.) With so much of the bandwidth eaten up by movies that are guaranteed to make north of a half-billion dollars, the smaller and scrappier releases have to fight for the other spots, because the summer season guarantees your box office draw will be severely dented by something much bigger-budget and more popular. 

February has a long history of being the time when films are released to die — or, in some optimistic cases like Kingsman: The Secret Service, Black Panther, and Deadpool, a time to generate buzz as a sleeper hit during what historically speaking was the slowest part of the moviegoing season. Since the tentpoles book their release dates literal years ahead of time, this can be accomplished with relative ease, but the audience has yet to really get on board in showing up for smaller releases in the immediate post-holiday season.

"But Birds of Prey is a DC movie," you say! Part of the cinematic universe and whatnot. Wasn't releasing it in February a tacit admission Warner Bros. didn't believe in the film's bankability? Well, yes and no — it was probably more to maximize its ability to succeed in the face of a film coming out as a follow-up to a past critical failure.

The legacy of everything that came before Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey represents the first step in a creative sea change for Warner Bros.' DC cinematic universe. After the mixed bag of Justice League, some reassessment was necessary on the studio's part. The outcome appears to be prioritizing smaller, individual-director-driven and — most importantly — self-contained stories rather than continuing a rat race with the Marvel Cinematic Universe's interconnectedness. That may be the wise choice in the long run, but it will still need a transitionary period for fans to really get on-board. However tepid the critical reception of the last couple DC team-up films have been, fans do enjoy that kind of thing and may resist letting go.

Another downside to interconnectedness: even an attempt to reframe a franchise means anything new can carry the past's failures with it. This fact serves Birds of Prey poorly in particular because it's a direct sequel-slash-spin-off of the disastrous Suicide Squad released in 2016. Birds of Prey doesn't disown its predecessor outright, either — the intro of the film acknowledges it and builds off of it, though only upon Harley's specific emotional experiences rather than the overall plot. No matter that this new movie spends at most five minutes on it and then completely departs to pursue its own priorities — Suicide Squad is nonetheless a substantial albatross around the neck of Birds of Prey to skeptics who won't give the new film an opportunity to have its say at all. 

Releasing it in February can be construed as an acknowledgement of the uphill battle this movie faced from the get-go, but that's not a damnation, either. Though Birds of Prey had a slow start, word of mouth is helping it recoup now, and it will likely have a vibrant second life in home distribution as time goes on.