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Does Director Cathy Yan Think Audiences Weren’t Ready for a Movie Like Birds of Prey?

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BY April 10, 2020
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Birds of Prey was a big gamble for the DC Comics movie division, struggling to find a footing in a landscape dominated by Marvel movies. David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, which introduced audiences to the Margot Robbie version of Harley Quinn, was not well-received. Still, Robbie’s performance was a bright spot in a muddled movie. (Author’s Note: Suicide Squad gave us a live-action Killer Croc, and I will forever be grateful to it for that.) The quasi-sequel, led by women characters and a woman director, also seemed like a disappointment. First time big box office feature director Cathy Yan recently gave an interview where she addressed the idea that audiences weren’t ready for a movie like Birds of Prey.

The narrative that took shape immediately after the movie’s premiere is a strange one. It won the weekend, but apparently taking in $30-plus million isn’t enough for a comic book movie. It was deemed a flop despite mostly good reviews from critics and audiences. As the first all-women ensemble comic book film, perhaps there was too much riding on a fun, vulgar film that served up girl power with hair ties, glitter bombs, and lots of ass-kicking. Yet, is the narrative that Birds of Prey flopped a fair one? Even more concerning, does it reinforce the Old Hollywood™ notion that comic book movies do best when starring and tailored to audiences of mostly men? Cathy Yan has some thoughts about that.

Cathy Yan Pushes Back On the Idea Audiences Weren’t Ready for Birds of Prey

Cathy Yan Audiences Weren't Ready for Birds of Prey Harley Wink Image via Warner Bros.

Yan sat down for an extensive interview about her career and this film, in which she addressed these concerns. Interviewer Brian Davids compared this film to Ford v. Ferrari, because they both made back a little more than twice their production budgets. However, the star-laden biopic received much more favorable coverage than the comic book film. Still, even though the former film gets lauded as a triumph, some believe that audiences weren’t ready for Birds of Prey or Cathy Yan’s vision. She disagrees, and the very suggestion disappoints her for a number of reasons.

As she told The Hollywood Reporter:

“I think that if you actually look at the details of the budget breakdown … I know that the studio had really high expectations for the movie — as we all did. There were also undue expectations on a female-led movie, and what I was most disappointed in was this idea that perhaps it proved that we weren’t ready for this yet. That was an extra burden that, as a woman-of-color director, I already had on me anyway. So, yes, I think there were certainly different ways you could interpret the success or lack of success of the movie, and everyone has a right to do that. But, I definitely do feel that everyone was pretty quick to jump on a certain angle.”

Let’s look at the numbers. On a budget of $84.5 million, Birds of Prey ended up grossing nearly $202 million worldwide. Only in the superhero genre, where multi-hundred million-dollar openings and billion-dollar box office grosses are the norm, would anyone consider this film a flop. On Rotten Tomatoes, a site that has problems with people posting bad reviews for things considered “too woke,” like Batwoman, Birds of Prey earned a 78 percent positive rating both from critics and audiences. For a rated-R movie starring niche comic book characters, Birds of Prey is not a disappointment but a triumph. At least, as Obi-Wan Kenobi is fond of saying, from a certain point-of-view.

Cathy Yan is correct when she says that the suggestions that audiences weren’t ready for Birds of Prey is disappointing. In my opinion, it’s both incorrect and offensive. Comic book movies have long struggled with their place in the hierarchy of cinema. Martin Scorsese infamously said they weren’t even narratives but rather “theme park rides.” Joker was a success for taking comic book films seriously, but arguably because it sucked all the joy and hope out of the genre. Birds of Prey is a movie that wears its silliness and ultra-violence on its rainbow-ribboned sleeves. Unlike Deadpool or even Joker, Birds of Prey was never accepted for what it was and faced criticism for what it wasn’t.

Is Yan Right or Was Birds of Prey’s Underwhelming Box Office Due to Sexism?

Cathy Yan Audiences Weren't Ready for Birds of Prey Harley hung over sandwich Image via Warner Bros.

The takeaway from the Cathy Yan interview is that she disagrees that audiences weren’t ready for Birds of Prey. But what does “ready” even mean in this context? Well, it deals with a subject that we as a society aren’t comfortable with naming, specifically sexism. There is a reason that there have been more than a half-dozen Superman and Batman movies, despite Wonder Woman existing for about as long as they have. There is an idea that action movies, specifically those based on comic books, are by, for, and about men. The lackluster performance of Birds of Prey compared to Deadpool seems to be a reaffirmation of this. It is a sexist attitude, and it prevents us from getting great movies based on female characters.

Yes, there have been stumbles along the way, specifically Halle Berry’s Catwoman and Jennifer Garner’s Elektra. However, the argument that these films failed has less to do with women leads and more to do with the storytellers ignoring the source material. Birds of Prey is a fun movie that is, mostly, faithful to the source material. That it didn’t make $800 million is worthy of some thought, but to suggest it was a failure is a step too far. Harley Quinn has a rich history, but she’s not been around that long. Harley’s future is a bright one, and if she does become a huge comic book name, it will be in part to the work done by Margot Robbie and Cathy Yan.

What do you think? Do you disagree with Cathy Yan that audiences weren’t ready for a movie like Birds of Prey? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Featured image by Claudette Barius via Warner Bros.

DC ComicsMoviesBirds of Preycathy yanHarley Quinn

Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.

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