DC Films should not react to the failure of Birds Of Prey by retreating to the alleged safety of Batman and Superman.
'Birds Of Prey' Does Not Erase DC Films' Success With 'Joker …
Birds of Prey has ended its first weekend with $42.163 million in domestic earnings and (presumably) over/under $100 million worldwide. That’s with a $1.785 million Thursday gross, just 2% below its $1.826 million Wednesday gross. That’s the first bit of good news we’ve seen for this DC Films title. The $79 million global opening weekend is absolutely a disappointment, but the film’s $82 million budget means it’s not quite over yet. Meanwhile, Matt Reeves stole James Bond’s thunder yesterday with a quick look at Robert Pattinson’s Batman less than an hour before the debut of Billie Eilish’s new 007 theme song. And today marks the arrival of this month’s Entertainment Weekly features a splashy cover story all about Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984. Point being, DC Films is probably going to be okay.
The hope is that Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (as it’s now being called on theater websites and theater marquees) will recover from a slow start and leg out closer to The LEGO Batman Movie (-39% for a $20 million Fri-Mon weekend and $27 million Fri-Mon frame) than Fifty Shades Darker (-56% for a $14.5 million weekend and $16.2 million holiday frame). Splitting the difference would be John Wick 2 (-46% for an $18 million weekend and $21 million Fri-Mon frame). But even if Birds of Prey doesn’t recover, it’s still a prime example of what DC Films should be doing, both artistically and (that pesky R-rating aside) commercially. The last thing WB and Walter Hamada should do is look at this performance and retreat to the alleged safety of Superman and Batman.
'Birds Of Prey' Does Not Erase DC Films' Success With 'Joker …
DC Films came into its own when it broke free of the need to rely on Superman and Batman as proverbial crutches. Hiring Chris Nolan to produce a Zack Snyder-directed Superman movie structured like a mix between Batman Begins and Iron Man looked like the smart play, but it earned mixed reviews, indifferent audience interest and “just” $291 million (from a sky-high $128 million debut weekend) and $668 million worldwide. Batman v Superman looked like a fail safe plan to jump start a cinematic universe, but it earned miserable reviews, terrible legs and “just” $330 million domestic and $873 million worldwide from a $424 million global cume. Hiring Joss Whedon to “fix” Zack Snyder’s Justice League to make it more like The Avengers backfired when “Diet Avengers” earned “just” $229 million domestic and $659 million worldwide.
So, what worked? Giving Patty Jenkins $150 million to make a Wonder Woman movie worked out swell. It also debunked decades of conventional wisdom about female-driven superhero movies. It earned rave reviews and legged out to $412.5 million domestic from a $103.5 million opening weekend; still the leggiest “opened on a Friday” $100 million-plus opener ever and earned $821 million worldwide. And as bad (artistically speaking) as David Ayer’s clearly compromised Suicide Squad turned out, the core pitch of Will Smith’s Deadshot and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn leading a bunch of super villains in a Dirty Dozen-type movie (with cameos from Jared Leto’s Joker and Ben Affleck’s Batman) was a winning idea. The film opened with $133 million in August of 2016 and legged out to $325 million while earning $745 million worldwide without China. Audiences showed up.
Oh, and giving James Wan free reign to spend $160 million on a ridiculously over-the-top Aquaman movie, despite the character’s relative existence as a pop-culture punchline, turned out to be a grand idea. Wan crafted a kitchen sink action fantasy that earned decent reviews and played like a Hobbit movie ($335 million domestic and $1.148 billion worldwide, including $298 million from China) as the year-end fantasy blowout. Aquaman 2 is now scheduled for December 16, 2022, alongside the next Star Wars movie, and it’s the Star Wars movie that should be quaking in its boots. Shazam! opened well ($57 million) and earned rave reviews only to get kneecapped by Avengers: Endgame in its fourth weekend, but it still counts as an against-the-grain/small-scale win with $363 million on a $90 million budget.
And then there’s Joker. Look, I’ll admit I was rolling my eyes at Warner Bros. seemingly “reacting” to the success of Wonder Woman by green-lighting a Todd Phillips-directed period piece origin story of the Clown Prince of Crime modeled after Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. It wasn’t until we saw the first stills that I decided to stop being Captain Cranky. And, yeah, $335 million domestic and $1.071 billion worldwide, the biggest R-rated grosser ever and the biggest global grosser sans China ever, plus eleven Oscar nominations including wins for Best Actor and Best Score, means WB was on to something. Ironically, Joker was precisely what we all said DC shouldn’t be doing (dark-n-gritty, aimed at adults, relying on Batman IP) while Birds of Prey was/is closer to what we claimed to want.
The Batman will presumably be a hit, because the Caped Crusader is a popular character and because Matt Reeves has a track record of quality popcorn blockbusters (Cloverfield, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes). And it stinks that Birds of Prey, written (Christina Hodson) and directed (Cathy Yan) by women and starring an eclectic and diverse female-fronted cast in an against-the-grain comic book movie that didn’t rely on Batman and the Joker, didn’t break as big as hoped. But the last thing WB should do is panic or presume that the success of Joker and the (relative) failure of Birds of Prey mean more than the successes of Aquaman and the zeitgeist-capturing triumph of Wonder Woman. In the long game, Birds of Prey is still a winner.
Four years after Batman v Superman (which aged well as an Elseworld and was a painfully accurate predictor of the 2016 presidential election), DC Films is absolutely on relatively even artistic footing with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And commercially speaking, Birds of Prey and Avengers movies aside, I will argue they are getting closer in terms of commercial oomph. Captain Marvel ($1.128 billion with $154 million from China) and Spider-Man: Far from Home ($1.131 billion with $200 million from China) were about even with Aquaman ($1.148 billion with $298 million from China) and Joker ($1.071 billion with $0.00 million from China). Wonder Woman ($412.5 million domestic and $821 million worldwide) went toe-to-toe with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($389 million/$869 million), Spider-Man: Homecoming ($334 million/$880 million) and Thor: Ragnarok ($315 million/$854 million).
DC Films has, over seven years and nine movies found its most vital artistic successes by going against conventional wisdom in terms of what makes a viable comic book movie. They turned Aquaman (a cultural punchline) and Wonder Woman (a… woman!) into A-level movie stars and turned an action-lite grimdark drama into a $1 billion smash by making it about the Joker. It made sense to expect Birds of Prey to be at least as strong as Shazam! I can only hope that the R-rating, not the title, the marketing, or the absence of Will Smith or the Joker, was the thing that did the most damage. Nonetheless, Birds of Prey earned rave reviews, a surefire obsessive fan base and a likely long post-theatrical afterlife. That may not be a win, but it’s not quite a loss.