Things might be looking up for Harley Quinn in a post-Joker world, but her new movie is unfortunately singing the blues at the box office. That is one undeniable takeaway from this weekend’s box office estimates from Warner Bros., which puts the opening for Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn at a meager $33.3 million.
While those numbers do make Birds of Prey the highest grossing movie of the weekend, they’re also considerably down from what industry tracking suggested would be around a $50 million to $55 million debut, as well as below the rock bottom floor of expectations that WB tried to set for the superhero movie with a projection of $45 million. But Birds of Prey underperformed, beginning with its $4 million cume on Thursday night previews—well below the $12.7 million similarly themed R-rated Deadpool pulled off in 2016 or Warners’ own Joker, which bounced early with $13.3 million on Thursday night. Birds of Prey continued to struggle on Friday and perhaps, most frustrating, suffered a 5.7 percent decline in business from Friday to Saturday.
That last drop, usually reserved for movies with bad opening night word of mouth, is almost inexplicable given the film has a “B+” on CinemaScore, which while not enthusiastic suggests audiences by and large enjoyed the pic.
There is no easy way for the studio to spin these numbers, not least of all because it captured the entire industry by surprise. Given how well-loved Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was in 2016’s Suicide Squad—standing out as an instant pop culture icon despite the overall film’s divisiveness—a spinoff based on this star character seemed like a no-brainer. It also was buoyed by the visible passion Robbie had for the character, diving deep into Harley’s comic book and animated history to produce Birds of Prey under her LuckyChap banner.
While spinoffs rarely gross more than what they’re built from, Birds of Prey opening a literal hundred million dollars beneath Suicide Squad’s $133.6 million debut is stunning in all the wrong ways. For comparison, Universal Pictures’ Hobbs & Shaw earned a solid $60 million its opening weekend. That’s about 40 percent down from The Fate of the Furious’ $98.8 million debut, but in the same ballpark. Admittedly though, Birds of Prey is rated R whereas Suicide Squad was PG-13, but Deadpool did a similar R-rated spinoff trick on a popular (but little seen) character, and it grossed $132 million its first weekend. Fox’s Logan was also an R-rated superhero drama that opened to $88 million, albeit after nearly 20 years of big screen legacy for that character and actor.
There will be much speculation about why this opening was so low. In retrospect, the R rating likely did hurt the movie’s viability. While the aforementioned superhero movies were not hindered by their R-rating, nor was Joker which bowed at $96.2 million, Harley Quinn’s brand is more youthful skewing than at least Logan and how Todd Phillips reimagined the Joker character. Directed by Cathy Yan to be a joyous good time with a girl gang getting it done, more high schoolers who enjoy the character in theaters would’ve meant more money. Indeed, among the less than 10 percent of the audience made up of below 18-year-olds, the CinemaScore is at a much more glowing “A-.”
However, Deadpool is as equally an adolescent fantasy and drew in a much larger adult audience with its potty mouth humor. It is possible Birds of Prey was hurt by its title, which rarely used its full name in marketing to get to the end with “… and one Harley Quinn.” So general audiences may have been more confused about what this movie is about. The creative flourish might’ve cost the movie, as could have a marketing campaign that emphasized the chaos of Harley Quinn’s worldview. I enjoyed the trailers’ subversive streak, but they did not sell a story or cleanly state who the “Birds of Prey” are to the uninitiated. And perhaps this movie is just a victim of Suicide Squad’s own tainted cinematic history.
Either way, these numbers are a shame. Robbie put genuine creative passion in the project that is rare among superhero performers, and in addition to completely inhabiting the Harley Quinn persona, she also used the movie to provide a cornucopia of opportunities to other women both in front of and behind the camera, and diverse in age and ethnicity. She also commented in a fascinating way about her own place in movie history as a blonde “bombshell” (a word she loathes) seeking to change the paradigm, like Marilyn Monroe.
So that this movie is going to struggle to recoup its nest egg of an $84.5 million budget (not counting marketing costs) is a disappointment, for the studio and also fans of what Robbie and company were doing. I still hope her Harley one day crosses paths with Poison Ivy on screen…