The numbers are in for DC’s Birds of Prey; it turns out Margot Robbie’s first headline outing as the popular super villain Harley Quinn has performed below expectations, turning a disappointing (as far as comic book movies go) $145.2 million globally. As a result, the Twitter vultures are out to tear it down, gleefully (and predictably) adding the film to their lists of examples to post out any time they feel the need to argue why female-led comic book movies don’t work.(“$822 million and critical acclaim ….They just don’t work guys!”)
When the positive reviews started to come in, I was hopeful but the inevitable quickly happened. On one particular movie review site, which praised the film’s feminist message, the first comments underneath, from what I presume were male posters, though it was hard to be sure from their internet-complainer-starter-pack anonymous profile pictures, were: “Which means it’s horrible,” and an equally insightful, “Pass.” While there are several factors that could have contributed to the film’s box office score (marketing, the 15/R-rated certificate, for example), it doesn’t matter how well this film was received critically, those who had written it off before it had even hit theatres, will use those numbers to bolster their tired argument.(“And then I meta-bombed it without seeing it!”)
I don’t know why I was surprised. Look at last year’s Captain Marvel, Marvel studio’s first female-led movie. That film did incredibly well both critically and commercially and it was still met with this same attitude. Why? *Angry typing, ALL CAPS* Because Brie Larson hates men, of course! Larson’s actual crime was actively seeking out a more diverse panel for her press junkets after she had noticed they were heavily populated by white men. Still, it didn’t matter, the trolls heard what they wanted and started a crusade of negative review flooding before anyone had even had a chance to see it, taking part in the Photoshop equivalent of every woman’s favourite “Smile more, love!” catcall. So, it’s hardly a shock to see people choosing to snub Birds of Prey by complaining that the movie went out of its way to make Margot Robbie look “ugly” (Sorry but that is mathematically impossible).(Intelligent, talented and she knows the Fresh Prince of Bel Air intro rap!)
It’s a lingering problem and the studios themselves haven’t always helped. Take the upcoming Black Widow movie, for example. The project has been floating around since before the MCU began but as Marvel kicked off its first phase in 2008 with Iron Man, Thor, Captain Marvel and Hulk, the one female Avenger took a back seat. It’s only now after the character’s fateful encounter with the Soul Stone on Vormer that we’re getting a full movie to flesh out her back story. The delay in getting this project greenlit perhaps wasn’t helped by the sway of Marvel Entertainment chairman and former CEO Ike Perlmutter, who allegedly once sent an email to a Sony executive questioning the profitability of female superhero movies. Thankfully, with Marvel Studios current president Kevin Feige at the helm, that has quickly been turned around.
There’s evidence of female characters being deemed unprofitable and pushed out of the spotlight everywhere from kids toys to t shirts. Take a look through Marvel’s official merchandise and you’ll be hard pressed to find any examples with the superspy on it. This compelled me to do a quick scour of my own home for such items and I was annoyed to realise I had, just last week, hastily purchased an Avengers-themed gift bag which, on closer inspection, had forgotten to include its first female member. While it might not have much effect on the 33-year-old man it was intended for, who doesn’t bat an eyelid at seeing a woman with superpowers or capabilities because he’s A) not an idiot, and B) comfortable with his masculinity, it is a problem for the kids whose paths are being shaped by the blatant erasure of such characters.(“I mean for f**k sake!”)
While Birds of Prey may not have smashed the billion-dollar barrier last week, there is still immense value in putting female-led stories, written by women, directed by women, on the big screen. Yet, that doesn’t mean these films are only for women and perhaps that’s the messaging that needs to come through; just because a movie is about female friendship or has glitter on it doesn’t mean it’s just for girls. It was telling when I left the Birds of Prey screening last week, feeling like I could take on the world. My partner, a responsible male adult, thought the movie was great but we both took away different perspectives. For example, he hadn’t considered that the common overarching theme that brought these women together was that they had all been taken advantage of by some guy for whatever reason; coming together to fight Black Mask was the manifestation of all that. For me, a woman who has had her arse grabbed at work events and been talked over because I presumably didn’t know as much about video games or technology as my male colleagues, that notion hit me in the face like a pink bean bag coming out of a shot gun.
I realise I’m just another female writer weighing in on an exhausted conversation but the fact that we’re still having that conversation in the year 2020, makes it as relevant as ever. The likelihood is we’ll be having similar discussions come May when Black Widow makes her solo debut. Or I don’t know, maybe Gal Gadot will come out with a feminist statement ahead of Wonder Woman 1984 or be dragged for that time she said anyone who isn’t a feminist is sexist.
Admittedly, Black Widow film stands a better fighting chance than Birds of Prey; it’s got the Marvel formula after all which hasn’t failed so far and it will most likely have a friendlier certificate in line with the rest of the MCU in its favour. Still, at least the film finally exists. Though sometimes that fact alone can be enough to spark the angry mob. When it does, let’s have our glitter bombs at the ready.