The first major comic book movie of 2020 opened in first place over the weekend. That’s no surprise, but what is shocking is how low the attendance was for that movie. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) managed to top the box office while selling only about 3.5 million tickets over its first three days (plus Thursday night previews) playing in North America. For those who need the optics of its domestic gross, that’s just $33.3 million.
That is the worst debut for any movie in the DC Extended Universe and the worst DC Comics adaptation from Warner Bros. (who are not having a good track record of late) since Jonah Hex almost a decade ago. At least it performed better than Catwoman. And Supergirl. But at a reported $84.5 million, Birds of Prey also cost less than most of the current era of DC movies and might just barely break even through its worldwide take (already at $81.3 million, only about half of which goes to the studio).
Why did the movie do so poorly? Maybe the studio should have spent a little more on advertising. One thing Warner Bros. could have done is to promote Birds of Prey further in advance. The studio held the movie from most of the nation’s critics until the last minute and even after positive buzz from junket press one week earlier, they kept the review embargo until a day before release. They must not have expected the reception to be among the franchise’s most positive in recent years.
They could have also anticipated that public word of mouth would be worse than critical appreciation. Fans going to see Birds of Prey on opening night gave the movie a B+ grade via Cinemascore polling, and that’s not the greatest for a superhero comic book movie with a built-in audience. That’s the grade given to Justice League and Suicide Squad, the latter of which spun off the latest DCEU title. At least moviegoers liked it more than Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Birds of Prey was also already tracking to have the franchise’s lowest debut with a much more substantial figure. Back in December, Box Office Pro predicted the movie would gross at least $49 million, which would have still put it just below Shazam!, with a forecast range of $40-60 million. Last week, the site lowered their bet to $42 million, but that was still almost $10 million over the actual opening domestic gross. So it underperformed compared to rather lowball expectations.
At least DC and Warner Bros. had a good weekend on another level. Their non-DCEU DC-based comic book movie Joker (which also earned a B+ via Cinemascore) won two Academy Awards on Sunday night (the ceremony of which was only watched by a record-low of 23.6 million people, to put the audience into perspective). One went to Hildur Guðnadóttir, who became only the third woman composer to win for Best Original Score. The other went to Joaquin Phoenix, who is now the second actor to win an Oscar for his portrayal of the Joker character. The first to do so in the lead acting category, though.
Phoenix made history for not just his character or franchise but for the whole superhero comic book movie genre. He’s the first person to win Best Actor (or either lead acting category) at the Oscars for any kind of comic book adaptation actually. He’s also the first person to win a lead acting Oscar for a movie that grossed more than a billion dollars worldwide (Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning supporting performance as the Joker also exceeded that milestone with The Dark Knight in 2008).
And speaking of that figure, considering that movie grossed that much with a budget even lower than that of Birds of Prey, DC and Warner Bros. shouldn’t be too concerned about their latest release disappointing. Especially since Birds of Prey is hardly a disaster. So what if it didn’t fly as high as we wanted it to. It’s a bummer that we’re not likely to see desired spinoffs or a sequel. But we will get more of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in some capacity in next year’s The Suicide Squad.
Besides, the next DCEU movie, Wonder Woman 1984, arrives in just four months, and it’s going to make a ton of money. It’s also directed by a woman and led by a female superhero, so we’ll be able to move forward from any claims that this was Cathy Yan or the cast’s fault (Marvel’s Black Widow comes out a month earlier with the same distinction, too). Meanwhile, Birds of Prey exists, it’s very entertaining, and it will continue to be such for years. Watch it whenever you get a chance.