Holy unnecessary backlash, Batman! After months of filming, the movie “Birds of Prey,” was released Feb. 7, and the culmination of weeks of drama began to play out online.
The movie, previously titled “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” and now simplified to “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey,” follows anti-hero Harley’s escapades in Gotham following her break up with the Joker. Although the movie was primarily focused on Margot Robbie’s Harley, the rest of the main cast was made up of women as well. The Birds of Prey also include Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Rosie Perez as Detective Montoya and Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain. Harley was the team’s de facto leader, even though she was never considered an official member of the Birds of Prey prior to the release of the film. A fan favorite, Harley Quinn’s mounting popularity was what got this movie the green light in the first place. Harley has been popular since her introduction 28 years ago (which is actually a short amount of time considering the fact that Batman and Joker have been around since the 1940s).
Harley Quinn is often portrayed in a tragic light. The former-certified psychiatrist, who then becomes the Joker’s accomplice/girlfriend, often faces abuse at the hands of the villain. However, in recent years, she’s been portrayed as an anti-hero who eventually leaves the Joker and makes a name for herself.
When the movie was first announced, many fans were reluctant to support it. Especially considering the fact that it was a sort-of sequel to the infamous “Suicide Squad.” “Suicide Squad” followed Harley and other villains running a suicide mission on behalf of the U.S. government. But in that movie, Harley’s character was watered down to just being the Joker’s hot girlfriend. Many fans were skeptical, especially considering the romanticization of Joker and Harley’s abusive relationship in “Suicide Squad”.
Then it was revealed that “Birds of Prey” would be portraying Harley’s life post-breakup with the Joker, and suddenly fans were more open to the film’s concept. When the trailer for “Birds of Prey” dropped, many Harley Quinn fans were overjoyed. One fan even went through the trouble of comparing shots of Margot Robbie’s character in “Birds of Prey” to shots of her in “Suicide Squad,” and this comparison highlighted just how oversexualized her character was in “Suicide Squad” and just how normal she seemed in “Birds of Prey.” Well, as normal as Harley Quinn can be.
While this change delighted many fans, others were upset to a somewhat disturbing degree. One user on Twitter complained that “if DC put as much time into the script as they did making Margo Robbie unattractive, BOP would have been great.” The Tweet included a hypersexualized drawing of Harley Quinn with the caption “Hoped for this”, alongside a picture of Margot on set, captioned “But ended up with this…”
In general, most of the backlash against the film came from male fans who were against this new version of Harley Quinn. As I read Tweets, YouTube comments and various other social media posts, I came to the conclusion that the majority of comments against the movie all shared an idea. This idea being that by not sexualizing Harley Quinn, the creators of the film would isolate the franchise’s “base”. For those of you unfamiliar with the comic book movie fandoms, when they say “base,” they are referring to straight white men.
Already upset with the portrayal of Harley in “Birds of Prey,” fans of the DC universe decided to direct their energy towards nitpicking at various parts of the film and making an issue out of a non-issue. Like, where was Batman? Why wasn’t he there? Maybe he was in outer space with Superman, trying to blow up another meteor. Or maybe he teamed up with Zatanna to fight another supernatural plague. The man can only do so much. Is it truly something to be mad about though?
But the hate toward the script never seemed to be the main source of anger from the majority of those against the action flick. The conversation would always wind its way back to the outfits worn by the women in the movie. And some of these fans truly seem to think that Margot’s choice in outfits were ugly. I have to respectfully disagree; I found her outfits to be delightful. It’s important to note that Robbie wasn’t the only star to face anger over the clothing chosen for her character. Smollett-Bell and Winstead also faced some of this anger, since their outfits were also less sexualized than their comic book counterparts. The belief is that “Birds of Prey” isn’t being true to the comic book versions of the characters. But the problem with that is that women have been criticizing the comics for hypersexualizing female characters for years. If anything, “BoP” addressed that critique by having characters who are engaged in combat by being dressed more realistically than their comic book counterparts.
The online drama took a rather bizarre turn, with the fans who were against the movie suddenly dragging the new Sonic movie into the mix. “Sonic the Hedgehog” has dominated the box office since its release, whereas “Birds of Prey” was neither a smash hit nor a flop. But for some reason, certain people regarded the two films as if they were in competition. Comparing the two is like comparing apples to oranges. “Birds of Prey” is an R-rated niche comic book film that targets female comic book fans, while “Sonic the Hedgehog” is a movie about a beloved pop culture mascot and targets families and kids. It is unreasonable that some use the success of Sonic seems to demonstrate that “Birds of Prey” is a flop. The movie made its budget back during its opening weekend, so in technical terms, it isn’t a flop. A smash hit? No. A box office bomb? Also no. But why is that?
“BoP” is a movie written, directed and produced by women — including Robbie, who was very involved with the movie’s creation. It’s not a reach to say that the targeted audience was women. Of course, that’s not to say that men cannot watch and enjoy the film. Director Cathy Yan even stated in an interview that she hoped that the movie wouldn’t alienate men. “It had to be fun for everyone, and enjoyable. I don’t think we were too vicious or antagonistic or aggressive in anyway. We don’t want it to be alienating; that doesn’t serve us.”
But that doesn’t change the fact that this film was made with women in mind, with its non-sexualized costume designs to the complex female characters and even a soundtrack that boasts an array of talented female artists. The film is essentially devoid of the male gaze. As the industry begins to understand that they can indeed produce films for their female audiences that aren’t rom-coms, more and more movies like “BoP” will roll out.
In fact, this outrage isn’t even new. On the other side of the aisle, “Captain Marvel,” which stars Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson, also garnered a lot of hate. Similarly, fans voiced outrage at Larson’s non-sexualized uniform. In fact, fans were so mad about Marvel’s first movie with a female lead that they tried to “review bomb” the movie online, which means flooding the movie with bad audience reviews and ratings. This is especially ridiculous, considering “Captain Marvel” made over a billion dollars at the box office, making it the definition of a hit.
The fact of the matter is that the movie industry is recognizing its female audience, and it’s working to grow expand its audience to include more women. And they’re working to give that audience what they want: realistic and complex characters. I hope that as new superhero movies with female leads roll out over the next few years, the backlash will slowly sputter out of steam, and we won’t have to deal with unnecessary outrage every single time.