isogynists in movies are often extreme: They rape, they beat women…and it is legitimate to represent people like that because they exist and they are obviously the worst. But, in the ‘Birds of Prey’ dialogue, there is always a hint of everyday misogyny, of those things you say as a man you do not even realize: mansplaining. I found that brilliant.”
This is how Ewan McGregor described his first impressions of the Birds of Prey screenplay when he spoke to Premiere in an interview published Oct. 3, 2019, almost a half-year before the movie was set to be released. Fast forward to Jan. 24, and McGregor delivered a damn near indistinguishable quote to the Associated Press.
“We were both really proud,” McGregor said, speaking for co-star Chris Messina, “to be involved in a film that was a feminist film that tackled misogyny.”
I’m not pulling some sort of “gotcha” on the Trainspotting star by noting the similarities in these responses. Rather, the near identical quotes illustrate a pointed, calculated trend in modern movie marketing. Namely: It has become more and more politicized in the post-#MeToo Hollywood era.
The busy-bodies slaving away in studio marketing departments believe they can sell these sorts of progressive-minded entertainments to the hot take-happy denizens demanding more onscreen representation and a greater awareness of today’s hot-button issues. In this case, McGregor is no doubt fulfilling a contractual obligation by spouting just what those audiences want to hear about their post-Bro Joker girl-power, comic-book diversion. After all, that’s what actors are supposed to do (besides, you know, act): sell the damn film so that they can make more.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, just one that seems to have intensified in recent years. Take David Gordon Green and Danny McBride’s 2018 Halloween sequel for example. When this writer was working the Comic-Con beat, I sat in on a roundtable with director Green, genre mega-producer Jason Blum, and Laurie Strode herself, Jamie Lee Curtis. As an avid fan of the franchise, I already knew Blumhouse/Universal was selling this direct sequel to Carpenter’s classic as a sort of a “survivor’s spin” on slasher filmmaking, so it made sense that the boys in this club let Curtis take the lead (as McBride once said to me: “She’s the queen, man”).
In my own reporting, I relayed Curtis’ quotes back to readers via a brief hype piece, zeroing in on the message delivered* by the finest Final Girl who ever lived:
“What we're seeing today is all these women who have been beaten, battered, raped ... have all found the voice to say 'no more.' It's interesting to me that this movie coincides with that wellspring of empowerment and understanding. Laurie Strode was a 17-year-old high school student that nobody ever paid any attention to, and now she is demanding a moment. That's who we need 40 years later. It's powerful."
One problem: None of this was in Halloween. At least, not in the version this writer saw at Fantastic Fest, little more than two months after I was sitting in that San Diego hotel ballroom. Sure, the first 20 or so minutes presented Laurie as haunted to the point of obsession by Shatner-masked murderer Michael Myers (no longer her brother, rather returned to being a Shape of nebulous evil). She even goes as far as to sit outside the prison while Michael’s being transferred, drinking airplane bottles of booze while gripping a revolver. Yet all that fades away into a Rough House update on The Babysitter Murders, as Laurie’s teen granddaughter (Andi Matichak) parties with friends before being stalked by the iconic maniac, who returns to Haddonfield for … reasons. It was a mess, lacking any real thematic core: a production saddled with (confirmed) rumors of an alternate ending that hit much harder (Michael kills Laurie in the end), but was pulled because it tanked in test screenings. The fix was in, quite literally.
Yet no level of disappointment could prepare me for what came next. During the post-screening Q&A, Curtis spat that same quote back to an audience member near verbatim, despite it not really having anything to do with the question. At that point, I walked out of the theater, feeling bamboozled by a few of my idols, disappointed in not only them, but also myself for letting their hucksterism get the best of what remained of my naiveté. It felt as if it were some sort of uninspired scam, canned sound bites to correspond with trailers that promised a cathartic comeuppance for Ms. Strode, when really all we got was this janky horror Home Alone highlight.
Unfortunately, the movie that Curtis described seemed to be the one that was reviewed by some, as a selection of film writers hailed it for being a “thrilling feminist frolic” (HuffPost) where “[Michael Myers] can also be seen as an embodiment of the patriarchy” (Mashable). Was this an instance of marketing pulling the wool over a few writers’ eyes? Or had I genuinely missed the intellectually deeper body-count sequel during my first watch (not to mention four subsequent viewings)? Anything’s possible, as these takes were backed by boffo box office, so this new Halloween was clearly landing with audiences. But it also seemed like a strange case of folks seeing the movie they wanted to see (and, to be fair, were promised by its principal creatives), as opposed to the picture that unspooled in front of them**; a pre-penned narrative that was shepherded by movie stars doing a better job off the screen than on.
To be frank, I blame Ghostbusters, or, more accurately, the ruckus that Bridesmaids bachelorette comedy auteur Paul Feig’s generic attempt at rebooting that fabled franchise stirred up. Incensed that their beloved ectoplasm-covered scientists were suddenly being fitted for breasts and periods (oh no, how could you?), an online campaign originating from the shadier corners of Reddit decimated the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes audience score. It didn’t matter that the movie was total junk and probably would have made even less than its $128 million domestic take (which was just short of its $144 mil budget) had they just left well enough alone. This meant war, and even if you were a relatively well-adjusted male goof who just didn’t like Ghostbusters — which, again, was not good — you, too, were instantly labeled a lady-hater in the Film Twitter ecosphere. So, it was best to just sit there and keep those opinions to yourself, lest you get lumped in with the Reddit bros. This, too, shall pass.
Revenge for this pathetic operation came the very next year in the form of Wonder Woman – Patty Jenkins’ DC mega-smash that utterly pulverized the box office, inspiring controversial “women only” screenings, as well as new criticisms of the movie’s detractors. “This movie wasn’t made for you,” they’d insist, even if you thought the middling superhero jaunt was “just fine, I guess.” Feminist defenders of the movie were quick to highlight the now-famous thigh jiggle as the moment Jenkins’ movie reduced them to a puddle of elemental femininity. In fairness, maybe Jenkins was right when she publicly scolded James Cameron? Maybe Wonder Woman — despite being a four-quadrant $200 million budgeted tent pole — was, in fact, beyond my comprehension as a man.
I couldn’t accept this exclusionary notion when it came to Halloween. I’m not only the “target audience” for that picture, but practically Patient Fucking Zero. After all, Halloween was the movie that literally inspired my own love of movies, as I first watched it at far too young an age from beneath my parents’ bed while the rest of my neighborhood gathered for drinks in our family’s oversized dining room downstairs. This parental pacification led to me becoming obsessed with everything horror and, almost 30 years later, I couldn’t wait to see what an updated Laurie Strode looked like, battling against the evils of a Weinstein-tinged patriarchy.
Hopefully, you understand my trepidation when it came time to sit down with Birds of Prey (or, the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), a movie that was being touted as another socially “important” popcorn picture by its creators. Not only was I having Halloween flashbacks as I settled into the uncomfortable chair at my press screening, I also had to push out the toxic memories of Captain Marvel, another movie that was anointed some sort of spandex-donning Norma Rae, courtesy of star Brie Larson stating that simply appearing in the title role was “her form of activism” (as opposed to the routinely plastic piece of MCU product it truly was). Please God, I thought right before Birds began, can I at least be allowed to Tweet my honest feelings about this one without fear of being ratioed back into the Stone Age?
So, color me surprised that Birds of Prey worked as well as it did for this action-movie connoisseur. The candy-colored 109-minute blast of tongue-in-cheek mayhem will (rightfully) earn Deadpool comparisons for its too-clever 30-minute extended intro — which includes everything from an animated sequence detailing Harley’s (Robbie) break-up with “Mr. J,” to goofy narration about breakfast sandwiches amidst its chopped and screwed chronology — before settling into a girl-gang melee of gleefully R-rated violence, aided in no small part by choreography from John Wick mastermind Chad Stahelski. Hollywood newcomer Cathy Yan brings the same Hong Kong influence she did to her first feature, Dead Pigs***, bathing numerous scenes in neon hues as Harley teams up with the cross-bow wielding Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), deadly vocalist Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and dogged beat cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) for the DC equivalent of a Jack Hill exploitation empowerment picture.
To wit, it’s a total fucking hoot and well worth your money.
Possibly more impressive than the violence is the fact that Prey actually proves McGregor — who plays the movie’s hyper-privileged rich boy villain, Roman Sionis (aka Black Mask) — isn’t completely full of shit. Every one of the Birds experiences some form of casual or aggressive mistreatment from their male counterparts: from Harley almost getting raped after a drunken night out, to Montoya’s top cop getting passed over for promotion by a man, to Dinah being ordered around by Sionis’ right hand, face-collecting serial-killer lover, Victor Zsasz (a bananas loco Chris Messina). It’s not text so much as subtext, to the point that Roman vocalizes agitation when his presumed female “possessions” won’t obey his every command. The coolest part? None of this progressive grandstanding gets in the way of the movie being a blast.
About a week ago, the LA Times ran a piece detailing how Margot Robbie and Cathy Yan emancipated Harley Quinn from the Joker’s clutches in Birds of Prey. Ostensibly a profile of Robbie, there’s a curious level of commitment to “cancelling” Jared Leto’s Suicide Squad Joker. Illustrating conceptual meetings in which Robbie (who also acts as an executive producer on Prey) initially met with screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) over an exceptionally girly-girl day of mimosas and brunch, the piece reads like a doubling down on McGregor’s comments from last year, pounding the notion of extreme femininity into the reader (and, presumably, future viewer’s) head before they even see a frame of the film.
But why was this necessary, especially when the movie itself is so thematically fortified? Perhaps it’s because that’s just how many movies (particularly these marquee seasonal blockbusters) are going to be pushed until the end of time: with an “issues first” emphasis on how audiences can perceive them as necessary to the dreaded cultural discourse. You can’t just enjoy a superhero or horror film now, it has to have “meaning” or be “elevated” in some fashion, via a narrative that’s pre-written and parroted in public by both fans and select film critics alike****.
Unfortunately for Robbie and the rest of the Birds, it looks like their efforts worked better with critics — as the movie sits at 80% on Rotten Tomatoes — than with audiences. The opening weekend domestic box office places Yan’s picture at $33 million, a full $20 mil less than its forecast (with an $81 mil worldwide total). It’s the worst opening in the rebooted DC Universe, by far. Could this be a result of audience “fatigue” regarding these popcorn flicks being preemptively assigned cultural significance in the weeks leading up to their release? Possibly. Is Prey’s hard R-rating keeping a younger female fanbase from buying tickets? There’s definitely a chance. Or is it because Harley Quinn is viewed by the majority of folks as being a better supporting player than lead? Sure, but that opens up further societal inquiries.
The most likely answer to the movie’s tepid drop: a combination of all of the above. One thing’s for certain, the movie didn’t come up short because its characters aren’t “sexy” enough, as is the contention of some detractors and fans alike, the latter of whom are already concocting a loose movie-bro conspiracy revolving around many of the same perma-virgins who targeted Feig’s Ghostbusters. However, with an attendance that skewed 53% male, a B+ CinemaScore, and an 83% audience poll on RT, it feels safe to assume most who actually sat down with this feminist free-for-all left satisfied (pun 100% intended). In short: The issue seems to have been marketing, not the movie.
It bears repeating that a “representation forward” pitch isn’t some sort of new sales tactic. However, what is new is the way in which it seems like one major release a month is transformed into a proverbial hill to die upon. In turn, movies become a sort of sociopolitical brand. Lines are drawn in the digital sand on social media, and if you say the wrong thing about a Wonder Woman or Birds of Prey (or Joker), boy, your mentions are gonna suffer the plague of a thousand randos (and, in the professional sphere, colleagues), letting you know just how wrong you’re living this life. It’s just another way — along with political affiliations and opinions on movie theater candy — in which we’ve become tribal and binary.
Meanwhile, the issues these movies supposedly tackle are merely kindling for argumentative fire, while ticket sales soar and multinational corporations rack up profits from progressives eager to pick a side. It isn’t about “feminism” or “PTSD” or adopting empathy for those who aren’t like us, but rather getting asses in seats and the discourse to flow online, a crass co-opting of the things you might actually care about, now cheapened by some boardroom approved, focus group-tested narrative that’s bull-horned by the beautiful folks you love the most.
But hey, that’s life in the movie business, isn’t it?
*For another iteration of Curtis’ feminist talking points, check out this Variety video.
**For further adventures in controversial slasher marketing, see fellow Rebeller columnist Joe Bob Briggs’ ruminations on how he landed in hot water over his opinions on the Black Christmas remake.
***Side note: it’s a crime this movie doesn’t have American distribution, regardless of the obvious challenges regarding its commercial appeal. Imagine a dark ensemble comedy cross between Johnnie To and Robert Altman set in the various economic levels of Shanghai (complete with a karaoke sing-along sequence) and you’re pretty much there.
****For a more male-focused version of this sort of incentivized pulp importance, look to Joker’s recent Oscar run, which began with winning Venice’s Golden Lion, and includes a “non-troversy” about how the movie might inspire violence (gah) in those same review-bombing troglodytes who hated Ghostbusters.
Jacob Knight is a film writer based in Austin, Texas, whose work has appeared in several publications and who has spent more time watching action and exploitation movies than any human being probably should.