The fallout from Birds of Prey’s underperformance at the box-office may have left many asking, what went wrong? However, some commentators like Jeff Bock, a box-office analyst with Exhibitor Relations, flatly state that Birds of Prey’s R-rating was perhaps the main reason for its lower than expected box-office numbers. Bock, speaking on the films’ low numbers said, “It wasn’t for the masses, it was a niche comic-book film.” Releasing the film with an R-rating obviously meant that huge swathes of younger Harley Quinn fans were automatically excluded from watching the film.
R-rated content seemed to be doing great. Logan and Deadpool proved that comic book properties with an R-rating could do well with audiences and rake in tons of cash at the box-office. This upsurge of success could not be better exemplified than with Joker. Its billion-dollar box-office performance seemed like the final seal of approval that R-rated comic-based movies are here to stay and could earn just as much as most PG-13 films.
Den of Geek’s Rob Leane points out that film studios have been making R-rated comic book adaptations for decades. Leane highlights Fritz The Cat (1972) and Conan The Barbarian (1982) as early examples of R-rated comic-based films. These films, while successful, usually had a glass ceiling, never crossing over the 500-million-dollar mark. Logan, Deadpool and Joker changed that and took R-rated properties into the stratosphere with both films becoming the two highest R-rated comic book films until Joker.
Birds of Prey debuted with a $33 million in North America.
The yellow brick road to R-rated success was open for business and Birds of Prey seemed primed to reap the rewards. However, Birds of Prey debuted with a $33 million in North America despite estimates of an already modest $45 million opening. While internationally it opened below expectations with $48 million for a total opening of $81 million. According to Variety, the film will need to gross $250-300 million worldwide to break even. As of February 25th 2020 it has a worldwide total of only $174.8 million.
Brian Lowry writing for CNN states that, “for many comic-book fans, R-rated movies on favourite characters are a badge of honour-proof that Hollywood is taking these properties seriously and treating them in a grown-up way, after a past that included plenty of campy abuse.” He also warns that the push for R-rated films is filled with pitfalls and cites the failure of recent R-rated films like Hellboy and Brightburn as examples. Comic book adaptions often have high production and marketing costs and need to be released to a wide audience to make a profit. R-ratings limit the audience and older viewers, who are often pickier and more selective than younger audiences, do not always flock to just any release.
So while Joker made R-rating cooler than ever, Birds of Prey and the other lesser-known failures like Hellboy, came like a splash of cold water on the push for R-ratings. Studios and fans should be wary of wanting an R-rating on comic book properties. Each character and their story have to be evaluated on merit before deciding who and what gets an R-rating. Considering Harley Quinn had such a large young fanbase it was foolish to restrict the film in the first place. Joker had a seemingly older fanbase which was ready and willing to come out in large numbers to support the film. Both Joker and Birds of Prey had high critical praise but without Quinn’s young adoring fans to bolster the film it fell below expectations. Younger fans are often accompanied by parents or older family members which swell audience numbers considerably.
Despite the success of previous R-rated comic films their high earning should be seen as the exception to the rule. As mentioned earlier, these films are a niche market with low to modest box office numbers, examples like Blade, Constantine etc. usually make $100 to $250 million, tops. If the production and marketing costs are kept low, those figures are seen as a success. R-rated films with higher budgets have to walk a tight rope and a restricted audience only makes success all the more elusive. Time will tell if R-rated comic book films become more numerous or if Bird’s of Prey was the catalyst to halt the push for R-rated properties.