Birds of Prey is an interesting case study in critical reception versus box office performance. It was very good in one and pretty bad in the other. The story of Harley Quinn and her band of vigilantes had all the hallmarks of what should have made a hit film, but it definitely fell short. And recently, director Cathy Yan admitted that the movie didn’t exactly match her original vision or final style. She talks about how the studio maybe had exerted a certain amount of creative control over the project, diverging it from the original style more than a little bit.
In the interview, Yan talks about the process of working on a big-budget film and how the studio (in this case DC Films and Warner Bros.) wanted to be a bigger part of the final process than she originally expected. While she was conciliatory around this in retrospect, it’s easy to see that Yan is trying to explain why Birds of Prey might be much different than the movie she first put in the can. Here’s the extended quote about the process.
“I think when you’re dealing with a budget like Birds of Prey had and the sort of pressures of a studio, especially a studio that is undergoing a lot of change, inevitably you end up having to compromise and fight for stuff. And you win some and you lose a lot. It’s just kind of how it is. I would have loved to have more control over the edit. But that’s just kind of how it is. I don’t know if there’s a Cathy Yan cut out there, but I think for any filmmaker, all of us are in it because we want to express ourselves as wholly as possible. And to match what you ultimately see on screen with what’s in our head.”
Some of what Cathy Yan is referencing in the Birds of Prey edits and changes is likely the studio bringing in Chad Stahelski to do reshoots on the action scenes in the film. This film had been Yan’s first big-budget film and her other work didn’t have much of an action vibe. It stands to reason the studio saw real problems with those action sets and needed to have a more experienced eye come in to take over. It’s unclear if those reshoots did, in fact, alter some of the overall direction of the film, though Yan does at least appear understanding.
Unfortunately though, DC doesn’t have the best track record with this kind of thing. And Birds of Prey isn’t the only film in their stable where changes went through after the first go-around. Of course we are about to see one of the mea culpas soon with Zack Snyder’s Justice League hitting HBO Max in the next month. That will come after his original vision was altered in the Joss Whedon version.
Birds of Prey was a critical hit with reviews trending overwhelmingly positive. It’s sitting at 78% on the Tomatometer and critics praised both the tone of the film and the starring role by Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. It’s just a good film, carrying over some classic comic book ideas, while also offering a style and tone that was refreshing in an increasingly crowded genre.
Where Birds of Prey fell down was at the box office. It was a borderline disaster, barely scraping over $200 million on the roughly $100 million budget. For what was supposed to be a late-winter season blockbuster, the film well short. It struggled to find an audience with an R rating, putting it into something like purgatory in terms of the core audience. It doesn’t appear Yan is blaming the lack of box office dollars on the studio, though one has to wonder if her original movie would have found a wider audience.
Whatever the reason, it doesn’t appear we will get a chance at redemption around these storylines. Birds of Prey 2 is officially not happening with the studio not interested in running back a new story. We should still see the characters in future DC works, but in terms of this collection, we aren’t going to get a follow-up. One has to wonder if this would have been the case if Cathy Yan had retained full creative control.