In Retrospect: ‘Birds of Prey’ and the Un-Fantabulous Omission of One Cathy Yan

I don’t typically like to compare movies. Sure, most films of recent are either a reboot, sequel or adaptation. At the very least, they take reference from kind of source material. But some movies are more comparable than others, like Suicide Squad (2016) and The Suicide Squad (2021). However, aside from confusingly similar titles, a couple of returning players, and a similar world-saving plot, these two movies have almost nothing in common.

The comparisons truly arise when talking about the quality and reception of either film. The first adaptation of DC’s unlikely super team, directed by David Ayer, didn’t do so hot in the box office. And while it does hold a soft enough spot in some viewer’s hearts to warrant its guilty pleasure status, it didn’t exactly win over audiences either. The latest attempt at a live-action Suicide Squad film, directed by James Gunn, is doing better in the public eye. It has its naysayers, just like any movie, but it’s safe to say that Warner Bros’ hope for Gunn to usher in a fresher, more positive outlook at the future of the DCEU worked out.

Personally, I enjoyed The Suicide Squad. I have my issues with it, obviously, but overall it’s a pretty entertaining adaptation. It’s being lauded as a change of form for DC. The first successful R-rated comic book film from the studio that doesn’t hold back any punches and doesn’t sacrifice any of the tone found within the source material. Take that how you will, but either way, it isn’t entirely accurate.

While The Suicide Squad is a far cry from most of DC’s catalogue, it’s not the only black sheep in the barn. Of course, I’m talking about Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).

Directed by Cathy Yan, Birds of Prey follows Harley Quinn, everyone’s favorite psycho psychiatrist. Ready to embrace her newfound singledom and start anew, Harley encounters old frenemy Roman Sionis, who forcibly tasks her with retrieving his stolen goods. Together with the help of heroes The Huntress, Black Canary, Renee Montoya and Cassandra Cain, she faces off against Sionis and his goons, while discovering that she’s perfectly capable of being her own hero.

The film released in February of last year to mixed reviews, although the critical consensus is that it’s a fairly good movie. It’s got a 79% on Rotten Tomatoes, the review-aggregation website, and the audience score is just a number lower. Not a bad score overall, but it’s low when you look at the 91% The Suicide Squad received.

Like I said, I’m not trying to compare these films. But it is very hard to ignore how similar the two films are, and how differently they’ve been received by target audiences.

Why Isn’t Birds Of Prey More Popular?

There are a multitude of reasons why The Suicide Squad seems to be faring better in the public eye than Birds of Prey. After the team’s last venture into film left a questionable taste in the mouths of general audiences, people were clamoring for a different interpretation.

Gunn’s previous superhero films Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel proved that he was just the person to herald a new Suicide Squad film. So it’s not like it’s a surprise where the hype for The Suicide Squad is coming from.

But where was that hype when Yan’s Birds of Prey released? I’m making it sound like the movie didn’t receive praise of any kind prior to its release. That isn’t the case. Birds of Prey, like the comic book team it shares a namesake with, was a bit of an underdog before the film officially released. Unfortunately, that underdog status didn’t change much after the film came out.

Part of the reason why could be attributed to the confusing alteration of the title even after release. While Birds of Prey was the original title for the film, the longer title mentioned above has also been used in marketing. To make matters even more confusing for general audiences, a third title, Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey was used for marketing purposes. Having a recognizable character’s name at the beginning of the title, one touted as the breakout role of Suicide Squad, is a smart move. But by the time this third title was announced, it was already too late.

Birds of Prey released to an audience mostly comprised of people who either weren’t sure what it was, or mistook it for a sequel to Suicide Squad. Either way, people weren’t exactly rushing to the theater.

This led to a pretty bad start at the box office, and a fairly low run overall. But the box office doesn’t entirely determine whether a movie is bad, and BoP’s aforementioned RT scores (Along with a string of positive reviews) seem to suggest the opposite. Birds of Prey is a fun, action-packed, R-rated comedy with plenty of comic book goodness for fans of the genre to grab on to. It reimagines the DCEU’s Harley Quinn in a great way, liberating her from the unfit role of sidekick and succeeding in her emancipation from having to rely on other characters to have a narrative; something that The Suicide Squad is getting a lot of praise for.

But this isn’t me trying to convince you to go watch Birds of Prey. You absolutely should, especially with the hope that this isn’t the last time we see any of the characters introduced, but that’s entirely up to you. Birds of Prey does deserve more recognition as the pioneer of DC’s new direction in film, but it’s clear by the success of The Suicide Squad and the strong likelihood that Gunn will return to direct another movie for the studio soon that that ship has sailed. Of course, there’s always the chance that retrospective articles and the occasional Twitter trend will launch the film into cult status at least.

Regardless, Cathy Yan certainly deserves more. It’s unclear where the relationship between her and WB/DC stands. There have been so far no plans or announcements for a direct follow up to Birds of Prey. While a sequel may not happen, Yan has absolutely earned her keys to the kingdom. There’s plenty of room in the castle for her and Gunn, so hopefully we’ll get to see her unique vision shake the DCEU again in the foreseeable future.

Until then, if you are hoping to watch (or even re-watch) Birds of Prey, you can do so on HBO Max. The movie, along with both film adaptations of the Suicide Squad, is available for all subscribers on the platform. Though you’ll have to have the highest subscription model if you want to watch The Suicide Squad (2021).