As positive reviews for DC and WB’s Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) pour in and Joker basks in the glow of eleven Oscar nominations (and over $1 billion in box office sales), it’s impossible not to see all the facepaint, high pitch laughs, and — most importantly — standalone nature of each film and think, “dang, these weird movies are doing something right.”
The “something right” appears to be simultaneously emulating the Marvel model and rejecting it entirely.
At the time of writing this piece, Birds of Prey stood at an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with 111 counted reviews. Christy Lemire of RogerEbert.com writes, “By detailing the character’s origin story and establishing her own franchise, director Cathy Yan pulls off the tricky feat of blending elaborate action sequences with compelling character development.”
Lemire, intentionally or not, describes Birds of Prey in the exact terms we tend to use to lionize movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Elaborate action sequences with compelling character development” is the backbone of every Marvel movie. However, where Birds of Prey and its latest DC contemporaries obviously differ is that they aren’t tied into two dozen other movies in a contiguous timeline. Or any cinematic timeline at all, really.
While DC introduced Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in 2016’s widely-panned Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey is presented as a literal emancipation for the character (from Jared Leto’s Joker) and the movie itself from the universe Suicide Squad initially hoped to spawn. DC has already committed to rebooting Suicide Squad in 2021 with a partially overhauled cast, and it’s unclear how or if it will tie into a larger DC Expanded Universe and marquee characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and The Flash.
Following Joker‘s critical acclaim and massive worldwide box office gross, and signs of another round success for Birds of Prey, DC is having its cake and eating it too.
On the one hand, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Justice League, and the upcoming Wonder Woman 1984, Aquaman 2, and The Flash (which is apparently still coming), the DCEU is managing to tell an MCU-esque multi-film epic about this world’s heroes.
On the other, with films like Joker, Birds of Prey, Shazam!, and an already renewed, upcoming version of The Batman starring Robert Pattison, DC is also telling interesting stories about off-the-cuff characters who have no tangible connection to the DCEU at all. And in fact, even those mega franchises (and their mega characters) seem to be tenuously untying themselves from the broader cinematic continuity. It’s every DC film franchise for itself these days, it seems. And it’s working.
Untying from the cinematic universe approach lets DC take greater risks (and make more movies) while still raking in the box office dough and confronting more provocative topics. Joker dealt heavily with mental illness, Birds of Prey stars an all-female supervillain troupe, Shazam! is practically a kids’ movie, and Aquaman spinoff The Trench is being billed as a deep-sea horror movie.
These are comic book movies that don’t shy away from the inherent weirdness of comics.
Until 2008’s Iron Man, there was no designated playbook on how to make comic book movies succeed longterm. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s extremely ambitious, multi-phase strategy redefined the superhero genre and entertainment itself.
But nobody ever said that was the only way to make these kinds of movies. While DC has walked the line with its heroes, creating its own Expanded Universe, its greatest critical successes to date have come from its villains, weirdos, and self-contained franchises. And that’s OK, too.
With more of those films to come, the future finally looks bright for DC.
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