For years it’s been rumored, and now it looks like it’s finally happening: DC’s Birds of Prey are getting a movie. Boasting an impressive cast and a promising new director and writer, the all-women superhero team that originally appeared in 1996 will make their move to the big screen, albeit in a movie starring Black Canary and Huntress, but no Oracle. Also, Renee Montoya, Cassandra Cain, and (of all people) Harley Quinn are also there. Oh, and also it’s going to be rated R.
Yeah, I’m just gonna come out and say it, I don’t think that last part is a good idea.
How Might the Movie Benefit?
I want to give the movie the benefit of the doubt here, so in a show of good faith let’s look at how the movie might potentially benefit from the higher rating, and to that end we have a couple recent examples of critically and financially successful superhero movies operating with an R rating: Deadpool and its sequel and Logan. It’s important, then to analyze why these movies worked.
To start with, the R rating fits the characters in question. Deadpool is a mercenary, Wolverine’s superpower is stabbing, both characters have healing factors; to illustrate these aspects of both characters, higher levels of violence are warranted. This also works thematically; the plot of Logan concerns itself with a little girl with Wolverine’s powers being honed into a weapon, and the juxtaposition of innocent little girl and ultra violence is meant to evoke a disturbing sensation that condemns the violence the movie is depicting. Deadpool, on the other hand, is an irreverent comedy that uses its envelope pushing sense of humor to satirize but also ultimately improve upon existing superhero tropes and formulas. Knowing this, what is Birds of Prey likely to do with its R rated content?
Of particular note, I suspect Harley Quinn, Huntress, and Cassandra Cain are the characters most likely to be meant to benefit from the higher rating. DC has spent the last couple years slowly positioning Harley as their version of Deadpool, including both cartoonish violence and irreverent, fourth-wall breaking humor; allowing Quinn to fully engage in this behavior in a live action property gives her more freedom to do what she can with it, and considering Deadpool’s success, this can potentially work for her. Huntress’ arc traditionally involves her starting as a traumatized, brutal vigilante before overcoming personal issues and ultimately becoming a more effective, and less violent, superhero; unflinchingly depicting the acts of violence that formed her and that she later commits can potentially bring weight to her arc. Cassandra Cain is a young woman who finds herself being honed into a weapon, and casting indicates she will be younger in the film than in the comic books; the juxtaposition of innocent little girl and ultra violence could be meant to evoke a disturbing sensation that condemns the violence the movie would be depicting.
The problem is that no one of these plots can really be the main plot of this film; this is an ensemble team up movie, so the themes related to any one character are not the only themes the movie is presenting. Huntress and Cassandra’s arcs involving young women transformed by violence could easily go hand in hand, and, under the right circumstances, Harley’s backstory could be used to play into this as well. But imagine if the movie attempts to condemn violence in Huntress and Cassandra’s storylines while also allowing Harley Quinn to gleefully engage in wanton brutality. Imagine if Harley is used effectively in this film to demonstrate the problems inherent to her level of violence, and then goes off to feature in Suicide Squad 2 where she goes right back to being the crazy clown girl beating bad guys with a baseball bat and it’s presented as funny and awesome. Considering the multiple narrative threads at play even in just this film alone, the possibility of one thread undermining the others is greatly increased by the movie’s ability to play with harder, more violent content, content which is played just as frequently for laughs and entertainment as it is a sober depiction of human suffering.
Also, I will point out the ease with which the film’s versions of these characters can seem to mirror recent examples of R rated superhero movies, in a way that feels less like similar themes and more like outright copying. It isn’t just that they’re similar characters, it’s that the similarities represent changes made to the existing characters. Harley hasn’t always been a fourth-wall breaking satirical character, she began as a tragic villain representing the cycle of abuse in unhealthy relationships; DC’s work with her in recent years has transformed her from what she was created as to something much closer to Marvel’s Deadpool. Cassandra Cain was originally a young adult at the time of her origin story happening, but the Birds of Prey film’s casting has been leaning towards the 12-13 range, which feels like a purposeful move to make the character feel closer to Laura of Logan.
My point is that this bears all the marks of Warner Bros. recent trend of trying to make their DC films imitate the successes of other superhero movies while not understanding what made those movies work. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel mimicked the tone and aesthetic of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, despite the major differences between Superman and Batman as characters. Suicide Squad was clearly attempting to mimic the style of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, despite the fact that the source material for the films were incredibly different and that of all the superhero properties out there, Suicide Squad is possibly the most appropriate for the dark-and-gritty aesthetic over the neon cartoon of Guardians. The reactions to all these films has ranged from mixed to downright dreadful. While there will always be a tendency among comic book properties to cover similar ground, these are all instances of material being changed to feel more like something else, and the changes made to the characters in the Birds of Prey movie speak once more to this ill-advised trend. What works for one does not necessarily work for the other.
Now what about…
How an R Rating Might Harm This Movie
So let’s start with the big and obvious reason that most movie studios hesitate to give a big budget film an R rating: you’re limiting your audience. Now, like I said, the recent successes of Deadpool and Logan do definitely prove that, financially, sometimes this is a risk worth taking, but it’s also worth noting the differences between those properties and the Birds of Prey, namely, Deadpool and Wolverine are known properties.
Wolverine is the more obvious one, as Hugh Jackman played the character for a nigh unprecedented seven movies before Logan was made, and whether he was the title character, part of an ensemble, or even just a cameo, he was consistently one of the most recognized characters in all of the live action X-Men franchise. Deadpool, very much in character, had a much more wobbly and unpredictable journey to the silver screen, but it cannot be denied that it was known that audiences wanted him before his film happened. He was a breakout side character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, with perfect casting and great snarky dialogue that audiences really responded to, at least in the sequences before the film turned him into something else entirely. But it was really the leaked footage for a Deadpool movie that the studio had apparently passed on that really proved his worth: the internet went wild for the footage, enough to change the studio’s mind. While the scope of his film’s success might still be surprising, the fact that people were ready for that movie really shouldn’t be.
And here lies the problem: the Birds of Prey do not have any of these luxuries. They are not a property that has been established with mainstream audiences. They have not appeared in movies before. They do not have a guaranteed audience who are going to show up just because they recognize these characters. This is a new property that the studio is, in their eyes, taking a risk on and hoping they’ll find an audience for, and automatically limiting that audience does not seem like the most strategic move. And the stakes are higher than just whether this gets turned into a new franchise or not; keep in mind this is a team composed entirely of female characters, and Hollywood has a nasty trend of taking one failed property with a female lead (let alone central cast), and tanking the prospectives of any future projects with a similar gender makeup.
The risk isn’t exclusively financial, either, there’s a narrative risk here as well. The Birds aren’t just new to most audiences, they’re new to the entire concept of mature audience only storytelling. That’s what makes this move feel so weird; there is zero precedent for the Birds of Prey telling a story with an R rating. There aren’t any major stories that need R rated content, the themes they’ve previously dealt with aren’t particularly mature in nature, and even with Huntress (at the beginning of her arc) leaning more violent than the others, that’s still a story that managed to be covered on the TV-PG Justice League Unlimited. There isn’t a reason in existing stories for the film to be rated R, so it represents a change in expected tone and theme from what fans of the comic might have been wanting to see. They’re taking a comic that has been more or less open to everybody and forcing it into mature content, and that doesn’t always lead to positive responses. Just look at Batman: Damned.
Part of DC’s freshly christened Black Label imprint, Batman: Damned is a Batman story that was meant to be for mature audiences, with the content limitations normally imposed on superhero tales gone, giving the writers freedom to explore his inner darkness however much they want. Which is why Batman: Damned #1 has a full frontal shot of naked Bruce Wayne and his penis. The internet reacted with about as much “maturity” on the subject as you’d imagine. The in-story reasoning for the nudity has been largely overlooked, with most of the response focusing just on the fact that the comic went there. DC has been so uncomfortable with the response that the issue will not be reprinted, the second issue was pushed back by two weeks, and the entire Black Label imprint is in danger of cancellation.
And yes, a lot of this response is due to our society’s squeamishness surrounding nudity in pop culture (especially male nudity), but a decent amount is also because of the general unexpected nature of it. There are other comics that have featured nudity, and they haven’t received this hubbub. But Batman is different; he’s a known property, and he’s a property that’s known for being PG-13 or lower. He’s known for mainstream blockbusters and children’s cartoons, not for full frontal nudity. Characters like Wolverine and Deadpool are known for violence and crass humor, and so when either of them engages in such, it’s not unexpected. But the Birds aren’t known for being rated R, for whatever content reasons, and what audience reaction will be to seeing these characters in whatever positions they end up in isn’t known either.
This leads me to my final point here, just what will the movie be rated R for? In all likelihood, violence and adult humor, but I’ll add that I very much do not trust Hollywood to make an action movie with an all female cast and an R rating and not include sexual violence. Part of this is the choice of villain, Black Mask. Black Mask, in the comics, is meant to represent the next step of escalation in the war between Batman and organized crime; Batman cleans up the mob, and the crazy supervillains step in to fill that void. Black Mask is what happens when the mob produces a crazy supervillain of their own, but the central problem is that his core essence is that of the theme of escalation, which is already represented as a byproduct of basically every other supervillain in Batman’s rogues gallery. The only way for Black Mask to compete in terms of interest is to be extra ruthless and brutal and evil. This is demonstrated in the comics by him torturing a teenage girl superhero to death, but in the film, I am absolutely convinced that sexual violence is totally on the table, either from him or from his underlings. And I do not see this ending up as anything other than uncomfortable and alienating to a decent chunk of the audience, especially women who are just there to see an all lady superhero team being awesome.
So, Why Are They Doing This?
So, there is every possibility that the intended content rating was a well thought out idea from the writer/director team that they hope to use to craft a fully nuanced and engaging story. And there is every possibility that this was a trend-chasing snap decision on the part of the studio, without any thought given as to the nature of the comic being adapted.
Until the director’s recent statement, most of the information that we’ve heard about the film potentially being rated R originally comes from Margot Robbie pitching the idea of ‘an R rated girl gang superhero movie’ starring her character Harley Quinn. But what’s worth mentioning is that this was initially not intended to be the Birds of Prey, but instead the Gotham City Sirens, a group traditionally composed of Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Quinn. And while I very much contest the idea of even the Gotham City Sirens needing an R rating either (the first major instance of that team up being Gotham Girls, a family friendly, web animation based on the continuity of Batman: The Animated Series), a film about a trio of supervillains is not a bad premise for a comic book movie with harder content.
But somewhere along the lines, projects got combined, and the upcoming film we now know as Birds of Prey is the result of a script merger between the Birds and the Gotham City Sirens, all from the writer of a potential Batgirl movie, to boot. This explains why there’s no Oracle (founder of the Birds in the comics) and Harley Quinn is here (never previously involved with the Birds), and why Cassandra Cain’s origins are being explored here (Cassandra’s origin has nothing to do with the Birds of Prey). Add to this the recent successes of Logan and the Deadpool films, as well as R rated women ensembles like Girls Trip, and you can likely explain why the movie is being rated R, which I again point out is neither expected nor necessary given the typical nature of the comics related to the Birds of Prey. So, there’s my interpretation: piecemeal elements of unrelated scripts and the studio attempting to copy the success of superficially similar, but ultimately distinctly different projects.
Where does this leave us now? Well, only time will tell how right I might be about the motive behind the rating, let alone how much the actual quality of the film is affected by it. There is precedent, however much I feel like it doesn’t apply here, for R rated superhero films to do well, and the Birds might still find their audience yet.
Could the studio change their mind about the rating later? Possibly. There were early reports that Suicide Squad would be rated R, and the final product ended up at PG-13. Now, in that instance, no one involved had ever confirmed a previous rating, which gave the staff the option to claim (however believable you find it) that it had always been planned to be PG-13. That’s not the case here, with director Cathy Yan straight up confirming it is intended to be rated R. That said, the studio may still want to intervene later down the line if it gets even a little bit nervous about an untested property struggling to find an audience through the self imposed limitations of the higher rating. Another factor to consider is the upcoming, short theatrical run for the PG-13 edit of Deadpool 2. While the metrics make it extremely difficult to compare, if it does well enough with a more open audience, it might inspire Warner Bros to pare this film’s content back down, or possibly release a second cut. Most likely, I feel like they’d go for a PG-13 theatrical release, and then provide an unrated director’s cut on the home release.
In any case, I wish the cast and creators well on their endeavor, and I legitimately hope that DC’s premiere team of women superheroes (or, the two of them that are in the movie at least) find the live action success they deserve. I just wish I had more confidence in what they’re planning on doing with it.