Birds of Prey and Its Not-So-Fantabulous Sexist Reception: What Aggregated Data on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic Reveal about DCEU Fan Culture and the Action Genre

Bryan Bove

In a skit called “Men on Film” from the pilot episode of the television sketch comedy series In Living Color (and subsequent episodes throughout the show’s 1990-1994 run on the network Fox), Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier portrayed—respectively—Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather, two effeminate gay men who would discuss movies.[1] The duo would flamboyantly proclaim, “Hated it!” for films they disliked and give “two snaps up” for films they enjoyed.[2] Although their portrayal of queerness is one-dimensional and stereotypical at best, their reviews were an effective commentary on popular movie critics at the time, namely Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who would give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to a movie, simplifying a film to the binary of good or bad while ignoring the positive nuances that may exist in a not-so-great film. For most film critics (including Siskel and Ebert in their written work), labeling a film as merely “good” or “bad” is not their goal—and often not a possibility. Writing for Vox, film critic Alissa Wilkinson notes,

Critics usually come away from a movie with a mixed view. Some things work, and others don’t. The actors are great, but the screenplay
is lacking. The filmmaking is subpar, but the story is imaginative . . . The important point here is that no critic who takes their job seriously
is going to have a simple yes-or-no system for most movies. Critics watch a film, think about it, and write a review that doesn’t just judge
the movie but analyzes, contextualizes, and ruminates over it.[3]

Critics may provide thoughtful, intricate analyses of the films they review, but websites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, which gather reviews and aggregate the collective data, take more of a Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather binary approach, flattening the nuances and complexities of film critics’ work in order to create a clean score or percentage. It is either fresh or rotten, a hit or a miss. This process of simplifying a collection of data leads one to wonder how a film review can be quantified—especially if, for example, the review itself does not give the film it is analyzing a letter grade, number grade, or star value.

This essay discusses the method employed by review-aggregation websites to collect data for their film scoring systems and explores the discrepancies in information representation when the websites are collecting and using data from the same sources. Drawing from a specific matched sample set consisting of reviews compiled by both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic for the 2020 film Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), directed by Cathy Yan, I examine what significance these representational differences can hold for a movie, or for the websites themselves, and in what ways review-aggregate websites regulate the narrative of a film’s reception by critics and fans. I argue that aggregate sites act as portals to complex reviews that make up the consensus data they present. In doing so, this essay also considers the gender biases that exist within the action genre, as revealed by the aggregated information presented for Birds of Prey. While sites like Rotten Tomatoes practice diverse data collection to offer scores that are more informed by the audience narratives surrounding a film’s reception, their aggregated opinion is still skewed male because of inequities within the film review industry, and they do not always present the most accurate scores, particularly when it comes to action films with female leads.

According to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s report on “Gender and Race/Ethnicity of Film Reviewers across 300 Top Films from 2015-2017,” most reviewers are white males, and “the ratio of white male top critic’s reviews to underrepresented female top critic’s reviews across 300 top films is nearly 31 to 1.”[4] Further, the report shows that a critic’s identity can impact their reviews: “Underrepresented female reviewers rate underrepresented female leads higher than any other group” with an average score of 6.8 out of 10, while “white male reviewers rate underrepresented female leads lower than any other group,” with an average score of 5.9 out of 10.[5] This would suggest that, since aggregate film review sites draw from pools of critics made up of mostly white males, their ratings for films offer a predominantly male opinion, dictated by a male gaze.

The problems of diverse representation in aggregate-site reviews become particularly clear when one looks at the responses to a film such as Birds of Prey, which went against male reviewers’ expectations of the comics-based action genre. The film is notable for being the first female-led, R-rated ensemble, loosely based on the DC Comics series of the same name, and set within the DC Extended Universe (or DCEU) of films that includes 2017’s Justice League directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon, and 2018’s Aquaman, directed by James Wan, among others. Additionally, Birds of Prey is only the third film based on superhero characters from one of the two major comics studios (DC and Marvel) to feature a female lead, behind the DECU’s 2017 film Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, and Marvel’s 2019 film Captain Marvel, directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. While Warner Bros. released the DC property Catwoman in 2004, directed by Pitof and the Rob Bowman-directed Marvel property Elektra was released in 2005, neither film is part of DC or Marvel’s current respective cinematic universes.

Birds of Prey’s score is similar on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic: as of December 5, 2020, it received a 78% fresh all critics score and 65% fresh top critics score on Rotten Tomatoes[6] and a 60% score on Metacritic.[7] With a verified audience score of 78% and all audience score of 69% on Rotten Tomatoes,[8] its reception is not as blatantly divisive as Marvel’s Captain Marvel, which had a top critics score of 65% and an audience score of 46%;[9] or the character Harley Quinn’s first big-screen appearance in 2016’s Suicide Squad, directed by David Ayer, which had a top critics score of 22% but an audience score of 59%.[10]

Despite its similar aggregated critic and fan scores, Birds of Prey was still a divisive film. A large section of the DCEU fans, mainly straight, cisgender male fans, did not like the film, while women, non-binary, and feminist individuals viewed it more favorably. Many, including Vulture writer and critic Angelica Jade Bastién, attribute this discrepancy to the film’s feminist production credentials. Birds of Prey was directed by a woman (Yan), written by a woman (Christina Hodson), produced by a woman (star Margot Robbie), and costumed by a woman (Erin Benach). Highlighting those details in her review “It Doesn’t Take Much to Be Seen as an Unruly Woman,” Bastién finds that the film calls “attention to the prosaic, misogynist encounters women face in a way that provides a trenchant framework for Harley’s unruliness.”[11] From the man who propositions Harley Quinn for sex in exchange for a pet hyena, or the ridicule and lack of respect Renee Montoya experiences in the workplace, Birds of Prey portrays a wide range of misogynist encounters that women face on a daily basis, and that audience members with similar experiences can recognize and relate to.

These are issues that straight, cisgender male fans often do not care about and that are typically not portrayed in popular or successful action films because the genre is seen as a heteronormative male space. As such, female leads of action films are frequently characterized with masculine traits. In his essay “Gender and the Action Heroine: Hardbodies and the Point of No Return,” Jeffrey A. Brown discusses the ways female protagonists were historically masculinized to be relatable to a male audience. Brown states,

Certainly, the action heroine is often filmed to accentuate her body, but this new hardbody is not offered up as a mere sexual
commodity. While the well-toned, muscular female body is obviously an ideal in this age of physical fitness, it is presented in
these films as first and foremost a functional body, a weapon. The cinematic gaze of the action film codes the heroine’s body
in the same way that it does the muscular male hero’s as both object and subject.[12]

 

When looking at the most popular, critically-acclaimed action films with female leads, such as Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien and its 1986 sequel Aliens, both starring Sigourney Weaver, or James Cameron’s 1991 film Terminator 2: Judgment Day starring Linda Hamilton, it is difficult to contest Brown’s point. While one might subjectively say Weaver’s Ripley and Hamilton’s Sarah Connor are sexy, neither character is being sexualized or objectified. Rather, they are conceptualized as competent, capable subjects that the (male) audience can identify with. One could make the same case for the five female leads of Birds of Prey: Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Helena Bertinelli, Jurnee Smollett’s Dinah Lance, and Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain are not sexualized or objectified. However, the perspectives they present as subjects, while varied, are undoubtedly female. A male audience member could relate to them on a human level (and any person with some level of empathy should be able to), but they might find it more difficult to relate on the basis of gendered experiences. This is perhaps reflected in the films’ aggregated review scores: compared to Birds of Prey’s 78% all critics score and 65% top critics score on Rotten Tomatoes, and 60% score on Metacritic, Alien received a 98% all critics score and 90% top critics score on Rotten Tomatoes[13] while its sequel received a 97% all critics score and a 94% top critics score,[14] and Terminator 2: Judgment Day received an all critics score of 93% and a top critics score of 88%.[15] The three films received 89%,[16] 84%,[17] and 75%[18] on Metacritic, respectively.

Birds of Prey is an action film by women for women, and considering how women are not equally represented in critical spaces, the film’s aggregated scores are indicative of the ways feminist/feminized productions do not connect with male reviewers or male fans of the action genre. However, websites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic fail to illustrate the nuances of a film’s critical/fan reception in their assessments. Neither site discusses Birds of Prey’s R-rating, its sex appeal, or its title change in several domestic theater chains and in Japan. On a critical level, if an observer wishes to know the ratio of male to female critics to discern if there is any correlation between gender identity and film preference, one would have to chart it out themselves, as I did, based on the pronouns the reviewers use to self-identify. Of the 288 male-identifying critics included in the film’s aggregated reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, 74% reviewed the film positively, while 86% of the 123 female-identifying critics gave it favorable reviews. This type of data analysis is complicated when one realizes that Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are presenting the same data in different ways. For example, on Rotten Tomatoes, Johanna Schneller’s review for Globe and Mail is considered rotten,[19] while the same review is considered positive on Metacritic.[20] If both sites are drawing from the same sources for data collection, how are they quantifying their data differently? And what do these differences in information presentation mean for a film like Birds of Prey, and for the websites themselves? To properly analyze the collective critical scores for Birds of Prey, and what its reception says about the DCEU fan community and the action genre more broadly, one must understand how the review aggregate websites collect their data, and what kind of data pools they are pulling their information from.

 

 

History and Practices of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic

 

This analysis concentrates solely on the websites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, and, while it may seem questionable to exclude IMDb (the third major site whose ratings often appear alongside those from Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic in a Google search for a film or television series), there are several reasons for doing so. First, IMDb has a partnership with Metacritic, and its scores and reviews are displayed on IMDb’s website. Second, as stated on their “Frequently Asked Questions” page, IMDb ratings displayed on movie and TV title pages represent a weighted average of “individual ratings cast by IMDb registered users,” who range from established critics to casual audiences.[21] Additionally, IMDb’s use of a weighted average as opposed to an arithmetic mean is similar to the representational method of Metacritic, which my study considers in depth. Third, focusing on two as opposed to three ranking systems makes it possible to draw more illustrative comparisons and conclusions from the data sample.

Rotten Tomatoes was founded in 1998 by Senh Duong and two friends, Patrick Lee[22] and Stephen Wang,[23] who were students at the University of California at Berkeley.[24]  Noticing a lack of reviews for Jackie Chan movies and older kung fu films, Duong had the idea to create a site that would store reviews for kung fu movies in one place.[25] According to The New York Times writer Brooks Barnes, “the name [of the website] harkens back to medieval Europe, where people would lob spoiled food, often eggs, at petty criminals in the stock. The practice spread to some theaters in the 19th century.”[26] If a play or actor was considered “rotten,” the players involved might end up getting hit from “a large tomato thrown from the gallery.”[27] Conversely, if an actor or a play was good, or “fresh,” tomatoes would not be thrown. Although information on when the company was started appears on Rotten Tomatoes’ website, there is no mention of its founders.

Also unmentioned is the company’s eventual acquirement by Fandango. In the Los Angeles Times article, “How Rotten Tomatoes became Hollywood’s most influential—and feared—website,” writer Ryan Faughnder’s detailing of the company’s ownership turnover reads like a corporate game of hot potato: “The founders sold the company for an undisclosed amount in 2004 to IGN Entertainment, which was acquired by News Corp. for $650 million the following year. News Corp. sold Rotten Tomatoes to movie discovery startup Flixster in 2010, which was later bought by Warner Bros.”[28] Fandango then purchased control of Rotten Tomatoes from Warner Bros. in 2016 “for an undisclosed price” and now hold “a 75% stake” in the company.[29] According to the “Corporate Ownership” page on their website, Fandango “is a unit of NBCUniversal, which holds a majority interest in the company. Warner Bros. Entertainment has a minority interest in Fandango.”[30]

While Rotten Tomatoes is not very forthcoming about their conception or the more corporate business side of things on their site, they are transparent about the way scores are formulated for their Tomatometer—which, it emphasizes, are not created from an algorithm.[31] Per the “About” page on their website,

Rotten Tomatoes has assembled a team of curators whose job it is to read thousands of movie and TV reviews weekly. The team collects
movie and TV reviews from Tomatometer-approved critics and publications every day, generating Tomatometer scores. [Their] curators
carefully read these reviews, noting if the reviews are Fresh or Rotten, and choose a representative pull-quote. Tomatometer-approved
critics can also self-submit their reviews.[32]

 

In “Behind the Scenes at Rotten Tomatoes,” Wired writer Simon Van Zuylen-Wood notes that “about 30 percent” of critics “upload and rate their own reviews,” and since August 2018, the site has “added roughly 600 new critics” to its list of approved reviewers for “a stunning” total of “4,500 critics” in an effort to add more diverse voices.[33] Although the Tomatometer number itself, which is “equivalent to the percentage of “positive” reviews” a film has accumulated,[34] doesn’t tell us much about the gender narrative surrounding the reception of a film, the site offers links to each critic’s review. Therefore, if a female moviegoer wanted a female reviewer’s opinion on Birds of Prey, because said moviegoer does not trust or care about a male critic’s opinion on what is arguably a very feminist production, that moviegoer could now more easily find reviews written by women on the Rotten Tomatoes page for Birds of Prey. While the website offers visitors a simplified Fresh/Rotten score, it also acts as a portal to the more nuanced reviews that go into creating that score. To learn more about how these reviews are curated and quantified into a numeric value, one must look into the team of curators at Rotten Tomatoes.

As of January 2020, the website has about four dozen employees, including twelve curators.[35] While seven work on TV content and three work with Tim Ryan, “the site’s longest-tenured employee,” on historical reviews, only two work full-time on movies.[36] Jeff Giles, who “began curating for Rotten Tomatoes in 2005,” is one of those two.[37] According to Van Zuylen-Wood, who spent a day visiting the offices of Rotten Tomatoes in Beverly Hills, “there are no official Fresh-or-Rotten criteria. No quota for superlatives, no scale for snark. There is only a curator’s gut check.”[38] Therefore, while Giles might “mark Fresh any review that gets a B- or higher” from “publications that use letter grades,”[39] another curator might scale letter grades differently. The same goes for star values. If the review does not use a star or letter grade system and “the language is nebulous, the rest of the Rotten Tomatoes “curation team” reads it and makes a decision. If there’s no consensus, Rotten Tomatoes contacts the critic who wrote the review.”[40] This can be problematic, because they are asking the reviewers to ignore all the nuances they wrote about their viewing experience in order to fit their opinion into a Fresh/Rotten binary structure, which is not typically how reviews work. It is even more problematic in the case of Tim Ryan’s work, where he is trying to categorize the reviews for all the movies ever made. Van Zuylen-Wood discusses Ryan’s categorization of the reviews for “the world’s first feature film, called The Story of the Kelly Gang.”[41] Ryan “tracked down in a digitized version” two contemporary reviews of the film, which premiered on December 26, 1906, and labeled one review Fresh and the other Rotten.[42] However, while Ryan might find it easy to label the reviews as such, other readers might find the language of the reviews not explicit enough in their opinions. If the members of the curation team cannot come to a consensus, they cannot contact the reviewers to clarify their opinions because the reviewers are long dead—and then what? There is a tremendous amount of subjectivity in this case, to fit the reviews into one of two extremes.

On the other hand, Metacritic, which Van Zuylen-Wood refers to as “Rotten Tomatoes’ brainier, less popular rival,”[43] tries to provide more nuanced scores by culling “from a smaller number of reviews” and assigning “a lot more ho-hum scores.”[44] According to their website, the CBS-owned Metacritic

began as a simple idea back in the summer of 1999: a single score could summarize the many entertainment reviews available for
a movie or a video game. Metacritic’s three founding members—all former attorneys who were happy to find a more constructive but
less profitable use of their time—launched the site in January 2001 and Metacritic has evolved over the last decade to reflect their
experience distilling many critics’ voices into the single Metascore, a weighted average of the most respected critics writing reviews online
and in print.[45]

While the company claims to “believe that multiple opinions are better than one,”[46] they aggregate far less reviews than Rotten Tomatoes, believing in quality over quantity. On their “Frequently Asked Questions” page they address this by saying “the quality of many is inconsistent at best,” and that “there is such a thing as too much information, and statistically, once we include a certain number of reviews in our calculations, adding additional reviews will not change the overall Metascore in one direction or another.”[47] Not only are they drawing from a smaller pool of reviews, but they are also determining a film’s Metascore differently from Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer: each review is graded on a scale of 0 to 100 rather than being labeled as “Fresh” or “Rotten,” and each is weighted depending on what publication it comes from. Then the reviews are calculated together in a weighted average for an overall score.[48]

It stands to reason, then, that because the majority of professional film critics—especially those writing for the more heavily-weighted publications—are white males, there is less diversity in the voices that are contributing to the Metacritic scores; and while some claim that “most critics consider Metacritic a better gauge of critical opinion,”[49] is it really superior if there is a smaller number of voices being heard and considered? The sexist gatekeeping that exists in the film industry, and that extends to film criticism and film theory, seems to also extend to Metacritic’s data aggregation practices. Further, this gatekeeping affects the critical narratives of more-feminist films such as Birds of Prey.  

 

 

Birds of Prey and the DCEU “Fan” Backlash

 

As previously mentioned, Birds of Prey was a divisive film. On the one hand, women and marginalized groups such as non-binary and intersex individuals, queers, and socially-conscious, cisgender, heterosexual males responded positively to Birds of Prey’s feminist narrative. Princess Weekes, assistant editor of the popular feminist website The Mary Sue, stated that the “movie delivers on everything it signs up to do and does it with an effortlessness that belies the obvious sense of care and work that was put into it.”[50] According to Weekes, this includes “kinetic” fight scenes, a “more watchable” portrayal of Harley Quinn than previous interpretations of the character (i.e., Suicide Squad), and queer characters that are not expendable or forced.[51] Comic artist Jen Bartel, who collaborated with Puma on special edition Birds of Prey shoes, tweeted that “BIRDS OF PREY WAS SO GOOD” and that it had “So many small relatable moments and details that could only come from having women involved at all levels” (@heyjenbartel, February 7, 2020).

These “small relatable moments” are present from the start of the film, with Harley Quinn stating, “I had to find a new identity, a new me” after her break-up with the Joker, because when she was with him she lost “all sense of who she was.” It would be wrong to label the way Harley Quinn tries to carve out a new identity for herself as intrinsically female, because anyone could engage in the type of post-breakup behavior that she does; however, for a female-identifying moviegoer, there is something very relatable about Harley’s post-breakup process of self-discovery. She cuts her hair in front of her own bathroom mirror and immediately regrets it; she gives herself a tattoo to change a Joker-related tattoo that she has; she gets a pet (albeit an untraditional one) hyena; she joins a roller derby team to find a sense of community or sisterhood; and she goes out for a night of drinking and dancing at a club.

 

While at the nightclub owned by Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis, Harley Quinn experiences sexism and assault, two other incidents that would resonate with female-identifying viewers. Quinn spills her drink on a man seated nearby when she is dancing on a table, and the man yells at her, “Sit your skinny ass down, you dumb slut,” negatively commenting simultaneously on her body, her intelligence, and her assumed sexual activity. Later, another man in the club plies Harley with drinks, kisses and touches her when she is clearly too drunk to say no, and tries to abduct her because she is no longer under the protection of the Joker. In both scenes, the men are confronted and emasculated for their violent behavior. After the first man tells Harley to sit down, she jumps onto him, breaking his legs, before she says, “Call me dumb, I have a PhD, motherfucker.” When Harley is nearly abducted by the other man who drugged her, Jurnee Smollett’s Dinah Lance fights off her would-be kidnappers and makes sure Harley gets home safely.

Sexual violence against women feels like an ever-present extension of McGregor’s villain in the film. In another scene in his night club, Sionis gets angry because he thinks a woman seated at one of the tables is laughing at him from across the room. In a display of dominance and toxic masculinity, Sionis silences the room and forces the woman to dance on a table. He then has the man she is with cut her out of her dress, exposing the woman’s body to the room. While Sionis’s actions in this scene are an example of the abuse he commits against women, his penchant for dominating and objectifying the female figure is affirmed in the design of his club and his apartment. His nightclub features two large hand sculptures holding eyes, which could signify the male gaze and the fact that Sionis has eyes on everyone in his club, especially on those he “owns,” like his singer and driver, Dinah Lance, and those he is after, like Harley Quinn. There are also white mannequin busts with black hands covering their eyes, ears, and mouths. One could assume these represent the phrase “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” but one could also make the assertion that they represent the controlling hands of the patriarchy on female bodies. Another portrait/sculpture on the opposite wall of the club features a woman’s back on a bright red background, with one arm extended up behind her coming out of the painting. Without a face, the woman in this piece is simply an anonymous object. This art piece is similar to the large, full-wall murals Sionis has in his apartment that feature white women against the same bright red background, tethered together by black ropes around their throats and faces.

The female protagonists of the film respond to this violence in kind, but their violence is not the same because it is not contextualized through the masculine. For instance, when the man who sells Harley Quinn her hyena tries to sexually force himself onto her, she feeds him to her new pet. While one could see this as insanity or violence, pure and simple, one could also view it as a situation in which Harley is protecting herself and flexing her maternal instincts by making sure her new pet is fed. Later, in another display of feminine violence during the final showdown between the protagonists and Sionis and his men, Dinah Lance uses her canary scream, a superpower she inherited from her mother, to take down the rest of Sionis’s army. At the same time, she propels Harley Quinn—on her roller skates—toward the vehicle Sionis is escaping in. Quinn employs roller skating, a hobby she took up after her break-up when she was trying to find herself and find a feminine community of support, to catch up to and take down the villain. When she does catch up to Sionis and faces him one last time on the pier, Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain, who is being held captive by Sionis, tells Harley she stole her ring. While at first the viewer may think she is referring to a piece of jewelry, Cain holds up her finger to reveal the ring of a grenade that she took from Harley’s ammunition storage. Sionis attempts to flee but Harley tosses him and the grenade off the pier, moments before he explodes above the water.

These feminist production elements that made “the girls and the gays” love the film are what drove the straight, white, cishet men away.[52] In a tweet that went viral—having been “liked” 1.3 thousand times, retweeted 4.7 thousand times, and with 3.6 thousand comments—from January 25, 2020, Twitter user Matthew Kadish claimed the film was “going to bomb just like” director Elizabeth Banks’s 2019 film version of Charlie’s Angels, because the filmmakers “removed any sex appeal these characters had to appeal to a female ‘girl power’ audience instead of the core male comic book audience. They literally don’t know who they’re making this movie for” (@MatthewKadish, January 25, 2020). In a second tweet, Kadish continued, “Like, even women want to see attractive women on screen. Cosplayers want hot characters to emulate. None of the #BirdsofPrey characters have any sex appeal. They even toned down Harley Quinn to make her less sexy, despite that being her biggest draw in #SuicideSquad” (@MatthewKadish, January 25, 2020). Although Kadish does not explicitly state how or why the characters lack sex appeal, his comparison to 2019’s Charlie’s Angels is telling. Like Birds of Prey, Charlie’s Angels was directed and written by a woman, Elizabeth Banks, who also served as one of the film’s producers. Kadish’s argument seems more like an attack against the female perspective, and his contention that the characters in both movies are not “sexy” enough for him, despite the fact that the protagonists are played by women who are objectively beautiful, is a matter of opinion that reveals the gender bias of the filmgoer.

The fans that connect to and admire the fashion moments in the film are probably the same fans who appreciate the film’s feminist perspective—a population that is presumably female, non-binary, queer, and/or the socially-conscious. As a queer viewer with a background in costume design and an interest in fashion, I found the clothing appealing and functional. The pieces are colorful and loud, like the pink sports bra and gold jumpsuit that Harley wears—but they are also sexy and practical. The film does not give Dinah Lance her signature one-piece bathing suit and fishnet stockings from the comics, but that is because the costumes are grounded in realism. In designing the Birds of Prey wardrobe, costume designer Erin Benach asked herself, “what would I want me and a gang of girlfriends to wear to kick butt?”[53] Benach “looked to street and current fashion because it seemed right for this film,” and she saw it as “a fun way to connect fans to these characters.”[54] A simple internet search for “Birds of Prey + fashion” proves Benach correct, as there are articles from popular sites like Entertainment Weekly,[55] Fashionista,[56] Nylon,[57] and numerous others gushing about the “level of understanding [of] the fashion zeitgeist in a superhero film.”[58]

Birds of Prey’s supporters were quick to speak out against Kadish in the film’s defense. Writer and culture critic Clarkisha Kent pointed out that when a “painfully arrogant critic logs onto Twitter to rant about why a particular movie is SURE to bomb in theaters . . . the critic is usually white and male [and] the movie they’re claiming will ‘bomb’ . . . features and focuses on protagonists that aren’t white men whose promotional materials make it clear that they’re not trying to appeal to white men.”[59] Kent notes “many of these same man-babies had a similar ax to grind with Captain Marvel—mainly because they hated Brie Larson for having the audacity to want film critics to cater to and include someone other than white men and mostly because they viewed her character Carol Danvers as an arrogant, man-hating bitch.”[60] Notably, in the wake of Captain Marvel’s release, the film’s audience score on Rotten Tomatoes was “review bombed” or tanked with negative reviews so badly, most likely by the “man-babies” that Kent describes, that the website changed their audience review policies so that non-critics wanting to review movies would have to verify their ticket purchases to prove that they saw the films they want to review.[61]

With an all critics score of 79% and an audience score of a mere 46%,[62] the case of Captain Marvel highlights the toxic retaliatory nature of the DCEU fanbase that Anthony Soegito describes in “Fans vs. Critics: Challenging Critical Authority Through Memes.” Soegito argues that DCEU fans “see themselves as cinephiles, contrasted against geeks and the ‘occasional’ film-goers of the Marvel audience,” and as such they “undermine the critical authority of official critics” in order to assert their own opinions as the more “legitimate discourse.”[63] In their opinion, DCEU fans “embrace ‘art’, and all the cultural capital that accompanies it” while “MCU fans supposedly lack this capital” and are grouped together with film critics for “their perceived lack of sophistication.”[64] In the eyes of the more toxic corners of the DCEU fanbase, Birds of Prey lacked “cultural capital” in the same way that Captain Marvel, an MCU film, did, because of its feminist production qualities. While Rotten Tomatoes’ change to their audience review policies may have curbed some sexist responses to Birds of Prey, these kinds of comments are still visible on the films’ review page. One audience reviewer, “Garrett S,” scored the film half a star out of five stars and said, “Terrible movie. This movie is only a ‘woke,’ feminist, ultra-Liberal, movie that had [a] very poor plot line. Action was plentiful though.”[65] Another user, “Jason A,” also scored the film half a star, writing,

Wow, what an absurd piece of tripe. If you want to see a thousand bad guys (and yes, they’re all guys and they’re all bad) run at 5
women and somehow miraculously not land a blow or manage to shoot their guns while getting beat up in absurd ways, this is the
movie for you. It must be 2 decades since a movie this laughably stupid came out. Oh, and the feminist sledge hammer was pathetic.
What a masterpiece of nonsense.[66]

Ignoring “Jason A.’s” consternation over Sionis’s band of villainous murderers being all-male, despite the fact that 96% of people who commit homicide globally are men,[67] it is both amusing and revealing that a viewer could not suspend their disbelief that five fictional women with various special talents could defeat a gang of men in a comics-based action film, when actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone have done equally impressive and unrealistic things in their own action films. Similar audience review comments can be found on the film’s Metacritic page, where reviewers are not required to verify their ticket purchases. One user, “abcdefgg11,” wrote, “This movie is just radical feminist propaganda. It’s not that man [sic] don’t like strong female protagonist[s], what we don’t like is terrible movies that try to force politics and ideologies down our throat. The only positives are the action scenes, but it’s still totally not worth it.”[68] Again, for this reviewer to say they don’t like movies with political agendas or ideologies is laughable, because everything is arguably political, even films by beloved actions stars like Schwarzenegger and Stallone. For example, the 1987 film Predator, directed by John McTiernan, features Schwarzenegger’s Major “Dutch” Schaefer leading a special forces team into the jungles of South America on a rescue mission, where they encounter an otherworldly creature. Would “Jason A.” and “abcdefgg11” find this “absurd” because of the monster’s presence and Schwarzenegger’s ability to beat it? Or “political” because of the American military forces going into a different country on a rescue mission during the Cold War? Or, speaking of the Cold War, how about 1985’s Rocky IV, written by, directed by, and starring Sylvester Stallone as the title character fighting Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in the name of America? The anti-Birds of Prey members of the DCEU fanbase seem to only be bothered by a film’s political or unrealistic elements when it doesn’t align with their political beliefs, or with their notions of what an action film should be.

This is evident in the positive comments from “Garrett S” and “abcdefgg11” about the film’s action sequences. Jon Valera, the fight and stunt coordinator for Birds of Prey, has developed some acclaim in the action world for working on films like 2014’s Chad Stahelski and David Leitch-directed John Wick and Taika Waititi’s 2017 film Thor: Ragnarok. While Valera’s action sequences are approved by these viewers, and are thus acceptable or appropriate for the action genre, other elements of the production, like Christina Hodson’s script and Erin Banach’s costumes, are not. Valera also worked on 2018’s Aquaman, a DCEU film that was given mostly mixed-to-negative reviews from critics but was lauded by the DCEU fanbase. With a top critics’ score of 47% on Rotten Tomatoes, it scored 18% lower than both Captain Marvel and Birds of Prey, but its audience score of 74% is 28% higher than Captain Marvel’s and 5% higher than Birds of Prey’s all audience score[69] (however, it is 4% lower than Birds of Prey’s verified audience score[70]). For casual users of Rotten Tomatoes who trust the audience’s opinion over that of the critics, seeing the lower audience scores of Captain Marvel or Birds of Prey compared to Aquaman might be the deciding factor in whether or not they see the movie. Additionally, the way critics’ reviews are presented on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic could have a similar effect.

 

 

Drawing Conclusions Based on Birds of Prey’s Aggregated Data

 

Keeping in mind the fan discourse surrounding Birds of Prey and the methodologies of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, let us examine the film’s aggregated data more closely and consider how the data presentation reflects and/or reaffirms the assertions made herein about the film’s fan reception and the gender biases it faces within the action genre. As previously mentioned, although Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are drawing from the same pool of critics, the websites differ greatly in quantity for critical reviews for Birds of Prey. Rotten Tomatoes has 411 reviews from critics, 74 of which are top critics,[71] while Metacritic features 59 critics’ reviews.[72] The percentage of assumed female-identifying critics for both sites is surprisingly similar – roughly 29.9% of the total critics for Rotten Tomatoes and 30.5% for Metacritic. However, if we consider only the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, of which there are 74, 41.9% are women, and there are thirteen more top-critic reviews written by women on Rotten Tomatoes than there are on Metacritic. Curiously, while the top critic score on Rotten Tomatoes is only 5% higher than the critics score on Metacritic—65% compared to 60%—that score has been compiled from only 46 of the 74 top critics ratings.[73] At this time there has been no additional information found to explain why this is the case. When it comes to non-critic ratings, Birds of Prey has a user score of 3.1 out of 10 on Metacritic, based on 2,346 ratings,[74] while the film has a verified audience score of 78% based on 15,717 ratings and an all audience score of 69% based on 31,583 ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.[75] It is important to remember that Metacritic does not verify user ticket purchases to prevent or deter “review bombing,” which could be a factor in the film’s “generally unfavorable reviews” on the site.[76]

 In some instances, professional reviews on Metacritic translate easily to quantified data. Christy Lemire’s review of the film for RogerEbert.com, which she gave three out of four stars,[77] was translated as 75 out of 100 on Metacritic.[78] This makes sense, since three-fourths is equivalent to 75 out of 100. However, other translations seem a bit more haphazard. Leah Greenblatt gave the film a B+ for Entertainment Weekly,[79] which translated as an 83% on Metacritic;[80] while Katie Rife gave the film a B- for AV Club,[81] and Metacritic translated that as 67%.[82] The jump from a B+ to a B- seems quite steep, and these letter and number grades do not coincide with the more generally understood letter and number correlations in American education, which would place a B+ somewhere between 87 and 89% and a B- around 80-82%. There is also at least one example—Johanna Schneller’s review for Globe and Mail—which was labeled rotten by Rotten Tomatoes[83] but positive on Metacritic.[84]

If we look at the creative material being quantified, there are hints at the sexism more overtly displayed in some of the user comments, like the ones from “Jason A” and “Garrett S” discussed earlier. In his review of the film for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers takes an almost mocking tone to the Harley Quinn-led cast of female characters, stating, “It’s time for Harley to emancipate herself from men, form a girl gang, and show that the sisters really can do it for themselves,” and calling the female empowerment of the film “topical,”[85] as if women having to face and fight back against sexism and gender-based discrimination is a recent trend and not a daily horror they have lived with forever. Travers also begins and ends his review by lamenting how “no one thought to invite Joaquin Phoenix,”[86] and how Todd Phillips’ 2019 film Joker was a superior film because it “tackled a festering society that created its own monsters.”[87] These comments completely miss the mark on what the movie is about—Harley finding herself outside of the context of her relationship with the Joker. Not only is the film not about the Joker, but it does highlight the misogyny, toxic masculinity, and white male privilege that creates monsters like the Joker and Sionis through the female protagonists’ interactions with men, as previously described. Perhaps, because of the feminized way the subject matter is being handled, Travers cannot relate to it or see it from that perspective.

Writing for The New York Times, A.O. Scott also compares the film to Joker, expresses positive reactions to the fight scenes, which he says “have snap and surprise,” and fixates on a throwaway line about Harley Quinn voting for Bernie Sanders.[88] His review reflects the comments from “Garrett S” and “abcdefgg11” to a certain extent, in that he is concerned with the film’s action sequences and politics. Scott accuses the film of “at once embracing and neutralizing the tropes of female anger and semi-feminist solidarity that are quickly becoming movie cliches”—ignoring the fact that this is the first female-led cinematic superhero team-up, and that there are decades’ worth of action vehicles fueled by masculinity and testosterone that feature angry men seeking revenge. Both Scott’s and Travers’ reviews were labeled as “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes[89] and received 40% scores on Metacritic.[90]  

The issues that characterize Birds of Prey’s DCEU “fan” reception and critical reception highlight the bigger conversations about female-led superhero movies and female-led action movies in general. For example, Birds of Prey was labeled a failure after its $31 million domestic opening, while James Mangold’s 2019 sports drama Ford v Ferrari had a similar opening weekend of $33 million and was praised as a success.[91] In “We Need to Stop Calling Birds of Prey a Box Office Failure,” Nicole Drum claims the difference is that “Ford v Ferrari is a film written by men, directed by a man, and stars men in roles that see the characters doing stereotypical male things,” whereas Birds of Prey “centers around women being badasses as they fight against men.”[92] To fix these issues, we need to make the field of film criticism more inclusive so that scores on aggregate sites can be representational of a broader audience. Rotten Tomatoes is taking the steps to diversify their methodological approach to data aggregation; on December 3, 2020, the website announced via their blog that they are adding 170 new top critics. According to their announcement, “60 percent are women, an estimated 25 percent are people of color, and 24 percent publish via video and podcasts.”[93] If Rotten Tomatoes is including a wider variety of voices from different gender, class, ethnic, racial, and political identities, and making moviegoers aware of more diverse film critics by providing links to their reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, one could argue films like Birds of Prey, which—aside from all of its feminist production qualities, also features a predominantly female cast, people of color, and queer characters—would perform more favorably on their website than on Metacritic. Additionally, more diverse critics offering unique perspectives on genres such as action could change the way people perceive those genres. However, the action genre itself will not change until a more inclusive approach is taken in the production of the films themselves.

Notes

 

[1] In Living Color, episode 1, “Pilot,” directed by Paul Miller, aired April 15, 1990, on Fox.

[2] In Living Color, episode 1, “Pilot.”

[3] Alissa Wilkinson, “Rotten Tomatoes, Explained,” Vox, June 14, 2018, https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/8/31/16107948/rotten-tomatoes-score-get-their-ratings-top-critics-certified-fresh-aggregate-mean.

[4] Marc Choueti, Stacy L. Smith, and Katherine Pieper, “Critic’s Choice 2: Gender and Race/Ethnicity of Film Reviewers Across 300 Top Films from 2015-2017,” Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, USC Annenberg, September 2018, https://annenberg.usc.edu/research/aii.

[5] Choueti, Smith, and Pieper, “Critic’s Choice 2.”

[6] “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” Rotten Tomatoes, accessed December 5, 2020, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/birds_of_prey_2020.

[7] “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” Metacritic, accessed December 5, 2020, https://www.metacritic.com/movie/birds-of-prey-and-the-fantabulous-emancipation-of-one-harley-quinn.

[8] “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” Rotten Tomatoes.

[9] “Captain Marvel,” Rotten Tomatoes, accessed December 5, 2020, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/captain_marvel.

[10] “Suicide Squad,” Rotten Tomatoes, accessed December 5, 2020, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/suicide_squad_2016.

[11] Angelica Jade Bastién, “It Doesn’t Take Much to Be Seen as an Unruly Woman,” Vulture, February 26, 2020, https://www.vulture.com/2020/02/margot-robbie-harley-quinn-birds-of-prey-unruly-woman.html.

[12] Jeffrey A. Brown, “Gender and the Action Heroine: Hardbodies and the ‘Point of No Return,’” Cinema Journal 35, no. 3 (Spring, 1996), pp. 52-71.

[13] “Alien,” Rotten Tomatoes, accessed December 4, 2020, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/franchise/alien.

[14] “Aliens,” Rotten Tomatoes, accessed December 4, 2020, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1000617-aliens.

[15] “Terminator 2: Judgement Day,” Rotten Tomatoes, accessed December 4, 2020, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/terminator_2_judgment_day.

[16] “Alien,” Metacritic, accessed December 4, 2020, https://www.metacritic.com/movie/alien-1979.

[17] “Aliens,” Metacritic, accessed December 4, 2020, https://www.metacritic.com/movie/aliens.

[18] “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” Metacritic, accessed December 4, 2020, https://www.metacritic.com/movie/terminator-2-judgment-day.

[19] “Birds of Prey,” Rotten Tomatoes.

[20] “Birds of Prey,” Metacritic.

[21] “How Do You Calculate the IMDb Rating Displayed on a Title Page,” IMDb, accessed December 5, 2020, https://help.imdb.com/article/imdb/track-movies-tv/ratings-faq/G67Y87TFYYP6TWAV#calculate.

[22] Cara Waters, “Rotten Tomatoes Founder Has a Few Regrets on Selling.” The Sydney Morning Herald, August 26, 2018, https://www.smh.com.au/business/small-business/rotten-tomatoes-founder-has-a-few-regrets-on-selling-20180824-p4zzkk.html.

[23] “Stephen Wang,” AngelList, accessed December 5, 2020, https://angel.co/u/swang75.

[24] Brooks Barnes, “Attacked by Rotten Tomatoes.” New York Times, September 7, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/07/business/media/rotten-tomatoes-box-office.html.

[25] Barnes, “Attacked by Rotten Tomatoes.”

[26] Barnes, “Attacked by Rotten Tomatoes.”

[27] Barnes, “Attacked by Rotten Tomatoes.”

[28] Ryan Faughnder, “How Rotten Tomatoes Became Hollywood’s Most Influential—and Feared—Website.” Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2017, https://www.latimes.com/business/hollywood/la-fi-ct-rotten-tomatoes-20170721-htmlstory.html.

[29] Faughnder, “Rotten Tomatoes.”

[30] “Corporate Ownership,” Fandango, accessed May 1, 2020, https://www.fandango.com/info/corporate-ownership.

[31] Simon Van Zuylen-Wood, “Behind the Scenes at Rotten Tomatoes.” Wired, January 21, 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/behind-the-scenes-rotten-tomatoes/.

[32] “About Rotten Tomatoes,” Rotten Tomatoes, accessed December 5, 2020, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/about.

[33] Van Zuylen-Wood, “Behind the Scenes.”

[34] Van Zuylen-Wood, “Behind the Scenes.”

[35] Van Zuylen-Wood, “Behind the Scenes.”

[36] Van Zuylen-Wood, “Behind the Scenes.”

[37] Van Zuylen-Wood, “Behind the Scenes.”

[38] Van Zuylen-Wood, “Behind the Scenes.”

[39] Van Zuylen-Wood, “Behind the Scenes.”

[40] Faughnder, “Rotten Tomatoes.”

[41] Van Zuylen-Wood, “Behind the Scenes.”

[42] Van Zuylen-Wood, “Behind the Scenes.”

[43] Van Zuylen-Wood, “Behind the Scenes.”

[44] Van Zuylen-Wood, “Behind the Scenes.”

[45] “Metacritic: The History,” Metacritic, accessed December 5, 2020, https://www.metacritic.com/about-metacritic.

[46] “Frequently Asked Questions,” Metacritic, accessed December 5, 2020, https://www.metacritic.com/faq#item21.

[47] “Frequently Asked Questions, Metacritic.

[48] Wilkinson, “Rotten Tomatoes, Explained.”

[49] Wilkinson, “Rotten Tomatoes, Explained.”

[50] Princess Weekes, “Review: Birds of Prey Is Everything I’ve Been Waiting for in a Female-Led Comic Book Film.” The Mary Sue, February 5, 2020, https://www.themarysue.com/birds-of-prey-delivers-damn-near-everything/.

[51] Weekes, “Review: Birds of Prey.”

[52] Clarkisha Kent, “Harley Quinn Doesn’t Need You When She’s Got the Girls and the Gays.” Wear Your Voice, January 28, 2020, https://wearyourvoicemag.com/harley-quinn-birds-of-prey-sex-appeal-trailer/.

[53] Mary Sollosi, “Breaking Down the Fierce, Funky Fashion of Birds of Prey.” Entertainment Weekly, February 12, 2020, https://ew.com/movies/birds-of-prey-fashion/.

[54] Fawnia Soo Hoo, “The Fashion Influences Behind the ‘Birds of Prey’ Costumes Include Jeremy Scott and ‘Vogue’ Editorials.” Fashionista, February 7, 2020, https://fashionista.com/2020/02/dc-birds-of-prey-costumes-outfits.

[55] Sollosi, “Breaking Down the Fierce, Funky Fashion of Birds of Prey.”

[56] Soo Hoo, “The Fashion Influences Behind the ‘Birds of Prey’ Costumes.”

[57] Irina Grechko, “Harley Quinn’s ‘Birds of Prey’ Costumes Are Full of Hidden Meanings.” Nylon, February 6, 2020, https://www.nylon.com/birds-of-prey-costumes-interview.

[58] Sollosi, “Breaking Down the Fierce, Funky Fashion of Birds of Prey.”

[59] Kent, “Harley Quinn Doesn’t Need You.”

[60] Kent, “Harley Quinn Doesn’t Need You.”

[61] Julia Alexander, “Rotten Tomatoes Is Changing Audience Review Capabilities to Tackle Review Bombing.” The Verge, May 23, 2019, https://www.theverge.com/2019/5/23/18637154/rotten-tomatoes-review-bomb-verified-audience-score-reviews-star-wars-captain-marvel.

[62] “Captain Marvel,” Rotten Tomatoes.

[63] Anthony Soegito, “Fans vs. Critics: Challenging Critical Authority Through Memes.” Journal of Fandom Studies 7, no. 3 (2019): 279-301.

[64] Anthony Soegito, “Fans vs. Critics.”

[65] “Birds of Prey,” Rotten Tomatoes.

[66] “Birds of Prey,” Rotten Tomatoes.

[67] “Data UNODC,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, accessed December 5, 2020, https://dataunodc.un.org/.

[68] “Birds of Prey,” Metacritic.

[69] “Aquaman,” Rotten Tomatoes, accessed December 5, 2020, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/aquaman_2018.

[70] “Birds of Prey,” Rotten Tomatoes.

[71] “Birds of Prey,” Rotten Tomatoes.

[72] “Birds of Prey,” Metacritic.

[73] “Birds of Prey,” Rotten Tomatoes.

[74] Birds of Prey,” Metacritic.

[75] “Birds of Prey,” Rotten Tomatoes.

[76] Birds of Prey,” Metacritic.

[77] Christy Lemire, “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).” RogerEbert.com, February 6, 2020, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/birds-of-prey-and-the-fantabulous-emancipation-of-one-harley-quinn-movie-review-2020.

[78] “Birds of Prey,” Metacritic.

[79] Leah Greenblatt, “Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn Unleashes Candy-Colored Chaos in Supervillain Spin-Off Birds of Prey: Review.” Entertainment Weekly, February 5, 2020, https://ew.com/movie-reviews/2020/02/05/birds-of-prey-review/.

[80] “Birds of Prey,” Metacritic.

[81] Katie Rife, “Harley Quinn Gets Her Groove Back in DC’s Wildly Colorful, Surprisingly Gory Birds of Prey.” AV Club, February 6, 2020, https://film.avclub.com/harley-quinn-gets-her-groove-back-in-dcs-wildly-colorfu-1841483241.

[82] “Birds of Prey,” Metacritic.

[83] “Birds of Prey,” Rotten Tomatoes.

[84] “Birds of Prey,” Metacritic.

[85] Peter Travers, “’Birds of Prey’ Review: Harley Quinn Returns, Badder Than Ever.” Rolling Stone, February 6, 2020, https://www.rollingstone.com/movies/movie-reviews/birds-of-prey-movie-review-harley-quinn-947111/.

[86] Travers, “’Birds of Prey’ Review.”

[87] Travers, “’Birds of Prey’ Review.”

[88] A.O. Scott, “‘Birds of Prey’ Review: Nihilism for Fun and Profit.” The New York Times, February 6, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/movies/birds-of-prey-review.html.

[89] Birds of Prey,” Rotten Tomatoes.

[90] “Birds of Prey,” Metacritic.

[91] Nicole Drum, “We Need to Stop Calling Birds of Prey a Box Office Failure.” ComicBook.Com, February 17, 2020, https://comicbook.com/dc/news/harley-quinn-birds-of-prey-not-a-failure/.

[92] Drum, “We Need to Stop.”

[93] “The Top Critics Program Just Got an Upgrade,” Rotten Tomatoes, December 3, 2020, accessed December 5, 2020, https://editorial.rottentomatoes.com/article/top-critics-program-just-got-an-upgrade/.

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