Usually February isn’t the best for films, but I think that this month we’ve seen some real winners. Of course, we have the Oscar-winning Parasite getting a wider release following it’s Best Picture win but that’s not entirely what caught my attention – no matter how phenomenal it was.
No, what got me thinking was the response to two films in particular: Sonic the Hedgehog and Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn … later renamed Birds of Prey: Harley Quinn. One has succeeded far beyond the studio’s expectation, and the other is just “okay.” In fact, Birds of Prey has received a ton of media spin, despite making twice its budget back – so it’s not bad by any means.
It’s interesting. Both were solid films, but Sonic seems to have captured “lightning in a bottle” raking in a cool $74 million.
This could be the superhero/video game turning point for Hollywood.
So, on this “compare and contrast” post, I’ll be setting my sights to see how vital an audience is, whether we’re done with superheroes, and why more people were more psyched to see a supersonic blue hedgehog than a female anti-hero after a breakup.
ADAPTATION: KNOW YOUR SOURCE
Cards on the table, I’m both a comic and video game fan. I’m well aware of the origins and premise behind Birds of Prey, and I also have a lot of Sonic knowledge, and I got to say, I felt a bit let down by the Birds of Prey adaptation we just got.
To get Sonic out of the way, it is the less complex movie. The premise is the same as the video games – blue hedgehog runs fast, defeats Doctor Robotnik/Eggman, has a radical 90s ‘tude and loves chilidogs.
I’m not going to pretend that it was an especially deep story – after all, the series succeeded because of the gameplay, marketing and character. At best, there is a subtle pro-environmentalist message in the 16-bit games (Robotnik is a machine-obsessed industrialist, and Sonic must navigate through Chemical Plants and Metropolises to free the woodland creatures,) but it certainly isn’t the focus here.
Similarly, the film doesn’t tackle heavy issues, nor does it try to. Jim Carrey gives captures the manic cartoony-ness of Robotnik and Sonic is equally game-accurate. It was a fun, family film, as well as a really solid video game adaptation.
As for Birds of Prey, I just wasn’t feeling it. Worst of all, I felt that there was a slew of missed opportunities. On the one hand, Margot Robbie is Harley Quinn. She captures the tragedy and manic personality of the character perfectly.
But everyone else … really didn’t do anything for me. The performances were fine, but the characters were lacklustre, and it comes down to the adaptation. For a start, Harley wasn’t in the original team!
I read the Gail Simone take on the characters, and they were well-defined. The group I was familiar with – Black Canary, Oracle (formerly Batgirl), and Huntress all were interesting characters, with iconic personalities and gave the book a gritty realism to it.
The film adds Cassandra Cain, Renee Montoya, and some others to the line-up, but they’re all subpar when compared to their comic counterparts. Cassandra Cain especially bothered me. In the comics she was a mute, illiterate assassin, communicating only in body-language and combat, and was great in her solo run as the second Batgirl. But here … she’s a pickpocket! It bothers me, and it made the film feel more like Hustlers or Oceans 8 than an anti-hero team up.
As a film it was fine, but as an adaptation … I struggled.
The film was also positioned weirdly, as a pseudo Suicide Squad sequel when the majority of fans are more curious about James Gunn’s take on the team in Suicide Squad 2 – which will also have Harley Quinn feature. It probably doesn’t help that it was rated R, as that immediately discounts any Harley Quinn fan under 18 (which is A LOT of Harley Quinn fans!)
Not only that, but for recognisability it would have made more sense for Harley to partner up with someone like Poison Ivy – a recognisable Batman rogue, environmentalist femme fatale, and long-time best friend to Harley.
Maybe having Harley and Ivy team up to take down the Joker could have been more compelling that a group of characters that I doubt anyone is that familiar with. Compared to Sonic, it strangely felt more dated than I thought.
There are analysts pointing to the “all-women” aspect of it, and saying gender played a part. But I don’t think that’s really the case. I didn’t get as strong a girl-power push in the marketing, and Wonder Woman 84 is building hype so I wouldn’t read too much into any of those spins.
But that leads onto my next point.
Not so long ago, Sonic looked dead on arrival, and Birds of Prey looked more risqué, progressive, and enticing. The infamous original design of Sonic sparked a wave of fan backlash and Paramount made it clear that they would act – and boy did it pay off, with Sonic now claiming the position of highest-grossing video game movie, surpassing last year’s Detective Pikachu.
Yet it was this level of engagement and studio response that really elevated Sonic from a potential critical (and financial) disaster, to ushering in a new form of cinematic experience.
Watching both films back-to-back also highlights a disparity between the two. Sonic revels in Easter Eggs and embraces some of the more obscure elements of the franchise. Whether it’s names, places, the Echidna tribe, or even Robotnik’s theme from the 90s Sonic TV series with an orchestral reboot for Carrey’s performance.
Sure, the story may not have featured in the games, but it showed a real love and appreciation of the franchise to please fans past and present.
Birds of Prey … Harley Quinn seemed to have very little to do with the comics, and fans could understandably be lost. I was blown away when I saw that Cassandra Caine’s gritty origin story of abuse, redemption, and personal struggle was replaced by her being a pickpocket.
Most bizarrely … there’s no real indication that this is a superhero universe. Nobody wears costumes, or masks (villain aside), or anything. It’s a group of women going up against some of DC’s lamest villains. Everything feels so mundane in what is a fantastical universe of aliens, gods, and monsters.
It’s so jarring that when Black Canary (the only superpowered member of the gang) uses her trademark “canary cry” in an relatively down-to-earth environment.
Again, it’s by no means a bad movie. The story’s fine, the performances are fine, and the action is fine. But in terms of carrying a franchise; something designed to sell merch, influence comic sales, and better flesh out the universe … it all feels very disjointed.
Between adaptation and audience response, these two films really couldn’t have been more different. Which is strange as they’re both technically good movies. But from the box office response, one has clearly outperformed the other … and it’s the one that listened and engaged more directly with audiences.
Although Robotnik actor Jim Carrey was sceptical of direct audience involvement, he believes it was ultimately through the backlash and the studio listening to fans that we got the blockbuster people wanted.
THE IRON MAN MOMENT?
Sonic’s a great character, but there isn’t really a “Sega Cinematic Universe” out there, and certainly not with characters people would recognise … I can’t see an Alex Kidd movie ever getting made is all. But at the very least Sonic could effectively start its own franchise, with a great number of sequels to follow on from this very well-received first outing.
Is this an Iron Man moment? Not really. But it certainly feels like a Spider-Man moment; a moment when studios finally crack that secret formula for making a solid video game movie.
As for cinematic universes, there is a Mario movie in the works (slated for 2022) which has heavy involvement from Nintendo. As a company that also owns the likes of Legend of Zelda, Kirby, Metroid, F-Zero, StarFox, Donkey Kong, and Fire Emblem, it wouldn’t surprise me if we see a cinematic universe form in the next ten years or so.
That may just be speculation on my part. But then again, nobody foresaw the rise and box-office dominance either.
I’d hardly say this is the end for superheroes dominating the box office, but it does feel like there’s something new speeding towards us.