Through the fog of a head cold on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, I rolled into a theater to watch Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) or Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey as they’re calling it now.
The film cut through my stuffy head and smacked me right in the face!
More of this, please.
Birds of Prey follows Shazam! and Aquaman as it appears Warner Bros. is really letting DC lean into the weirdness of its characters. Go with the weird! Don’t chase franchises and connected universes, because that isn’t in DC Comics’ DNA in the same way it is with Marvel. Whenever you want to put all these guys in the same movie, just do it. Who cares how it happens? This is all ridiculous stuff made mainly for children. It’s fine, people. Enjoy yourselves.
It was like watching a movie that took the best neon bits of Batman Forever, the textured feel of Scorsese’s New York, then filtered it through John Wick and the current #MeToo feminist zeitgeist.
And that’s before we even mention the fights! Oh, the action! The fights scenes felt grafted to the characters as written. Of course Black Canary has a strong taekwondo kick game. Of course Huntress fights like a Batman-level assassin. Of course Renee Montoya, the cop, is all tackles and punches and batons.
I don’t know whether that’s a byproduct of John Wick action master Chad Stahelski himself, who signed on as second unit director, or how they were reshoots allowed for that result to happen organically. (These days those big third-act action sequences with special effects often are shot first, and then can feel disconnected from the movie we’ve seen up to that point.)
But it works. A lot!
You can see Stahelski’s mind at work most when Harley fights a whole room full of men in a police precinct’s jail. After Harley accidentally sets off the sprinkler system, the room goes gray as sheets of water come down like rain, the drops splashing into puddles on the floor like gunshots. In that scene, Harley’s gymnastic fighting style is used create something devastating and effective by starting with one question: How would Harley take down a room of men twice her size and twice as strong?
Birds of Prey had to thread quite the needle by accomplishing a series of tasks, all in one project.
It had to continue a fan-favorite character and the best part of Suicide Squad, a movie with a mixed reception. To do so, that meant keeping megastar Margot Robbie, who’s now signed on as a producer, happy by creating a full-on showcase of her star power and colossal talent.
The movie also had to find a new story that would distance her from the Joker because apparently nobody at the studio liked Jared Leto. Reportedly mailing dead rats and used condoms to your castmates may have a hand in that, plus all his diva fuming over Joaquin Phoenix’s now Oscar-winning turn in the same damn role surely didn’t help.
Director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson Keep stylistic touches of that David Ayer film while demonstrating that it clearly is not Ayer. They had to surround Harley Quinn with other, new-to-the-screen characters from Batman comics so that she has people to bounce off of.
On the studio side, Warner Bros. wanted to create a backdoor test film for Birds of Prey, a fantasy team of female action badasses, when the new Charlie’s Angels just flopped. What’s more, they surely wanted to jab their “we did women superhero movies” knife into Marvel one more time by just going with BOP while Marvel tiptoes around an A-Force possibility, before the (finally) Black Widow film comes out, and before the highly anticipated Wonder Woman 1984 gets here.
Don’t think that’s all for woke market share, though. Birds of Prey may stick its thumb in the eye of toxic fandom by simply existing or not putting Huntress in that awful Jim Lee getup from the Hush storyline. However, Warner has it both ways by putting out Joker, which still strikes me as Falling Down for incels, just a few months ago.
I’m interested in seeing Birds of Prey again, because it did take me some time to get fully into it.
Part of that was the film’s non-linear storytelling. Action would unfold, only for Harley to rewind the story in order to show how all the characters collide into one another. The film does it well, though. Many things are set up, and they all get paid off.
The other thing about getting fully into this movie is that, frankly, I had to overcome a bit of dissonance from watching something that wasn’t made from a typical, straight male point of view. Like nearly all of pop culture, including most genre fiction celebrated in this column and this website.
Mind you, that’s not a bad thing in of itself. The problem is that this is the byproduct of a negative function of power, and systems of power. This happens at the exclusion of others who don’t fit the categories to which more power is ascribed, whether by race or gender or sexual orientation or economic standing. Birds of Prey, in visual style and content, wasn’t made for “me.” Um, straight guy.
That “me” is in quotes because, often, that straight male is also white, which I’m not. And, frankly, I’ve never felt that comfortable in the typical confines of heterosexual masculinity. (But that’s another discussion for another time.) The default in much of our fiction is straight (white) man, and in black fiction it’s often straight black man, so that’s the visual language, the joke construction, the performance style, etc. that we’re accustomed to.
Harley Quinn herself has been a captivating case study in all of this. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s version had a sexual side but it was steeped in gang moll and vintage “good girl” art territory. Stuff we recognized, but still felt quaint enough to make its way onto a kids’ cartoon
When Harley made her to way to the mainstream comics in 2000, then Terry Dodson drew her to his comic book woman body type. And then the Jimmy Palmiotti-Amanda Conner run of Katy Perry-style costumes, along with over-the-top, roller-derby style, made a lot of the comic book Harley that we know today. That retooled Harley then came up against the Arkham games and their sexy Harley, with the goth corsets and nurses’ outfits – and the cosplayers jumped in with both feet.
By 2011, she was redesigned again in the comics, with the corset top and boobs out, and it felt like we jumped the shark. Suicide Squad in 2016 gave us more sexy Harley, making mayhem in a crop top and hot pants. Margot Robbie didn’t give us the Terry Dodson body, but Robbie already was known as a powerhouse of Barbie doll looks and dynamite sex appeal from The Wolf of Wall Street three years hence.
But now Birds of Prey seems to collide all these versions and inject her with much more Tank Girl punk aesthetic. This feels like a Harley dressing for Harley, even if she doesn’t know what that means yet because she’s still finding her way as a solo act after splitting from Joker. She dresses like a mess because, well, she is one – full of contrasts and fringes, and unmoored.
(Side note: Harley’s bustier shows up in a great moment that totally fits the plot while reminding us that the public has admired Rosie Perez’s chest for 31 years and counting.)
Ayer’s muy-macho obsessions with hard men and tough guys, colored by his times in South Central Los Angeles and serving in the Navy, would have made him ill-suited for this movie. Yan and Hodson dig plenty into hard men and tough guys, with Black Mask and Victor Zsasz as the top.
However, I can’t shake the feeling that Yan and Hodson’s takes on these bad guys are sharper amid #MeToo and just listening to experiences of women, sexism and misogyny, and how there are few spaces, if any, where such evil cannot touch them. Name the industry, and in the past few years we’ve heard more and more stories of sexism, misogyny and sexual abuse by the men at the top.
(Cathy Yan made her way through business school, film school, and then as a reporter before filmmaking. Do the math on that.)
Whether a son from a “good family” or a vicious gangster, that evil remains the same. Therefore, Roman Sionis aka Black Mask is the perfect villain for this project. It’s why, amid every instance of Black Mask’s chilling cruelty, the camera finds the women in the scene.
But we see each woman’s struggles and problems within the power structure, amid men taking the credit or holding them down. Renee Montoya is professionally isolated and passed over in the police department. Dinah Lance is under Black Mask’s thumb for the check and rent. Helena Bertinelli is set on a path of vengeance by growing up in a mob family built on greed and murder. We hear Cassandra Cain’s foster father screaming through the apartment door.
And through the course of the film, they each learn that standing alone isn’t good enough. Being the only one isn’t good enough. These women – a team of two white women, a Korean-Filipina, a Latina and a black woman, which feels like a callback to Suicide Squad’s racial politics – move on the fringes, in a movie largely on the fringes of Gotham City and its comic book madness. To survive, they must come together to overturn the circumstances of their lives and forge something new.
So it was fun to watch a little something new.
We’ll get more Harley Quinn, that feels certain. (Most certainly on August 6, 2021, in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad)
Maybe we’ll get a full-on Birds of Prey film? I mean, a straightforward, smaller-budget, non-tentpole action caper with light comic book touches with a team of badass women, with a John Wick action protege baked in? Yeah, we can sell that.
I mean, as long as Warner Bros. doesn’t sabotage their own movies by announcing a bullshit opening weekend mark for a non-tentpole R-rated comic book film released on Oscar weekend!