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Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

By | February 6th, 2020
Posted in Movies, Reviews | % Comments

When the DCEU does fun, it translates well critically and at the box office.  Their highest grossing film to date? The under-the-sea spectacle Aquaman. (No doubt helped in part by Jason Momoa’s abs.)

Does Birds of Prey continue in this tradition?  Absolutely.  It’s chaotic feminist fun, a new Harley Quinn – – and a new tone for the DCEU – –  for a new decade.

Please note that this review will contain some minor spoilers. 

What is a harlequin without a master to serve? No one.  Such is the dilemma facing Dr. Harleen Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) as we kick off this promised fantabulous emancipation. She and Mr. J are no more, and without his protection, she’s in a lot of trouble in Gotham.  And just as she’s trying to figure out her new normal (and keep herself alive at the same time), she gets in the middle of a diamond heist, a teenage thief, and Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), all at once.

That’s the first story of this film. But there’s also a second: that of the emancipation in the title. Not just for Harley, but for her new found family: teenage Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), bitter Gotham cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Diana Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).  Each of them is on their own journey of emancipation, be it within the workplace or home life, finding their own voice and their own agency in a world that just wants them to shut the hell up. And with the help of Harley, all of them reach that finish line.

If you didn’t see Suicide Squad, no need to worry. By the time the title card appears on screen in pink punk glory, you know who Harley is and how she got to her current state of affairs. That balance of exposition and action continues throughout the film in very quick order (this whole film is just under two hours), though perhaps not in any coherent or focused order. Harley’s in control, and she’s going to tell the story her way: smashing the fourth wall (including in a fun post-credits audio moment), rewinding time and playing the record scratch trope at inopportune moments, a cinematic ode and prayer to the joys of the bacon egg and cheese breakfast sandwich right in the middle of a chase scene.  Is this deliberate disruption overused? Perhaps, especially when it’s done just for the sake of doing it. Fortunately, those moments are few and far between.

No doubt Harley is our star, but there’s some character development of our ensemble, particularly Perez’s Montoya and Smollet-Bell’s Black Canary, though uneven.  Your heart breaks when Montoya gets the dressing down from her male superiors, but with little understanding of her prior police career it rings hollow.  Similarly, you feel Black Canary’s fear that she will not get out from under Sionis’s thumb without harm, but it only goes so far as we lack the context for that relationship in the first place.  Winstead’s Huntress doesn’t make an appearance until the final third of the film, and Basco’s Cain gets superficial treatment.  (Though with respect to Cain, what we have on screen is an evolution from her comics past as a neurodivergent child killer.) It’s an odd choice with those last two as they provide the backbone for the primary plot, and I wish we got to know them a bit better.  Never fear, though, for this film’s ending sets up the future potential of the Birds of Prey as Harley’s foil, so there’s opportunity to revisit and and learn more.  Balancing an ensemble cast in such a short time frame is no easy task, but what we got here was messy in its execution.

And what of our Harley Quinn? Robbie was the breakout star of the forgettable Suicide Squad, and Birds of Prey has her working all levels of emotional depth with great skill. Whether she’s causing chaos in the Gotham City jail or spending a tender sisterly moment giving manicures and tax advice to Cassandra, it’s all with a wink and a smile and just a slight hint of malice. As her chaotic post-Joker life swirls around her, she finds room to love herself and others, embracing her previous faults and her bad decisions (including one that puts Cassandra in peril), owning them but not letting them own her. It’s a new Harley, an enlightened Harley, a reinvented Harley, one that finds value in herself and her independence by the time the credits roll. Welcome to the #MeToo era, Harley Quinn. We’re glad to have you here.

Continued below

(Birds of Prey also lends credibility to rumors of Robbie taking on another punk feminist comic classic, Tank Girl. After this movie, I’m convinced she could pull it off.)

The men in this film are caricatures, as they should be. They have as much realism as you need in a comic book film, not in need of gravitas to make their malicious agendas clear. If anyone should chew scenery, it’s Sionis and Victor Zsasz.  Playing it over the top as both McGregor and Chris Messina do draws attention to just how disposable the men are in the world of Gotham (literally and figuratively), endearing you to Harley and her girl gang more and more. Even the man who has the most fatherly affection for Harley – – landlord/grandfather figure Doc – – sells her out in the end, the catalyst for Harley to fully grasp that she does not need anyone to take care of her besides herself.

It’s also refreshing to see a film not lean on the crutch of CGI for action moments.  There’s a fine moment near the end where you see Black Canary’s superpower in its beautiful glory, but the rest of this is an action-packed athletic fest, balancing acrobatics with ferocious injury and a whole lot of color. Think Kill Bill with confetti and glitter.  After the literal and figurative darker oeuvre of the DCEU, it’s incredibly refreshing.  High praise goes out to the cast and any stunt doubles for providing realistic, kinetic fighting scenes.  Praise also comes due to cinematography for tight framing of many of those action shots, leading the eye towards the target of every punch and kick and radiating out the pain of each landing blow.

Coming off of a Super Bowl halftime show featuring two Latina women who celebrated themselves and their culture with wild abandon (and received a fair share of criticism for doing so), this movie’s message of kick ass, take names, and don’t let The Men drag you down comes along at just the right time. This is a feminist film from top to bottom, in front of and behind the camera, with a female director, writer, and soundtrack. But it’s not one that beats you over the head with the ideals of women’s empowerment, but lets it sit alongside fun and frivolity. Birds of Prey is proof that both can not just exist together, but enjoy each other’s company. And that’s how it should be.

Let’s go back to that question Harley wrestled with in the first act. What is a harlequin – or this Harley Quinn – without a master?  She has a master, though: none other than Harley Freaking Quinn herself.  And hear her roar.

//TAGS | Movies

Kate Kosturski

Kate Kosturski is your Multiversity social media manager, a librarian by day and a comics geek...well, by day too (and by night). Kate's writing has also been featured at PanelxPanel, Women Write About Comics, and Geeks OUT. She spends her free time spending too much money on Funko POP figures and LEGO, playing with yarn, and rooting for the hapless New York Mets. Follow her on Twitter at @librarian_kate.


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