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

Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor

Director: Cathy Yan

Writer: Christina Hodson

While female-led blockbusters have become a little more fashionable lately and Hollywood studios have gotten a little better at allowing them to be written and directed by actual human women, there still remains a pretty narrow framework through which these films are allowed to express their ideas of femininity. While once in a blue moon we do get a smash hit like Mad Max: Fury Road that manages to sneak in some thoughtful and provocative feminist themes, the trend you tend to see in these kinds of movies, including such recent examples as last year’s Captain Marvel and Alita: Battle Angel, is that badass woman beating up bad man equals empowerment. Birds of Prey, the second female-led blockbuster in DC’s proposed cinematic universe (a scheme they’ve all but abandoned at this point), is far from a masterpiece but, thematically speaking, I do think it is a step closer in the right direction. The ‘Girl Power’ message is there but it goes far beyond the superficial, patriarchal-approved gestures that studios include in expectation of nominal feminist endorsement to deliver something subtler and more nuanced. This is a film where the all-female team up comes about not just out of necessity but also out of an unspoken unity and empathy that they all feel for having lived a shared female experience in a world dominated by powerful men. It’s not the most groundbreaking of messages but the little touches that director Cathy Yan adds go a long way in what is otherwise a pretty fun superhero romp.

As the subtitle would suggest, the true star of this ensemble piece is one Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the psychopathic clown whose life has been reduced to tatters after being dumped by the Joker (Jared Leto). Kicked to the curb and a blubbering mess, she resolves to give herself some ‘me’ time and engages in your typical post-breakup rituals: cutting her hair, partying with her friends, breaking a goon’s legs, getting a pet hyena and indulging herself with junk food. The only thing she doesn’t do is tell anybody that she and Mr. J aren’t together any longer. If it became known to Gotham City’s undesirables that she is no longer under the protection of the fearsome clown, then suddenly it would become open season for those who have a grudge against Harley (of which there are many). That is until Harley overhears some friends mocking her for her denial and decides to cut ties with her ex for good by blowing up the chemical factory where they first declared their undying love to each other, an explosive move that she’s confident will have absolutely no negative repercussions for her whatsoever. At that point Harley becomes a target not just for the Gotham police but also for Roman Sionus (Ewan McGregor, camping it up), a bloodthirsty and conceited mob boss who has a score to settle with Harley and a stolen fortune to score.

This all revolves around a much-desired diamond that street urchin Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) unintentionally lifts from the pocket of Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), Roman’s right hand man. Harley volunteers to recover the diamond in exchange but must race against the rest of Gotham in her pursuit. Amongst those also searching for Cassandra are Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a nightclub singer with a killer voice, Renée Montoya (Rosie Perez), a veteran cop with little patience left for bureaucratic bullshit, and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a crossbow-wielding avenger with a socially awkward personality. The story seems routine enough except it’s all told from the warped perspective of Harley Quinn whose manic commentary, singular perspective and rambling digressions prevent any of it from feeling too stale. The plot does essentially boil down to an hour of backstory and Macguffin chasing that eventually climaxes with the squad finally getting together in the third act, but the whole thing is depicted with such gleeful abandon from the idiosyncratic, unreliable POV of its psychotic narrator that you don’t really notice or care. Birds of Prey demonstrates itself to be very much Harley Quinn’s movie with its vibrant colours, its use of pop-art title cards when introducing her many enemies and their respective “grievances”, and the odd fantasy-dream sequence in which she escapes the world for a while to enjoy an animated recounting of her adolescent years or a song-and-dance number (with a call back to McGregor’s Moulin Rouge!).

Bringing the whole thing to life is Cathy Yan who exhibits the same capability for mixing erratic humour with grisly violence that Tim Miller brought to Deadpool. Perhaps the film could have afforded to go even crazier than it did (a story told from Harley Quinn’s perspective really ought to look like something out of FX’s Legion) but the stylistic choices we do get, from the needle drops to the action scenes, are presented by Yan with admirable confidence. The climatic fight scene in particular packs a real punch thanks to the fluid camerawork on display and the fun-filled, acrobatic choreography throughout, a welcome break from the frantically edited, muddily coloured, computer generated action you tend to get from the MCU movies. Most crucially, I think, Yan also breaks Harley Quinn free from the male gaze of Suicide Squad that turned her into such a fetishized object. She and the rest of her female co-stars are free to enjoy themselves without any perverse framing inviting the viewer to ogle and objectify them. The scene where this was most apparent was when a vindictive Roman vents his frustrations by forcing some poor woman to strip for him. Throughout this uncomfortable scene I kept waiting for the ‘money shot’, as it were; the gratuitous wide shot of her humiliation and violation that would undoubtedly have been there had a male director filmed it. Instead Yan focuses on McGregor’s reaction, which gives us all we need to feel discomforted. It’s a small touch, but it makes all the difference.

Robbie (who in Bombshell had a similar scene that lingered on her humiliation to a perverted degree) is as always on top form as the homicidal harlequin. She wisely plays up Harley’s most cartoonish traits, her exaggerated Brooklyn accent, extravagant mood swings, and fourth-wall breaking tendencies, to a positively absurdist degree. Even if you don’t take to her character at first she will either win you over with her charm or wear you down with her persistence. As well as being equal parts delightful, insufferable and horrific, this movie also allows her to display a layer of ambivalence, vulnerability and warmth that, rather than dismissed as weaknesses, serve to humanise her both in our eyes and in those of (some of) the other characters. Still, even being the psychopath that she is, there is a clear line the film is unwilling to cross for the sake of allowing her to remain likeable. One scene has her raiding a police station armed with a bazooka that fires non-lethal beanies and glitter. It’s a fun enough scene and the colourful gas and glimmering glitter do add to the carnivalesque tone of her rampage, but at some point I did find myself asking why Harley was going out of her way not to kill anybody. She’s shown not to have any qualms about killing and is perfectly game to break a man’s legs or feed him to a hyena for minor slights, so the most logical explanation I can think of is that having her commit a full-blown massacre in a police station would have been deemed a step too far for this kind of movie.

The movie’s main flaw is that it takes too long to bring its characters together and doesn’t explore their dynamic as deeply as I’d have liked. There’s certainly chemistry and a good rapport between them that makes their third-act team up work but there are points of focus that could have used some more development. While the main arc would seemingly be about Harley’s titular emancipation, they seemed to realise at a certain point that they could only go so far with that idea in a story that never sees her ex make an appearance so in the end Harley doesn’t so much break free of her past as she does forget about it. As for Black Canary, Detective Montoya and Huntress, they all get to enjoy enough depth to emerge as more than stock characters who exist to serve the plot. I particularly liked how matter-of-factly the film treats Montoya’s queerness, a trait that matters to her and to the plot but which isn’t made her defining feature. Still some facets, such as Huntress’ quest for vengeance, could have used some more attention rather than be relegated to sub-plots. There are a lot of plot threads and details that the film has to get out in order to make the climatic team-up work, so perhaps letting Harley steal the spotlight to the extent that she did was a misstep in that regard. Still, there’s something to be said for a film that knows what it is, mostly works and often works well. That’s certainly more than can be said for Suicide Squad.