Birds of Prey
From a marketing push that focused on female power, a reclamation of a narrative, and basically anything that wasn’t related to Jared Leto’s infamous Joker from 2016’s Suicide Squad, it was clear that director Cathy Yan’s DC installment Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) had a certain audience in mind. And I’ll be completely honest, I was definitely in that audience.
The film, while mainly focused on Harley, speaks to the power of female unity and empowerment. It’s a film that feels like it’s made for edgy girls that shop at Hot Topic or Dolls Kill. Like most superhero movies, it’s filled with further references to DC comic book lore that Harley Quinn fans will be able to recognize. For those who liked the aesthetic of Suicide Squad (or at least its first 10 minutes), Birds of Prey embraces that in its off-the-wall style.
Maybe I should start from the beginning. Birds of Prey follows Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, recently breaking up with the Joker and attempting to embrace her new life unchained to her abusive ex-boyfriend. Harley–with the help of other superheroes–protects a young girl named Cassandra Cain from the larger Gotham City crime scene while trying to make it on her own as a mercenary in Gotham.
Almost following in the footsteps of Todd Phillips’ Joker in trying to capture a certain vibe and market (high-class naysayers of superhero films?), Birds of Prey feels like a refreshing step in the same independent direction that Warner Bros. is aiming to take their DC films into. In some ways, Birds of Prey feels like DC’s alternative option for a female empowerment film for critics of 2017’s Wonder Woman, or maybe for those who liked the Patty Jenkins-directed film but didn’t absolutely love it.
In other words, it shows DC’s aim to widen their market to provide different kinds of stories for different people. One of Harley’s defining and more controversial characteristics is her toxic and abusive relationship with the Joker. By breaking that relationship, director Cathy Yan launches a refreshing female take in the superhero sphere. Yan showcases all of Harley’s strengths and weaknesses: her intelligence, her tendency to be an airhead, her kindness, and her proficiency in leadership. Most profoundly, Cathy Yan attempts to candidly show the up-and-down cycle of Harley’s life and her recovery from (in the words of Harley Quinn) being a really shitty person into a less shitty person.
While the fundamental messages of Birds of Prey clearly exist in the film, the writing somehow makes them simultaneously too ham-fisted and too hidden. In trying to highlight each of Harley’s fellow female crime fighters, the movie’s pacing suffers. While it is easily attributed to Harley’s chaotic personality, having that translate into a storytelling format wasn’t the greatest decision. Throughout the first 30-40 minutes of the film, the timing jumped around so much that it felt hard to tell where things started and things ended.
Like the timing and pacing of the movie, the time and attention spent on characters also felt a bit haphazardly distributed. Some characters and their storylines fell flat, such as police detective Renee Montoya’s storyline. Highlighting sexism in the workplace and the protection of the upper class, familiar archetypal storylines seen throughout this year’s Oscar campaigns made the underlying tone of female empowerment feel hammered in and suffocating. Some characters and storylines stood out. The motivations of the allegiances of Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary were a compelling foil that injected a bit of life into Renee Montoya’s overdone storyline. Ewan McGregor truly looked like he was having fun portraying villain Black Mask. And Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress was a surprising and entertaining comedic foil, serving to highlight female vengeance. They all added color (both metaphorically and literally) to the world-building and society of the movie, and it’s a shame that there couldn’t be more time spent on these storylines.
In trying to be as unbiased as I could, I can say that at the very least Birds of Prey is still a ton of fun. While a bit all over the place, Birds of Prey embraces as much of Harley’s odd-ball energy as possible while still telling the a story of female unity and empowerment that feels refreshing within the male-dominated superhero landscape. In a movie landscape that is always trying to please higher-ups to earn acclaim, Birds of Prey candidly embraces irreverence and chaos, no matter who’s along for the ride.