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

By Callie Petch
By February 12, 2020 March 27th, 2020 Film, Reviews

Without wishing to completely demean all of the movies I’m about to reference or infer, you can really tell when a female-led or female-centric superhero or action movie is having its creative strings primarily pulled by men.  And not just in the Catwoman, Elektra or (arguably) Suicide Squad senses where their every facet of production design and camera’s gaze have been carefully pitched to make filming their female characters double as a moving FHM centrefold spread.  It’s more in the subtleties and substance.  How the offending films rarely end up coming at their material from a unique female angle.  How they either simply gender-swap their protagonist and call it a day or put in all their work in crafting just the one multi-dimensional female character and then populate the rest of the cast entirely with men.  How so goddamn many of these things end up being about daddy issues as if that is the single thing that could ever motivate any woman to do anything.  How they do or don’t depict trauma, both visually and narratively.  How clumsily they end up tripping over themselves to assert FEMINIST BONA FIDES through capitalist GIRL POWER affectations rather than just letting the empowerment appear naturally through the story and filmmaking.

Take Captain MarvelCaptain Marvel is a pretty good film, because Marvel movies at this point operate from a baseline of “pretty good,” and there is something inherently cool and empowering about plugging a woman into the otherwise exclusively male role of Marvel Protagonist… but Captain Marvel still looks like your standard Phase 1 Marvel movie, feels like your standard Phase 1 Marvel movie, and only seems interested in the female perspective that someone like Carol Danvers brings so that it can score a couple of easy cheesy GIRL POWER lay-ups – plus, honestly, much as I love Brie Larson and the presence she brings to the role, Carol doesn’t actually have much of a personality yet beyond “quips” which is the movie’s biggest problem.  Wonder Woman, conversely, does a fantastic job at characterising Diana through the little off-handed interactions she periodically engages in, and the No Man’s Land stretch is transcendentally revelatory… but director Patty Jenkins is hamstrung at every opportunity by a script which has clearly never been within 500 yards of a woman and her being forced to adhere to Zack Snyder’s ultra-masculine visual aesthetic which she can’t fully feminise.  Terminator: Dark Fate, meanwhile, is all about women and female strength but is strangled by James Cameron’s trademark “feminist” ideas – namely: all the exact same kind of aggressively macho BADASS so hooked up on testosterone that they exclusively eat Yorkie bars and their bloodstreams are 90% AXE shower gel.

Now, this isn’t to say that female-centric action films with primarily women creative heads are automatically incapable of smacking the ground face-first thanks to these hurdles – we’re barely three months removed from Elizabeth Banks’ lifeless #GirlBoss take on Charlie’s Angels, after all.  But what I am saying is that the chances of such mistakes go down when you let a largely-female creative team have a dialogue with one another and make the creative choices and decisions that cis men don’t consider.  Believe it or not, you can’t just randomly shove nine different badass female superheroes into one shot, blare a triumphant fanfare, yell “FEMINISM IS SOLVED, PLEASE CLAP!” and get a genuinely affecting and effective movie moment out of it.

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

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – important sidebar: if you don’t like that full title, then I’m afraid you and I can no longer be friends – is jam-packed full of those tell-tale female-driven creative decisions and, even more specifically, how director Cathy Yan, screenwriter Christina Hodson, and producer & star Margot Robbie prioritise letting these creative decisions just be rather than utilise them for self-conscious points-scoring.  Take the new costumes by Erin Benach, for instance.  By and large, they are a lot less male-gaze-y than in Suicide Squad and cinematographer Matthew Libatique refrains from gratuitous butt shots, boob shots, or other fanservice-y leering of exposed skin.  But the costumes are still strikingly designed, and they’re arguably still sexy.  The difference is that the designs are more in-keeping with each character’s personality, their inner strength and self-confidence, and the camera is fixated on the feminine power (both mental and physical) they exude and gain from the manner in which they dress.  It’s a difference in perspective; communicating the desires of the characters rather than the desires of titillated teenage boys in the audience or consumerist marketers looking to sell expensive branded clothing.

This kind of smart reframing and recontextualization of the prior DCEU groundwork and aesthetics – I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that one of the earliest decisions Yan, Hodson and Robbie came to was “what if we took the deliberately garish pop-punk live-action Liquid Television aesthetic David Ayer was going for in Suicide Squad but feminised and made it not shit?” – is endemic of the pleasures that Birds of Prey has to offer.  It’s a female-centric ensemble action movie which allows its various women the privilege of being distinctive characters, to have clearly-defined personalities and clashing ideologies, to fuck up and grow from those fuck-ups, to act like people.  There are action sequences – largely aided by an uncredited Chad Stahelski (he of John Wick) and meticulously thought-through with careful consideration about staging, unique fighting styles for each heroine, and a great balance of bone-crunching immediacy without clashing against the breezy fun-times tone of the film at large – but Birds of Prey rations them out sparingly because it is more interested on the characters and character work which gets us to those fight scenes.

Accordingly, it takes a long while before our cast of heroines and anti-heroines do team up.  Hodson’s screenplay is deliberately overcomplicated and hops around its timeline with regularity in a manner which, when combined with the bad taste genre-mash technicolour outsized nature of Gotham’s criminal underworld that has a touch of Deadpool in the telling, isn’t too dissimilar from the works of Takashi Miike, Guy Ritchie and Sion Sono – the climactic mega-brawl taking place at a disused amusement park reminded me a hell of a lot of Sono’s gonzo Tokyo Tribe adaptation, in particular.  And whilst this does mean that the film ends up getting away from itself at points with a pacing which could’ve done with a few more tightening passes, I can’t help but feel like telling the story more linearly would drain the film of its momentum.  Also, the overly complex plotting manages to communicate Harley’s hyperactive mania in a more natural, understandable and caring manner than just having her yell stereotypically “crazy” things and defining her solely as that.

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

That kind of surprising nuance in what is still a big, loud, broad, unashamedly extra comic book movie can be found in all of Birds’ main cast.  All our leads are traumatised to some degree: Harley (Robbie) from her abusive relationship with Joker, Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) lost her parents at a young age and feels subservient to Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) as the one who took her off the streets, Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) was the sole survivor of a mafia power-grab massacre, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) comes from a broken foster home, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) often withdraws into alcoholism and is still not taken seriously at the force; even the flamboyantly evil Sionis is harbouring unresolved baggage regarding his family.  But the film refuses to let that trauma solely define these characters, always treating the subject respectfully and making it a key focus when necessary but just as often leaving it unspoken (such as in the shared respect the ladies have when they team up) or puncturing that possible one-dimensional simplicity for earned humour that brings unexpected dimensions to all.  Cassandra playing up the stereotypical image of a scared confused little girl when cornered as a means to lower guards, Renee’s habit of speaking like a bad 80s cop movie and penchant for low-blows, Helena’s attempted uber-badass image forever hilariously deflated by everyone around her.

These all feel like distinctive developed characters, even when certain members have much less screen time to work with than others, and they’re allowed to just exist as such.  Even when these women do come together and are forced to team up against Sionis, Hodson and Yan still include just as many moments of their personalities clashing to some minor degree because, hey, even whilst they may help each other out – co-ordinating beatings, hot potato-ing Cassandra away from baddies, even offering up hair-ties cos trying to kick ass with really long flowing hair is kind of a bitch – they’re still relative strangers with different ideologies.  It’s this kind of attention to detail, this fixation on character work and not betraying prior groundwork for the sake of Empowered Feminist MomentsTM, that enables Birds of Prey to succeed where so many others have continued to fail.  Yan & Hodson put in the work and just allow things to be because that’s the truth of their Gotham.

And since they get the characters so right, everything else about Birds of Prey slides into place.  This is a movie that consists of nothing but attempted home-run swings, a relentless desire to become somebody’s new favourite movie, and in doing so juggles a lot of balls and throws a lot of stuff at the wall.  There’s the non-linear chronology, the empathetic exploration of how one re-finds their sense of self after so long in an abusive relationship, glitter-bomb assaults on police stations, elaborate musical homages to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes which double as abuse metaphors, amping up the divisive Suicide Squad visual aesthetic even further, a wide ensemble cast each with inferred lives outside of this movie, glib occasionally vulgar humour, a love story between a woman and her bacon and egg sandwich…  Not all of the swings connect, the humour in particular can be rather hit or miss, but the enthusiasm is undeniable and infectiously fun, the third act absolutely kills from start to finish, and the performances are exceptional across the board.  McGregor is having the time of his life camping up the place whilst also being scarily narcissistic and contemptuous when asked, Perez gets a long-overdue opportunity to remind everyone how commanding of a screen presence she is, Smollett-Bell is the film’s heart yet bruisingly prickly, whilst Winstead has the least screen-time of the main cast but completely runs away with the movie regardless – there’s a reason I frequently tout her as one of our best actors, she’s an utter awesome riot in this.

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

Here’s the thing.  When I got back home on Saturday night to make notes for my review, in addition to all of the things I’ve talked about here and more besides – the way that intersectionality and explicitly queer-coded characters are just allowed to be like the no big deal they should be, ditto Harley’s non-specific mental illness (not glamourised or valourised or seen as some kind of empowerment to do crimes despite what bad-faith morons online would have you believe), the fantastic visuals outside of how they relate to shooting our cast, the thematic importance and joy in eating food (this makes sense in context), every single line out of Huntress’ mouth – I had listed a bunch of flaws to make further reference to in this write-up.  The occasional confounding editing choice, Harley and Cassandra’s relationship moves a touch too fast considering how the film ends, a few not very funny gags which run on for too long, the obnoxiously abominable soundtrack which isn’t quite Suicide Squad levels of artlessly on-the-nose horrific but gets damn-close, the hilawful Dramatic Trailer Cover of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” which kicks off the finale.

It is now Tuesday night as I write this and, aside from the soundtrack – seriously, whoever is in charge of music supervision at DC Films needs firing sharpish, and the maker of that Benatar cover should be banned for life from music in all forms – I have stopped caring about those listed flaws.  The more that I think back on Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), the more I love it, the dimmer the knocks against it become, and the brighter its highs shine.  To some extent, this is admittedly down to the fact that I am a queer 90s-alt teen girl feminist at heart (only barely a joke) and this movie ticks so many of my personal “YES YES ALL OF THIS” boxes that I’m willing to overlook the stuff it gets wrong in favour of what it gets right, not to mention my natural inclination to always go to bat for earnest films which go for broke with enthusiasm and without shame.

But more than those excuses is the simple fact that Cathy Yan, Christina Hodson and Margot Robbie get it.  They understand where past attempts to create female-led and female-focussed comic book and action movies have failed, they know how to fix them, and they also know the little additional touches a film like this needs to fully soar where others have only hovered.  The characters, the presentation, the empathy and diversity and variety, the emotional truth.  And they carry out their charge with such genuine glee, such fun, such love, that every time I’ve thought back on this film since viewing I just want to be right back in that cinema watching it all over again.  I want to live in this movie.  I want more.  I want 17 sequels, I want Netflix spin-off TV shows, I want videogames, podcasts, novelty Christmas albums.

This is It.  This I what I wanted and what I didn’t quite realise I needed this badly.  There will definitely be better films than Birds of Prey released in 2020.  There may not be one I love this much.



Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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