Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
The idea of blockbuster films being led by women both in front as well as behind the camera seems to slowly be settling as a non-pioneering norm. Wonder Woman (2017) was able to do an incredible amount of glass-ceiling shattering, and it was soon followed by the equally successful Captain Marvel (2019). However, there have been some missteps financially (Wrinkle in Time (2018)), so the idea that women will standardly be trusted with the creative reins is of a film is still a ways away. However, we have gotten another milestone with the Cathy Yan-directed female ensemble film Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020).
Birds of Prey is a sequel of sorts to Suicide Squad (2016) where the DC villains were teamed up to save the day. In this film, we follow the charismatic Harley Quinn (played again by Margot Robbie) as she gets over the split up with her infamous partner the Joker. The film sees her going through the initial stages of a break-up, however without the Joker’s protection, Quinn is soon sought by the Gotham City crime world, seeking restitution for her havoc. This bloodlust is led by the wealthy club-owner Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor).
The film is essentially an origin story for the comic-book super team Birds of Prey, which would be made up of the assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and veteran cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). While these characters do appear in the film as supporting players, the main story is very much about Harley Quinn and her sought independence as a character (and a brand) from Joker and the other male figures of the DC Universe. As such this film is very much seeking to brush off any tonal similarities to the previous DC films. This autonomy allows for a rather distinct and fun voice to come forth from Yan in the director’s chair.
Yan had only previously made one feature before this, the Sundance darling Dead Pigs (2018), and it was surprising to see Warner Bros. give her a carte blanche with the stylistic and thematic aspects of this film. There is clearly an objective Birds of Prey has, at both desexualizing as well as redeeming the “coolness” of Harley Quinn. The female fighters in this film are allowed to both look great as well as kick ass without resorting to a ridiculously objectifying dress-code. The rather matter-of-factness about the action and violence also helps provide a rather normalized lens towards female characters fending for themselves. It was rather inspiring and emotional to see the characters team up and work together in the finale, for the simple fact of them beating a rich idiot into humiliation. Yan, however, is also able to craft rather immersive action sequences, many of which are not only incredibly original visually, but which don’t shy away from rather impressive choreography. I will not go to the lengths of saying that the fighting is as accomplished as the John Wick films – which have minutes long shots of fighting – but Birds of Prey certainly approaches the Keanu Reeves films in their bold staging.
The story of Harley Quinn, however, is much more fascinating when seeing it as a psychological exploration, both of female empowerment as well as emotional trauma. Yan takes on a rather jumpy editing style that has viewers jumping around the story’s timeline accompanied by Quinn’s narration. This allows for a certain abundance of content and flair to come out towards viewers, akin to the editing styles of Matthew Vaughn or Guy Ritchie. Yan is able to walk a fine line in not confusing its viewers with this flip-flopping, and in the process is able to capture the chaos that is Quinn’s mind; broken from her toxic relationship. Towards the middle of the film, however, the pace suddenly slows down and the editing and style seem to fizzle away. This results in a rather slow third of the film that is saved by another electric performance from an engrossed Margot Robbie. Robbie seems to have been born for this specific role, donning a convincing Brooklyn accent and completely buying into the ridiculousness and charm of her character. The film also had some rather impressive supporting turns from Smollett-Bell and Chris Messina (as Sionis’ right-hand man) who shine over the showier leads of Robbie and a convincing McGregor.
In the end, Bird of Prey proves to be a rather enjoyable film with a fun and original style (and amazing soundtrack) as well as refreshing explorations and vindications of female characters. Robbie holds this film together with a strong team of supporting players delivering another dynamic entry into the female blockbuster pantheon.