Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)

“…But it turns out, I wasn’t the only dame in Gotham looking for emancipation.”

– Harley Quinn (Birds of Prey)

The start of the year is always a particularly dry month as far as films are concerned. Award season darlings eat up the market during the holiday season and leave behind a dry wasteland till the Oscars. Finding a gem in that time is hard, but Birds of Prey shot into the hemisphere like a burst of confetti out of Harley Quinn’s own canon. Bringing color and excitement in the midst of a bleak winter. If you’re up on the discourse you may be aware of the talk of its “feminist agenda” or the claims its not appealing to the more male centric fanbase. Which isn’t new when you look at past films such as Wonder Woman (2017) and Captain Marvel (2019) which, although very popular, garnered similar sexist dialogue. Disregard all of that and just settle in for a great time.

I never saw Suicide Squad (2016) and through what I’ve heard I didn’t miss much. With that being said the Harley Quinn we get here is a more empowered version. Lead Margot Robbie has seemed very protective of her character and desired for her to have a spotlight that properly showed her off to her best abilities and be presented in a way that was “-definitely a lot less male gaze-y.” (IndieWire). A lot of dialogue in the past has centered around the topic of female characters seen through the male gaze vs the female gaze. Many of us can probably admit to feeling uncomfortable or at least acknowledging that feeling when watching films where the shot seems to leer at a female characters body parts in a way they don’t to her male co-stars. Knowing that a big reason for that choice of shot is to garner a certain reaction. When this topic comes up I always think back to hearing Carrie Fisher once comment on her infamous gold bikini from her Star Wars days and the countless times she had male fans flat out tell her they would touch themselves to it. Women shouldn’t be attacked online for wanting the female characters they see onscreen to be just as much for them and shown in a way they find empowering.

Anyway, lets get into the film… Birds of Prey is at its heart the story of Harley Quinn striking out on her own and owning her identity. Something that is quite refreshing for a character that has been so interlocked with the other character of the Joker since her inception. This is a character, and a woman, stepping out of the shadows and showing she can more than carry her own story thank you very much. Margot Robbie inhabits this chaotic and kooky energy perfectly and appears to know Harley inside and out. Serving not only as the lead but also as producer of the film, Robbie proves that Harley Quinn couldn’t be in any better hands than hers. The film kicks off and spends quality time laying out the breakup that lead to this new lease on life and showing her getting comfortable in this new life… Even if that includes making herself an enemy to many whether she consciously realizes it or not. The film even states through its villain that without Joker she is nothing and no longer has the protection being by his side gave her. Even Harley seems to think this is the case. In a touching scene she even muses to Dinah/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell) – “Do you know what a harlequin is? A harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master. And no one gives two sh*ts who we are beyond that.”

As much as this is a story about Harley Quinn coming into her own it is also equally shared amongst other women who in different ways are desiring their own freedom from ties that bind them. Whether that be the justice system suffocating them as with Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), feeling under the thumb of others while silencing your true potential like Dinah/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell), a tragic backstory and vengeance to rectify that as it is for Helena/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) or maybe you’re just a kid with a penchant for petty thievery with a bounty on your head like Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Their true teaming up may not happen till the final act of the film but this group is dynamic when joined as one unit. Smollet-Bell and Winstead in particular give standout performances that deserve equal praise alongside Robbie. Smollet-Bell delivering not only wonderful screen presence but also offering up her own vocals with her memorable rendition of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”. Winstead has a more pulled back role, but Huntress is sardonic and sharp in the best way with some pretty snappy line deliveries.

Naturally every story needs a villain and the one taking up the mantle here is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor); also know as Black Mask. A crime lord with a gleeful penchant for face-peeling punishments but has the fragile ego of a tween. You can tell that McGregor was having a ball with the role and serves up a comically memorable bad guy who knows not to hog up too much of the air in the room. It is he who lays the hefty bounty on young Cassandra’s head which leads mercenaries from around the city on her trail and ultimately brings these women together to take him down. I couldn’t help but briefly be reminded of John Wick 2 (2017) with this plot point and one can’t help but also think of that franchise in regards to the wired-up action set pieces shown off in Birds of Prey. The violence here is not exceptionally brutal but it is dynamic in the strongest sense of the word. In a time when action, particularly in the comic book film landscape, is often heavily reliant on CGI it is exhilarating to see it onscreen in a practical way.

Birds of Prey may not offer up a tidy or streamlined commentary on feminism as some contemporaries might. But it is a film I believe many women will want and love a lot, as will so many other people no matter what their gender is. This film is artfully done and plenty of praise should go to director Cathy Yan who serves it up exceptionally well. Harley Quinn and company show off in Birds of Prey not a story of heroes or villains but that of the shades of grey in between. Oh… I also want my own stuffed beaver in a tutu.

4 1/2 Stars out of 5

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