In 2016, DC released “Suicide Squad” in hopes that it would be the start they needed to help kickstart their own cinematic universe. Unfortunately, it was received poorly in the box office, and the spinoffs planned for it were all quickly shelved. Cited by many as being problematic and grim, it was a surprise when DC announced they were releasing a sequel focused on Margot Robbie’s character in the film, Harley Quinn.
“Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” released on Feb. 7 of this year, and unlike its predecessor it seems to understand a healthy mix of serious and seriously fun.
The story focuses on the titular Harley Quinn’s struggle of discovering who she is outside of the Joker’s influence.
Through a handful of very large coincidences she meets the other stars of the film, the Birds of Prey. This team is made up of Renee Montoya, Helena Bertinelli and Dinah Lance, whose paths all cross when they set out to save a young pickpocket from being killed by a villain known as the Black Mask.
Starting with the very first scene, “Birds of Prey” shows that despite its R rating it’s inspired more so from Shazam’s imagery versus the dark and grim style of “Suicide Squad.” DC has discovered fun films sell much better, and so “Birds of Prey” isn’t afraid to allude to its comic book past, using color schemes that invoke comic book imagery, and utilizing fun imagery to help illuminate the audience on which characters are which.
The movie begins as an animated backstory, narrated by Harley Quinn. She tells the audience of her life story and it immediately sets the tone as a goofy action flick. While the rest of the movie is live action it never loses the cartoony atmosphere established in the beginning. Combining this with an unafraid to be biased narrator and stellar editing comes together to make a story that flows better than you’d expect.
“Birds of Prey” is also a film that’s made explicitly with women in mind. Whereas films like “Suicide Squad” and “Justice League” have been critiqued for their gratuitous usage of the male gaze – camera angles which accentuate a women’s assets – “Birds of Prey” goes out of its way to avoid anything remotely seen as your standard cheesecake superheroine poses or costumes. While this decision has been mocked by some, many have applauded this decision as it gives a sense of agency to the characters that drives the idea of the plot.
The sets go the extra mile in showcasing this choice by having every set that takes place in a male dominated space be covered in portraits nude women, or women in compromising positions. The climactic fight scene at the end takes place in one of the Joker’s former lairs and it’s made up of disembodied heads, bodies and eyes. Black Mask’s lounge is made of Women’s masks symbolizing the “Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil, Say No Evil” faces, and in the moment where he decides Harley Quinn must die he is surrounded by paintings of naked women.
Another controversial choice made by director Cathy Yan is for all the men to be the bad guys. Not one man is painted as a good character and it’s a bold choice that only a woman could make – it acts as a way of reclaiming their space in the same way “Birds of Prey” acts as a way to reclaim Harley Quinn from her persona of the Joker’s arm candy.
If “Birds of Prey” is a movie made for women, then Roman Sionis, played by Ewan McGregor, is the perfect villain. Made up of every misogynistic white tendency, he acts as the main antagonist of the film. He’s wild in a way only a white man can be, and he hates Harley because she sees right through him. While Sionis is the antagonist, the true conflict he introduces is his entitlement. While in some aspects he feels like a stand in for the Joker, Sionis has a sophisticated air that causes him to unhinge as the film progresses – making him a much more entertaining villain.
“Birds of Prey” is a feminist masterpiece, and it’s also a fun film to watch. Where some women superhero films become about the Strong Woman trope, these women are just strong multifaceted characters. It’s well worth a watch in theaters, comic book fan or no.