Birds Of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn is an even longer title than The Dolorous Adventure Of Brother Banenose. No one is going to refer to it by its full name. I finally went to the trouble of copying & pasting it for this critique though. I wanted to get this out the week after my CAOS Part 3 overview but the title was so sesquipedalian it threw off my schedule!
Thanks to the end of Crisis On Infinite Earths, this film can canonically exist. Though is it even worth it if they don’t sing of superhero dicks? Now here’s the latest The Wages of Cinema collaboreview with the answer! Before, after, or during your listen, scroll down for the non-transcript wherein I over analyze wardrobe & comic book deviations. There may be some SPOILERS, puddin’!
Before getting to the movie itself, I have to unload some comic book context. Birds of Prey was the team the Barbara Gordon founded as Oracle after the Joker paralyzed her in The Killing Joke. Her central role has been replaced by the Joker’s (ex-)moll. So that erasure is all sorts of icky. (Harley debuted in the core comics continuity years later, but the point still stands.) While Harley has appeared in BOP as an antagonist, she’s never been part of its rotating roster until movie synergy.
Robbie said she didn’t want to do Gotham City Sirens to spotlight some more obscure superheroines, but I’m guessing The Batman also called dibs on Catwoman & Poison Ivy. (The Batman being “not sanitized” had better mean Batnipples!) Including Barbara Gordon may have been tricky since Commissioner Gordon got recast from JK Simmons to Jeffrey Wright. Casting a biracial actress to play her seems like it’d work for either actor as her dad, but Jayme Lawson is rumored to be playing her in The Batman. WB embargoed Oracle, possibly to debut her as Batgirl. (Joss Whedon’s Batgirl movie seems to have been axed.) Schrödinger’s Babs doesn’t make her omission here more palatable though. BOP without Oracle is like X-Men without Professor X.
Despite Birds of Prey being the first half of the title, it’s very much a Harley Quinn movie evoking the Jimmy Palmiotti & Amanda Conner run down to Bernie the taxidermied beaver. It resembles Deadpool right down to its February release. There’s also shades of Tank Girl. These are pluses in my book! Unlike Dr. Harleen Quinzel’s prior cinematic outing, this one knows what it’s doing. Director Cathy Yan’s & screenwriter Christina Hodson make the most of its R-rated ultraviolence. (There is no sex or nudity though.) The posters are delightful, particularly the Botticelli-themed series.
This movie is about Harley gaining her independence from the Joker. The problem is that Suicide Squad depicted her & Mr. J as couples goals. While most media has established that those two are a toxic pairing, this cinematic interpretation hasn’t. (The Harley Quinn cartoon efficiently portrayed this within its premiere.) So the emotional weight of her leaving an abusive relationship is absent. Without the chronic toxicity, she loses much of the sympathy that elevated her from a henchwench to a breakout fan favorite. The movies leapfrogged over her trauma to get her to the forefront. If both of them are equally loathsome, her emancipation from Mistah J is less empowering. (I’m not interested, however, in them retconning this with a flashback movie of her being constantly abused. That character development ship sailed.) He dumps her at the start, so she doesn’t even choose this. Even with Harley being independent, she’s still a clown-themed supervillainess. Not only is she not repenting for her crimes, she hasn’t adopted a new persona not tied to him. At least she acknowledges she’s a terrible person in this.
Harley Quinn dresses like vintage Robyn, trading black & red for pink & gold. I wouldn’t mind this as her casual attire, but not as her go-to look. Why won’t Robbie wear the classic Harley Quinn costume again as her main outfit? (Her refusal to wear an iconic red & black bodysuit as much as possible is the easiest way to tell her & Ryan Reynolds apart.) No redesign will ever top its perfection. It’s not like she’s incognito. After all, she wears a shirt with her name written all over it in public. She still wears the tacky booty shorts, this time with fishnets that should’ve been Black Canary’s. It’s not my preferred costume, but Toni Topaz’s Halloween cosplay screams Harley much more. She still has all the gauche tattoos scrawled over her, but why didn’t Batman ever give her a Bat-brand for her part in killing Robin? Why doesn’t Harley having “rotten” written on her jaw raise as much ire as the Joker’s “damaged” forehead?
Regardless of her characterization & fashion, Harley Quinn remains a force to be reckoned with. Margot Robbie takes everything that made her a Suicide Squad highlight & amplifies it. She gives the impression of being terrifyingly committed to her role. Her beanbag & glitterbomb raid on the GCPD is a particularly great sequence. She gets to perform plenty of acrobatic brutal beatdowns! (How are high heel boots better suited to this than jester slippers?) This dame’s got moxie to spare!
The plot is pretty simple, which isn’t a negative. Harley ill-advisedly reveals she & the Joker broke up, thereby losing all the protection that came with him. Numerous Gothamites want vengeance! Cassandra Cain steals a diamond from Black Mask that he stole from Huntress. Honest cop Renee Montoya urges Black Canary to embrace her inner superheroine. Double-crosses & team-ups ensue. Luckily it contains negative Jared Leto! (They could easily recast him, but I rather he just evaporate to make way for other rogues.) It’s less of an ensemble than I would’ve liked, but it holds together. The stakes are of the right scale this time.
Rosie Perez as Detective Renee Montoya is significantly older than her female co-stars, but this doesn’t diminish her scrappiness. Her age amplifies her frustration with the GCPD’s ineptitude. She kills an innocent sandwich! I was worried they’d wiggle around it, but they confirm Renee is a lesbian via an ex-girlfriend. The opening animation also shows Harley is bisexual. It only took DC eight movies to include some main characters that are explicitly not straight. (This sounds like a backhanded compliment until you realize the MCU still hasn’t gotten this far.)
Huntress may be the most unchanged from the comics. (Helena Bertinelli was reintroduced as a woman of color in the New 52, whereas here it’s Black Canary as if they were only allowed to diversify one.) She gets her own mini-revenge movie. While she’s effective at murder, she’s less successful at personal branding. Helena’s main contribution is to conveniently appear to slay enemies who’ve gotten the drop on Harley. One of the trailers did spoil that she kills Mr. Zsasz.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead describes her costume as tactical, functional, & scary. Is it though? My mental defaults for Huntress’s costume are the ones that cover her body fully. The movie suit looks far less practical. I appreciate that MEW got in great shape, but a powerless vigilante shouldn’t bare that much skin. It looks like her exposed midriff was the one aspect that carried over from the comics when it should’ve been eschewed. I’d prefer more purple, a mask, & cape. (Edna Mode never realized cape clasps exist, so her opinion is invalid.)
Cassandra Cain’s muteness has been dropped. Learning to speak was a huge effort for her in the comics. In addition to Oracle’s omission, this isn’t good representation for Batgirls with disabilities. It would’ve been a fun contrast with Harley’s motormouth. Cass is supposed to have the nigh-metahuman skill of being able to read body language so well that she can counter any attack. Think Chocolate. She should be the movie’s top as-kicker even with an arm in cast. This pickpocket played by Ella Jay Basco is the biggest deviation from the source.
Black Canary falls between the two extremes. Dinah Lance has been rejiggered to fit better into Harley’s world, but Jurnee Smollett-Bell keeps her compassionate core. I’m pleased she’s a legacy character with a metahuman Canary Cry. If she used it more often, the stellar fight scenes would be much shorter. She does picks a great moment to bust it out.
Lots of fans like the classic leather jacket & fishnets costume for Black Canary, but I lean towards her more superheroic outfits. (A middle ground could be reached if her stockings are are armored tactical fishnets.) (Green) Arrow’s Dinah Drake & final season season Earth-2 Laurel Lance had good takes on this style. Even Smallville had a recognizable outfit for her. Dinah Lance’s look hews closer to the casual vibe of the original without iconic linkage. It’s just a tank top & pants, which is very lazy. Her lounge singer dress is much spiffier.
In the end, Huntress & Black Canary do get costumes that evoke the comics more. (Montoya doesn’t dress like The Question though.) I still don’t see why they couldn’t have just worn these from the start since it’s Gotham City. There’s no compelling origin for these outfits so it’s not like they needed to build up to them. It’s a moment that feels like the end of X-Men: Apocalypse, so hopefully the BOP won’t also eschew them in their next movie like Dark Phoenix.
Despite the initial marketing, Roman Sionis does don a black mask. (Was it carved from his dad’s coffin?) Black Mask always been a B-lister, & the the movie runs with this perfectly. He’s a roiling mass of insecurities in snazzy velvet suits & monogrammed gloves. Ewan McGregor commits grand theft scenery! It’s so refreshing to see the lead villain that displays so much emotional vulnerability without getting a redemption arc. He’s terrifying when he lashes out to compensate for his inadequacy. He built a successful criminal empire despite being cut off from his family fortune. This face-collecting portrayal would’ve fit right in on Gotham. (Gotham had his dad, Richard Sionis, as precursor, although Roman might’ve cameoed in the final season.) He’s everything Suicide Squad’s Joker should’ve been. The brunch scene was comedy gold!
Pairing Sionis with Victor Zsasz, the other B-lister with a taste for torture, was a wise move. Are he & Zsasz a couple? (That could be why Roman’s family disowned him.) They’re definitely codependent. Is Zsasz the only important character who never gets his name flashed onscreen? Chris Messina plays him as a scuzzier creepazoid than lovable Anthony Carrigan. This time he gets bleached hair yet still doesn’t wear triangular sunglasses. His scars make him look very terrible at shaving rather than tally marks.
In BTAS, Harley’s hyenas were named Bud & Lou after Abbot & Costello. In the DC Super Hero Girls reboot, they’re named Lucy & Ethel after I Love Lucy. As hyenas are matriarchal & females were often confused with males by early zoologists, this name change is appropriate. The point is they should be named for classic comedians. Harley’s sole hyena in the movie is named Brucey for Bruce Wayne. UGH. Luckily the hyena survives!
The colorful production design is fantastic. Harley’s & Roman’s residences contrast in opulence. I love how the big set piece at the end is set in a dilapidated amusement park. There’s a foggy pier of creepy broken statues. It definitely has Gotham City personality. The lighting & cinematography gorgeously showcases this geography.
The John Wick stunt team brought its expertise. The action is the right combination of flashy & realistic to sell why fighting its women is a sucker’s bet. They’re edited coherently so you can follow the carnage like Huntress’s stabby slide. Since it’s not Batman punching mooks for the umpteenth time, these battles feel refreshing.
Although it’s an origin story for the Birds of Prey, Harley doesn’t join the team. She continues her life of crime with Cass as her protege. (If they stole the diamond, how’d Helena get the bank account codes off it to bankroll BOP?) This is a welcome surprise. So if it (hopefully) gets a sequel, will it be Harley Quinn v. Birds of Prey: Dawn of Brevity? How great would it be if Quinn kills the Joker to become The Clown Queen of Crime? Or can we get a BOP without it being anchored to her star power? I might prefer that one so the other characters can have room to blossom. Once Spielberg makes that Blackhawk movie they can recruit Lady Blackhawk.
The absence of Joker & Batman is both a welcome respite & a narrative choice. This female-centric production’s feminist theme feels more organic than just having characters superficially say “#GirlPower.” It’s about women realizing they don’t have to stand behind men who marginalize them. It even shows the power of teamwork. So there is a positive message here betwixt all the bone-breaking. Naturally there is a vocal contingent that says this is too radical because there isn’t a token good guy.
So BOP: ATFEOOHQ got most of the details wrong, but was still a good movie! If only the majority of X-Men films got that second part right! This is such a fun film! I enjoyed this much more than I expected to. (You should believe Gail Simone because she felt mostly the same as me but with bonus insider experience. She got invited to a set visit too!) BOP was fantabulous!
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