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

Before 2019’s Captain Marvel or 2017’s Wonder Woman had the opportunity to be smash successes, Margot Robbie’s turn as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, a character that was equal parts bad-assery, sadism, and unabashed sexuality, was the closest the comic book movie world had to a genuine female star. And, yes, that’s a direct knock on ScarJo’s Black Widow. Given the character’s popularity, Robbie’s interest in playing the character, the Me Too movement, and the subsequent success of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, a Harley Quinn movie was somewhat inevitable. The marketing for the film made it quite clear that Quinn’s new movie, Birds of Prey, aimed to rise far above the ashes of its predecessor. The previews advertised Quinn literally killing off the Joker (and symbolically cutting ties with one of the most complained-about aspects of Suicide Squad) by blowing up an ACE Chemicals building with Joker presumably inside. It was the location in the previous film where the Quinn and Joker’s relationship was born. This seemed like a bold, exciting jumping-off point for the film. Combined with its striking art design and lengthy sub-title (Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) the movie had me excited to watch a spirited indictment of the patriarchy under the guise of a comic book movie. That’s mostly what I got.

The movie indeed starts with an effectively brief animation detailing Harley’s life up to that point: haunted by her abandonment by her father and raised by harsh nuns, Harley’s need for male approval and hate of the establishment were finally realized when she met the Joker, a man for whom she cast aside her MD/PhD in psychology for a life of crime. But she gets tired of doing all the work and planning for Mr. J., but receiving none of the credit. It’s here you’d expect some big fight between Joker and Harley culminating in the explosion from the trailer. But the trailer was deceiving. We don’t see the fight. We just see Quinn’s reaction to being dumped by the Joker in a manner similar to how break-ups are portrayed in thousands of other pieces of fiction: crying hysterically, getting belligerently drunk, getting a pet, and denying that the break-up even happened. All this onscreen activity is accompanied by constant narration from Quinn who, instead of telling the truth about her pain and insecurities, lies and brags about her strength and maturity in dealing with the situation. When she ultimately decides to blow up ACE Chemicals, it is not an attempt to fight back against her abuser, but is instead her response to hearing other women talk shit about how she will likely go running back to the Joker. Blowing up the building doesn’t kill Joker (he’s not even present); it was just an immature, symbolic gesture to let the Joker know that she wasn’t coming back to him (like he would even care).

This rather weak portrayal of Quinn stands in stark contrast to the character as portrayed in the pilot of the recent animated show Harley Quinn. Interestingly, the show has Harley, who has recently been left for dead by the Joker, empower herself to leave the Joker. Yet, the portrayal at the start of Birds of Prey is intentional. It paves the way for eventual growth. It wouldn’t be much of a movie if she achieved her emancipation in the first five minutes. Plus, it perfectly falls in line with the relationship and characters established in Suicide Squad. There, Quinn and Joker were a couple madly in love, always desperately trying to get back to one another. Still, by shying away from the truth and horrors of the abuse Quinn suffered from the Joker and instead choosing to couch her abuse as “not getting credit/appreciation,” the movie weakens her power, strength, and growth in character. Her emancipation becomes less an empowered victory over abuse and misogyny and more just escaping the shadow of her arrogant boyfriend. This is unfortunate as symbolically it is satisfying that even Quinn’s first step towards independence, blowing up the ACE chemical building, is met with punishment and the assumption by male society that she can no longer defend herself. Seemingly every other bad guy in Gotham City knew to interpret the explosion exactly as Harley intended, and now they all seek vengeance for Miss Quinn’s many misdeeds, now that she lacks the protection of Mr. J.

The actual plot for the movie focuses on its villain, Ramon “Black Mask” Sionis, the epitome of white male privilege but without the confidence, a wealthy billionaire man-child so insecure he lashes out violently in response to the smallest insult. Sionis is trying to acquire the film’s MacGuffin, a diamond, on the exact same day all of Gotham’s underbelly, including Sionis, is out for Quinn’s head. The diamond is inadvertently pickpocketed by Cassandra Cain, a teenaged, female ne’er-do-well (Ella Jay Basco) who, like Quinn, is the victim of abuse and abandonment and has now turned to thievery to get by. For reasons I won’t spoil, Cassandra is unable to part ways with the diamond, so the hunt for the diamond becomes the hunt for Cassandra. It’s a hunt that involves multiple female protagonists. There’s Detective Montoya (Rosie Perez), a veteran detective trying to make a criminal case against Sionis. There’s Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer in Sionis’s nightclub whom he forces to be his personal driver and errand-girl. And then there’s the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a cross-bow-wielding bad-ass who actually isn’t after Sionis at all but is just kinda there on her own, separate revenge scheme. And, of course, Quinn inevitably gets involved in the hunt as well.

But for as much as the plot is about acquiring the diamond and escaping Sionis and his goons, it really is a film about female empowerment. The patriarchy, its inherent misogyny and perpetuation of rape culture, is the true villain. And emancipation from the grips of patriarchy is ultimately desired by all its female protagonists, not just Quinn. Detective Montoya is constantly passed up for promotions at work for decades even though she’s the brain by many successful operations. Black Canary, a Black woman, has an arc that combines misogyny with racism as she is forced into near slavery by Sionis (a white male who refers to her as “his little bird” and, not so subtly, “owns” an extensive collection of shrunken African heads). Her arc is my favorite in the film. And then there’s Huntress who… well, she’s just doing her own revenge thing, man. Like she’s killing dudes and stuff, but it’s hard to really link her with the deep anti-patriarchy themes the other three protagonists have. But where the movie really elevates itself beyond the sort of surface-level “girl power!” (that the Huntress unfortunately sorta represents) is in its willingness to be honest and nuanced about the brutality of sexual assault, even in the small degree it does address it.

Twice, Quinn finds herself incapacitated while being directly threatened by a man. The first occurs after her post-break-up binge-drinking night out where on the verge on consciousness, she is being caressed and fondled by a man in an alley and nearly kidnapped (and presumably raped) by two men. In the second instance, she’s hit with a paralytic agent. Her assailant crouches down next to her, puts her arm around his neck. “You’re still conscious,” he says to himself, as if reassuring himself like a man about to rape a drunk girl on the drink of consciousness. It’s rather disturbing and powerful to see our protagonist who is, in every sense of the phrase, a bad-ass be just as susceptible to be raped and taken advantage of as any other woman in society. No one is safe, and she’s not alone. There’s another rather difficult scene where the movie’s villain, Ramon Sionis, forces an innocent female patron at his night club, under the threat of death, to strip and dance on top of a table in front of the whole club. These are powerful and scary scenes that generally aren’t a part of superhero movies. No doubt, the success and nuance of the scenes is due to the fact that the movie is directed by a woman, Cathy Yan, written by a woman, Christina Hodson, and produced mainly by women (including the star Margot Robbie herself). If allowed to explore these issues more deeply, it would have been a fantastic film.

Still, this movie is not intended to be a deep, serious dive against real issues women face; I recognize its an action-focused comic book movie. And to that degree, the movie is mostly a success. It’s a fun movie with clever, visually-stunning action sequences. I was floored by its use of color (of purples, reds, and blues particularly) throughout all the fight scenes. There’s an extremely satisfying scene where Quinn infiltrates a police station with a gun that shoots out what looks like bean bags that release colorful dust/confetti upon impact. And the final battle scene in an abandoned boardwalk’s funhouse featured one of the most creative set pieces for an action movie this side of Temple of Doom, replete of trampolines, mirrors, and gripping melee combat (with mallets, bats, and kicks to the groin, instead of the often-more boring-shoot-outs.)

I really cannot say enough good things about the visual style of the film or its tightly choreographed fight scenes. Less good things can be said about scenes that do no feature fighting/action. McGregor as Sionis is fine, but Sionis is an uninteresting villain, and his over-the-top childish nature is boring to watch. The movie would have been better served by a villain like Jason Schwartzman’s Gideon from Scott Pilgrim vs the World, a well-respected, successful, confident, misogynistic tool, rather than the insecure mess seen here. Also, Ella Jay Basco as the teenaged pickpocket Cassandra is not a great actress and there was little chemistry between her and Robbie. This is unfortunate since the movie aims to cast Harley as Cassandra’s new foster-mother to highlight Quinn’s growth and this sequence takes up a good chunk of the middle of the film. I did like how the film explored the idea that Harley Quinn, though a “super villain,” is a normal person who needs to get groceries like the rest of us. Scenes like these helped to make Quinn more sympathetic but were largely hampered by bad dialogue.

Furthermore, are we just going to ignore that Harley handed Cassandra a bomb with a lit fuse, giving Cassandra no choice but to throw the bomb out a car window thereby killing one of their assailants?! Cassandra cannot be more than 15 years old, but the movie does nothing to explore what this obviously traumatic situation does to Cassandra. I’ll buy the film’s excuse that she has a penchant for pickpocketing as a consequence of her social circumstances… but you can’t tell me that she would have no second thoughts/trauma about killing another human being! Sorry, that’s the pediatrician in me getting out.

So yeah, I liked the movie. It’s not great, but it ain’t bad. Its weak dialogue and weak villain are made up for by the film’s great visuals and its absolute commitment to doing right by its themes, even approaching serious issues with nuance and grace, something that would never have happened if a bunch of dudes crafted this picture. And even if the first hour isn’t great, most of my complaints washed away in the last half hour when all the female protagonists finally join together and that awesome funhouse battle takes place. Further, it is satisfying to see that Harley Quinn really does change throughout the film. In defeating Sionis, she is able to finally free herself from the Joker, but also from all the men who assumed she was nothing more than the Joker’s bitch. The movie doesn’t leave much room for a sequel which in itself is refreshing. It tells a complete tale. Still, I’d happily seek to watch more of these birds of prey having been let out of their cages, free to take on more of patriarchy.

**/ (Two and a half stars out of four)