A Bombastic Feminist Blockbuster: Birds of Prey
[Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Warner Bros.]
Superhero films —and blockbusters in general— are overwhelmed with stories about (mostly white) men. This doesn’t mean women are never in them; every so often they’re even allowed to star. However, modern outings of feminist blockbusters (with a few exceptions) have been tepid at best, and hollow “girl-boss” vehicles at worst. Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) stands out among its peers in its unabashed, glitter-covered spectacle and infectious energy. It’s a movie that unselfconsciously embraces womanhood and is deeply invested in telling kick-ass stories about that. Cathy Yan (dir.) and screenwriter Christina Hodson infused sincerity and spunk into this bombastic tour de force.
Our story begins after the explosive (literally) breakup between Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and The Joker. Post-breakup Harley spends her nights binge drinking and blowing up chemical plants. Unfortunately, her escapades signal to Gotham’s criminal underbelly that she is no longer privileged to Mr. J’s protection and an eclectic bunch of vengeance seekers promptly hunt her down. The biggest gun after her is the crime boss and resident face-peeler Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor).
As the narrative skitters along, we meet the rest of our crew. Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a preteen pickpocket who snatches diamond Sionis is looking for. Dinah Lance (Journee Smollett-Bell), Sionis’s songstress turned driver. Renée Montoya (Rosie Perez), a Gotham PD detective building a case against Sionis, and the mysterious Crossbow Killer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a mercenary who occasionally pops into the narrative to viciously murder random bystanders.
This movie’s frenetic to put it mildly. It starts with a high energy animated exposition vehicle and doesn’t slow down from there. I did find its first act jarring. Harley’s narration dragged us back and forth through time as she cavalierly jerked us through the narrative. Luckily for me, the time-hopping petered out as the story continued. Despite that, I found the pacing of this film excellent. We perfectly balance slick action and character introspect and the storytelling was smooth from the second act onward.
Harley’s emotional journey post-breakup is the main thread pulling us through this movie. She’s the lynchpin that connects the rest of our cast and this movie is carried by the stellar performance from Margot Robbie. Robbie balances Harley’s manic energy and emotional sincerity perfectly. There was a vulnerability to her performance that connected me to her character in a way I haven’t in previous iterations of the character. Tight scripting from Cristina Hodson as well and perfectly balanced performance from Robbie displayed Harley as a fully realized and incredibly compelling protagonist to follow throughout the film.
While Harley is central to the narrative the rest of the cast is equally well-wrought. Journee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary and Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress were stand out performances for me. Bell had fantastic chemistry with everyone she was put opposite across. She played a great weary straight man to the unstable antics of Sionis and Harley. Dinah’s steady competence throughout the film was fun to watch and I was impressed by their ability to convey her character and backstory without lengthy exposition. Winstead’s stoic portrayal of Huntress was one of the comedic highlights of this film. She sadly didn’t get as much screen time as I would have licked but her time on screen was delightful. He running gag never failed to pull a chortle from me and there was an earnestness to her social awkwardness that was incredibly endearing.
What made Birds of Prey work where other similar films haven’t was its investment in its characters as people. Not symbols of power, or girl-bosses, but characters grounded in real emotion. The interwoven emotional journeys of these women were fantastically drawn. Like Harley says all these women are looking for emancipation and the tightly interconnected nature of the story served their character arcs well. While their time onscreen together as a group was brief it was impactful.
The action in this film was kinetic and exciting. Harley and the rest of Birds of Prey are low powered compared to most superheroes and Yan played into that fantastically. We were treated to an abundance of excellent hand-to-hand combat and amazing acrobatic stunts and fight scenes. From high-speed roller derby to delicious acrobatic combat with Harley excellently wielding bats. Yan’s slick direction and excellent stunt and fight coordination from Jonathan Eusebio and Jon Valera made the action sequences throughout this film glorious to behold. Though I will warn anyone not comfortable with comic book movie violence should be aware that multiple legs get violently broken throughout.
[Renée, Helena, Harley, Cassandra, Dinah. Claudette Barius/Warner Bros]
Every aspect of this film’s production was lively and colourful. From the unexpectedly sunshine-filled Gotham to the neon-infused costume design, this is a film that isn’t afraid to be just as colourful as the comics it was based on. The city felt lived in and the characters within it took up space in a previously established world. Production designer K.K. Barrett made every set piece in the film come to life and costume designer Erin Benach translated Harley Quinn’s manic bubbly personality wonderfully into her stunningly eclectic fashion and outfitted the rest of our cast in equally gorgeous outfits that are sexy without gratuitously appealing to the male gaze.
Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn) was a fantastic ride. From excellent performances and an emotionally resonate and most importantly fun story, I hope future blockbusters take note of this film because every moment was truly a delight.