dir: Cathy Yan
Let’s not sleep on the whole title: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn. If you saw that on a poster and had never heard of The Birds of Prey or Harley Quinn, would it induce you to brave a virus-filled world and venture forth into a cinema to watch it?
In a Simpsons episode from what feels like a century ago, Hollywood has-been Troy McClure has a brief renaissance professionally when he pretends to be heteronormative for a while by dint of marrying Marge’s sister Selma. When the sham falls apart, despite the best efforts of Troy’s agent MacArthur Parker, instead of going with the part of McBain’s sidekick in McBain IV: Fatal Discharge, he elects to star in The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel. Perhaps only time will tell which would have been the better choice.
Every time I saw mention made of Birds of Prey and the Contrabulous Fabtraption of Harley Hufnagel, I wondered what the fuck they were thinking. To me it seems like less a failure of ambition and more a failure of marketing – they didn’t have enough confidence that people would go see a flick with the Birds of Prey without a playfully shoehorned reference to the actual main character, one Harleen Quinzel. But then why not call it Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey without the other semi-embarrassed bullshit in between?
Now I’m all for Emancipation, whether it’s from slavery or from toxic relationships with genocidal maniacs, but the flick is, and this hurts to say, a mess, regardless of whether anyone gets emancipated or not.
It’s a fucking mess. At its core it has good intentions, but then they say the Good Intentions Paving Company also does its best building those roads that lead straight to hell.
The Birds of Prey themselves maybe weren’t well-known enough outside of the DC comics, the animated stuff, or the short-lived tv series, but these days, with everything the way it is, the past doesn’t matter if you can make a decent effort now. Suicide Squad made nearly a billion dollars and no-one had read that comic book ever, including and especially the flick’s writers. This film gives even less reason for the Birds of Prey to exist that it does for anything Harley does, which is saying something. They are, as far as I can tell, united solely by being in one place at one point, like five people stuck in an elevator for a few minutes, now united by a common purpose. Of wanting to get out of the elevator, and far away from each other?
Harley’s story centres around wanting to free herself from the Joker, but the Joker never appears, thankfully, since they didn’t want to bring back that Academy Award winning fuckwit Jared Leto to reprise the disastrous role from Suicide Squad, and we have no reason that’s shown as to why. In the highly successful run in the comics by husband and wife team Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti recently, Harley ditches the lethal clown and reinvents herself as a kind of chaotic patron saint of New Jersey, where she’s just as likely to commit crimes as she is to save the day, and she, and we, have a stack of fun along the way with her misadventures.
That’s why, I guess, for me, the idea of Harley as a main character works fine, because when she’s not a lovesick literal punching bag for the Joker, which is fucking gross, she can be a greatly entertaining character. She was something of a bright spot in the unremittingly terrible Suicide Squad. Here… I had my doubts in a lot of scenes. And the oppressively chipper voiceover did not help at all. I think Margot Robbie has a decent enough handle on the character, it’s just that, some of the choices… didn’t work for me.
The double-back recursive nature of the script harms the story’s momentum too. I’m sorry to say it, it feels so churlish, but I’m on the flick’s side, I swear I am. I want girl power led teams literally and figuratively fighting crime and the patriarchy: I am totally here for it and onboard. But that doesn’t make some of the glaring missteps any less glaring or misstep-y.
And the Birds themselves are all over the place too, and it doesn’t help matters in the slightest, because they’re only really meant to be there to support Harley. The one that comes out of it the best is probably Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who is the only person in the flick with a superpower. She is also pretty well acted and grounded compared to much of the other nonsense on display. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is fine when people are speaking of her in terrified tones as she murders every mafia guy in Gotham that she can find, but when she finally interacts with the other characters, she’s pretty awkward (probably intended, she’s a great actress, so either it was a choice or… they didn’t know what to do with her).
Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is an alcoholic cop who also has some kind of beef with the main villain, probably one of the most boring members of Batman’s Rogues Gallery, being Roman Sionis, lesser known as Black Mask. The character is…boring and terrible. A generic mobster with a black mask, don’t you know. The performance of Ewan MacGregor, is, somehow, even worse.
I think I kinda get what he was going for, like, an agitated sadistic narcissistic jerk, like, maybe it’s a comment on toxic masculinity or Trump or both, but, ugh, it’s horrible to watch someone as accomplished as MacGregor be so awful. His best scene is his last. He and his henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina, also better than this) have a not-so-subtle homoerotic thing going, but it’s not open enough to mean anything. If they’re united by anything (beyond a clear love of dick) it’s their contempt for and hatred of women, but that’s not meaningful enough or uncommon enough to make it relevant here.
Everyone’s after Harley now, since they’re not afraid of incurring the Joker’s wrath, and there’s a child pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) who steals a diamond that Black Mask wants. So Harley breaks into a cop precinct to get the kid using a glitter gun. Now, many of these action sequences are actually pretty good, because there’s less dialogue, but when I think about it for more than a couple of seconds, I cannot figure out why, when Harley strides into a room full of cops and shoots them slowly and individually with a glitter gun, why all of them just waited around terrified until she got to them.
But this is America. It might be a fictional version of America, but did the cops not shoot her because Harley’s so pale, because she’s not…you know what I’m implying…
Yes, yes clown lives matter. At least when she’s fighting the thugs that are out to get her or the kid, she has more leeway in terms of how brutally she can dispatch them or cripple them. A lot of the later fights have Harley being quite acrobatic, and it generally looks pretty great when she’s stomping people’s knees so that the joints go the other way now.
The different characters and the plot, such as it was, converge on an abandoned amusement park of the kind that seems to make up 80% of Gotham city, as the women all meet for the first time together, and collectively fight off an army of men. Black Mask even specifically entreats the jerks onwards with fairly naked misogyny to inspire the assorted mask-wearing goons who are only there to die.
Sure, it might have been pretty dumb, but that second to last sequence was pretty great. The plot kinda forces them all together arbitrarily, and offers no reason as to why this means they’re all best buddies now, but at least they have to fight together to stay alive.
And fight they do. It’s pretty inspirational, and they all mostly get their time to shine. Huntress also gets to shine towards the end in scenes which don’t require her to just walk up to people and shoot them in the neck with her crossbow. And Black Canary kicks all sorts of ass before really letting loose. And the most inspired moment is also one of the most simple: Harley offering a hair tie to Black Canary in the middle of the fight is pretty much one of the greatest moments in the whole film, and it left me smiling like an idiot.
There’s a bit more film to go, including a fairly solid action sequence where Harley on skates chases after Black Mask and the kid and does her best to save the day, and thankfully by this stage I didn’t dislike what had come before as much. Cassie (the pickpocket) is likeable enough for a sweary teenage criminal, but it’s becoming a very generic role for teenage characters in these kinds of R-rated comic book extravaganzas, pretty much just like Julian Dennison in everything he’s ever been in, but especially Deadpool 2.
Everything ends in a place we can be happy with, I guess, even if it never really explains why any of this is meant to mean what they hope it means. If this flick is the origin story for the Birds of Prey: an all-woman crime fighting team who take on Gotham’s worst in Batman’s absence, why did it feel like there’s no way they’d be getting their own time to shine? There’s no-one that could have thought there was going to be another Birds of Prey flick with Hollywood megastars Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and maybe megahunk Bob Balaban thrown in for good measure?
If there was no point without Margot Robbie, why go down this path in the first place? Couldn’t they have adapted Gotham City Sirens, with most of the other classic Gotham female villains / trying to be good guys instead? That could have made more sense in this context, but I can barely understand the decisions that they are making with DC characters and these awkward, sub-standard films, and hoping that Margot Robbie was going to start some kind of revolution by which the DC films start getting good was way too much to hope for.
I had misgivings about it and I still do. It’s fairly clear that they had an idea of something they wanted, but no clear path to getting there, and all the over-editing and reshoots can’t hide that fact.
But it’s not without some merit. Maybe, given another chance, with a more solid script, maybe there’s still hope…
6 times it breaks my heart to see DC flicks continue to piss away all this money and all these chances and great characters that deserve more out of 10
“I'm sorry, kid. And I'm sorry I tried to sell you, that was a dick move. For what it's worth, you made me want to be a less terrible person.” – it’s unfortunate the amount of times I’ve said something similar to my own daughter – Birds of Prey