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Non-Review Review: Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is an immensely charming and high-energy romp, that is as unfocused as its central character and suffers more than a little bit from a non-linear narrative style that it never really justifies or employs effectively.

There is a lot to love in Birds of Prey, but perhaps the most charming aspect of it is the intimacy. Birds of Prey is bereft of the sort of city-, planet- or galactic-sized stakes that have come to define so much of modern superhero cinema, from Thor: The Dark World to Man of Steel to Avengers: Endgame. The bulk of Birds of Prey consists of a wrestling match over a diamond that happens to contain bank account details that point to an even larger payday. Its climax is on the scale of an eighties or nineties action movie, which means it involves anonymous henchmen rather than a literal army.

A cutting retort?

This consciously low-stakes approach allows Birds of Prey to simply enjoy itself, to revel in the charm of the cast and the relatively straightforward journeys of the central characters. Warner Brothers have been pushing their DC properties away from the MCU-emulating shared universe model that led to the spectacular disaster of Justice League, instead focusing on affording creators the freedom to do what they want to do. Joker rejected the modern superhero template to offer a throwback to films like Taxi Driver and King of Comedy. In contrast, Birds of Prey seems to hark back to The Long Kiss Goodnight.

Birds of Prey is perhaps a little too messy and unfocused in terms of narrative, which affects the movie’s pacing and rhythm. However, it also trusts its cast and its energy to carry it a long way, working best when it feels confident enough to play as a live action Looney Tunes cartoon.

Girl gang.

The actual plot of Birds of Prey is remarkably simple as these things go. There is a macguffin that everybody wants, and the various characters align and intersect in the battle for possession of that macguffin. In an era where superhero movies are defined by weapons of mass destruction and bold existential statements, there’s something almost refreshing in the fact that the antiheroes and outright villains of Birds of Prey are constantly feuding over money – whether the bounty on Harley’s head or the millions of dollars tucked away in a dormant account.

The biggest problem with Birds of Prey is the way that writer Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yan try to obscure the relative simplicity of that central driving plot by constantly doubling back over it. It’s a familiar approach, one most obviously and heavily indebted to Guy Ritchie movies including the recent The Gentleman. It has the effect of making a fairly straightforward hustle seem much more complicated and nuanced than it might otherwise be, inviting the audience to revel in the small complications that pile up around it.

At its best, as in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch, this approach serves as a commentary on the chaos of everyday existence, the manner in which the small inconsistencies and contradictions inevitably build up to create an unlikely comedy of errors that inevitably complicate even the most simple of plans. At its worst, as in The Gentleman, it can feel like an attempt to pad out thirty minutes of material to fill about two hours of screen-time, like watching a clumsy magician attempting to distract an audience with unfinessed sleight of hand.

Birds of Prey lands somewhere between the two extremes. The film constantly pauses the action so Harley can elaborate on a previously underdeveloped detail, tripping herself up as she realises that a beat requires more context. “Wait,” she implores the audience. “I’m telling it wrong.” On a purely functional level, Hodson and Yan use this approach to allow Birds of Prey to cover necessary narrative ground without ever losing focus on Harley. It allows the film to introduce its core players – Renee Montoya, Dinah Lance, Cassandra Cain, Roman Sionis – over the first hour without ever drifting too far from Harley.

It’s a practical choice in that sense. After all, despite its title, Birds of Prey is a Harley Quinn movie. She features prominently on the poster and appears in the extended title. Margot Robbie is a producer on the film. Indeed, Warner Brothers originally wanted a solo Harley Quinn movie, and it was Robbie who pushed the film into ensemble territory. However, Birds of Prey understands that Harley is the centre of attention, and justifiably so. The character is hugely popular, and Robbie does good work in the part. So Birds of Prey is aware that it can never drift too far from her.

However, this plays havoc with the movie’s pacing and structure. The actual narrative of Birds of Prey advances by inches in the first hour, because it is constantly pausing the action in order to go back and retroactively flesh out character motivations. The film very cleverly allows these individual stories to overlap and intersect with one another, positioning them cleverly in relation to one another in terms of the film’s continuity, but it often feels like the film is stopping and starting. Every time it looks like Birds of Prey might build up some momentum, it grinds to a halt to go back over the characters in play.

This isn’t as big a deal as it might seem. Part of this is because Birds of Prey isn’t a film that relies on its narrative in any meaningful sense. The story is just an excuse for the film to indulge in various action sequences and jokes, and to spend time with these characters and themes. However, part of it is also because this disjointed structure reflects its protagonist, and in more ways than are immediately obvious. Harley is psychotic and erratic, and so it makes sense that Birds of Prey adopts a similar structure. However, that’s not the clever part of the film’s structuring. The clever part is its emphasis on Harley’s lack of narrative experience.

Key to the disjointed time-shifting narrative of Birds of Prey is the implication that Harley doesn’t know how to structure a story. She doesn’t know how to build a narrative. Harley is trying to tell her story, but keeps stumbling because she has never had to provide a narrative account of her own adventures. Harley has always been a sidekick and a companion, a secondary lead. Even in Suicide Squad, Harley was defined by her presence in “the island of misfit toys” in the context of the larger shared universe. A central tension within Birds of Prey is the question of whether Harley even can tell her own story.

After all, Harley is best known as the Joker’s primary henchwoman and love interest. She was created to fulfill that function in Joker’s Favour, an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. Although she eventually grew to have stories built around her, she existed so that the Joker could have a goon or moll who was more than just a generic clown. Even her origin story in Mad Love emphasises the degree to which her story is interwoven with that of the Clown Prince of Crime. One of the central narratives of Suicide Squad was the Joker attempting to recover Harley from Amanda Waller, to swallow her back into his story.

Birds of Prey leans heavily on this dynamic. The criminals of Gotham only see Harley in relation to the Joker. “Will your paramour be joining us tonight?” asks slimy nightclub owner Roman Sionis. When Harley dismisses him, Roman insists, “Give the Joker my regards.” When Harley does break ties with the Joker, she finds herself targeted by everybody in Gotham – cops and criminals alike. Her narrative immunity is rescinded. Indeed, Roman even taunts her with this possibility at the climax, “You know you can’t stand alone.”

In this sense, Birds of Prey becomes a story for all the marginalised figures in comic book continuity, but especially women who find themselves pushed to the edges of narratives usually about male characters. The film also features Helena Bertinelli, who was the daughter of Batman and Catwoman until the continuity reboot of Crisis on Infinite Earths. It also includes Cassandra Cain, who was briefly Batgirl until she was reset by the “new 52.” While characters like Batman and the Joker remain largely immune to the ravages of such continuity, it is the destiny of characters like Cassandra and Helena to be flotsam and jetsam.

Indeed, this is arguably true of this version of Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie was introduced as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, opposite Ben Affleck as Batman and Jared Leto as the Joker. Both characters are defined by their absence in Birds of Prey. Harley makes passing reference to “the Batman” in recounting her life story to Cassandra, while the Joker appears in an animated introductory sequence and as Jared Leto’s right shoulder blade in a flashback to Suicide Squad. Their absences actively noted by the text, Harley finds herself in a story without either character.

More to the point, Birds of Prey finds Harley unmoored in continuity. After all, Jared Leto has been overshadowed by Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in Joker, and is unlikely to return to the role. Ben Affleck has retired from the cowl, and the role has been recast with Robert Pattinson who will offer a clean slate in The Batman. It isn’t just that these iconic figures are absent, they are lost. They haunt the narrative in the same way that Harley’s neglectful father does. They evoke the statues that the great men of Gotham, lurking in the shadowy fog of the dilapidated “Founder’s Pier” at the climax of the film.

There is an extent to which Birds of Prey is perhaps a more faithful adaptation of the Suicide Squad concept than the film of the same name. After all, writer John Ostrander originally conceived as the monthly comic as a home for the dispossessed characters squeezed out of narratives by editorial decisions. This is why Suicide Squad could afford to kill at least one character an arc, as these were effectively leftovers. Birds of Prey occasionally feels like that – not only in terms of the characters’ comic book roots, but also in terms of its relationship to the DCEU as envisaged by Justice League.

As such, Birds of Prey is a story about characters who have long been squeezed out of these sorts of stories trying to find their own spaces. It is undoubtedly something that resonates with women in the audience. After all, women have long been squeezed out of the superhero genre. It took the Marvel Cinematic Universe more than twenty films to produce Captain Marvel. Even films like Black Widow, Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984 strip away some of their heroines’ agency by setting them within the past of the shared universe, as if to insulate continuity from these women-led stories.

Birds of Prey is refreshingly frank in its sexual politics. While there’s a lot to be said for the warmth and feel-good vibes of films like Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman, there’s also something frank in the willingness of Birds of Prey to get angry and frustrated. The film is quite candid in its portrayal of the sorts of misogyny that the characters face on a regular basis. Roman is properly introduced in a stock “mobster makes an example” sequence, but his defining character moment literalises Margaret Atwood’s truism that “men are afraid that women will laugh at them, women are afraid that men will kill them.”

In this respect, the choice of Roman as an antagonist is interesting. Most obviously, he is a fourth-tier Batman villain who probably ranks alongside Condiment King or Crazy Quilt in terms of recognition among the general public. However, it’s notable that the character’s one claim to fame is that he brutally killed off the first female Robin, Stephanie Brown, as part of a cynical stunt to return Tim Drake to the role. This choice established Black Mask as a cut-price Joker, the only Batman villain who had killed a Robin at that point. (He also served as a cut-price proxy for the Joker in Judd Winick and Doug Mahnke’s Under the Red Hood.)

It also established Black Mask as an expression of some of the questionable editorial attitudes to female characters at DC around the turn of the millennium, another manifestation of the sort of cavalier mandate to “cripple the b!tch” (the “b!tch” in question being Barbara Gordan, one of the founding members of the comic book team Birds of Prey) and the reported excitement that “the rape pages are in” on Identity Crisis. In Birds of Prey, Harley jokes that “having a vagina” is the source of Roman’s “grievance” with her, but it hints at the cleverness with which Birds of Prey uses its foil and his comic book history.

Birds of Prey places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of female voices, both in front of and behind the camera. Robbie takes a producing credit on the film, having pushed it as a “girl gang” movie. She was also an advocate in the hiring of Hodson and Yan, believing that a women-led project should be driven by women behind the scenes. Even within the film, it’s notable how much Birds of Prey enjoys letting its female characters talk. This is most notable with the character of Cassandra Cain, who is often portrayed as a mute ninja assassin in the comics, but is reworked for the film as a smart-talking street-smart hustler.

More to the point, Birds of Prey doesn’t just let its characters talk – it lets them sing. Both Dinah Lance and Harley Quinn get big musical numbers over the course of the film. Indeed, the climax of the film finds Dinah literally weaponising her voice against an army of goons. It’s debatable to what extent the movie earns this in plot terms – she breaks a glass during one sequence and Montaya vaguely alludes to her mother’s past as a superhero – but it works thematically. Birds of Prey is a film about women finding their voices, so of course Dinah can use hers to defend herself.

One of the more interesting extensions of this is the way in which this transforms the absence of male authority figures becomes something of a boon. When Harley mentions a cop working a case, the camera follows a male officer, only for Harley to interject, “Not him.” The camera then finds Montoya. Similarly, Helena Bertinelli is introduced as “the crossbow killer.” She primarily targets men over the course of the film, and executes them with a crossbow through the throat. It’s a none-too-subtle way of silencing them in contrast to the film’s more vocal female leads.

There’s something quite cheeky in how abrasive Birds of Prey is willing to be, how self-aware and cheeky. The film consciously plays with the expectations of a women-led narrative like this, most notably in an early sequence that sets the making of a grilled egg sandwich to the deep bass of Barry White. That egg sandwich serves as the closest thing that Birds of Prey has to a traditional love story. Indeed, for all of its many structural problems, Birds of Prey is smart enough to pay off that love story in its closing scenes. Forget boy-gets-girl, this girl-gets-sandwich.

Quite apart from all of this, though, Birds of Prey largely works as a slapstick live action cartoon. The movie lays this out quite early, offering Harley’s backstory as a traditionally animated two-dimensional cartoon. At one point, Harley curls up on the couch to watch Sylvester and Tweety. Not coincidentally, her landlord owns a caged bird himself. The film nominally earns the title Birds of Prey through Roman Sionis’s diminutive nickname for the objects of his attention – and Victor Zsasz’s description of his victims – as “little birds.” However, Tweety Pie seems a larger inspiration.

Yan has a great deal of fun with the film’s cartoonish mayhem. At one point, Harley reacts to cocaine in the same way that Popeye reacts to Spinach. The climax of the film relies on the assumption that every criminal goon in Gotham has basic acrobat training that makes them deadly on a trapeze. In the midst of an action sequence, Harley somehow manages to get into a set of roller skates. Even though the film does set up Harley’s skill on the skates, the transformation is remarkably quick. “When did she find time for a shoe change?” Dinah wonders out loud, the movie reveling in its own cartoonish internal logic.

Birds of Prey takes the basic concept of cartoon physics and applies them to live action. So many of the movie’s big action sequences hinge on a cartoonish exaggeration of action and reaction. At one point, there is a chase sequence involving a car, a motor back and clown princess on roller skates. Yan’s direction of the action sequences is suitably manic, and a large part of the delightfully weird humour of Birds of Prey comes from the intersection of the basic limits of the human body and the demands of cartoon action. For all the goofy hijinks, bones snap and bodies break, creating a strangely compelling dissonance.

There are shades of Grant Morrison and Chaz Truog’s The Coyote Gospel, albeit without the introspection. Instead, Birds of Prey seems to consciously position itself half-way between the cartoon world in which Harley originated and the real world populated by flesh-and-blood human beings. There’s a surreal juxtaposition there, requiring a very deft tonal balance. Birds of Prey is a movie where Harley can casually toss a stick of dynamite out a car window like a character from Wacky Races while also breaking a goon’s legs in surprisingly graphic detail. It’s a strange mix, but Birds of Prey handles it very well.

Birds of Prey is a little too messy and unfocused to rank among the best comic book adaptations. However, it’s fun, energetic and has charm to spare. That helps it stand apart from the pack in a crowded comic book landscape.

2 Responses

  1. This is a pretty good film buttressed by some creative action staging and a handful of really good performances. Margot Robbie was good in Suicide Squad, but she plays Harley with a well-considered depth here. Chris Messina is hypnotic as Victor Szasz. At once predatory and chasing the high of violence. I’m a bit warmer to the structure because, while flawed, it does reflect just how fractured Harley’s mind is.

    • On rewatch, I found myself more drawn to Zsasz as a counterpoint to Harley; a bleached blonde, scarred sidekick-slash-companion to a psychopath who doesn’t care about him, who nevertheless tries to impress that psychopath. Messina even does his own slant on the baby doll voice. Indeed, Zsasz seems to resent Harley for having the strength to walk away from the Joker.

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