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Badasses.

Note: I am going to be playing with format and organization with this review. Formalizing some elements I usually do informally. Let me know if it works or doesn’t!

Spoiler-Free Intro

Birds of Prey is good. I’m not gonna write out the full title. I respect them for using it because it’s just the kind of bold nonsense that the possibly stagnating world of comic book movies needs. Or something. I’m still not going to write it out.

People probably (and rightly) expected another Suicide Squad here. The marketing was fun but also kind of loud and maybe a bit self-conscious, like it was trying very hard to be ZANY. We’ve seen that happen before. Instead, this feels more like the Deadpool of the DCEU if Wonder Woman was the Captain America/Thor and Suicide Squad was the Guardians of the Galaxy. Now I’m not saying anyone is ripping anyone off, not really, since the DC and Marvel comics characters have always been in dialogue anyway (see Shazam! and Captain Marvel’s comic book history for example). But it’s still worth noting that this movie winds up feeling somewhat comfortable because, at the end of the day, we’ve kind of been here before.

At the same time, Birds of Prey is still very much its own thing. It’s not quite as crazy as it maybe seemed like it could have been, but it’s still plenty crazy. The cast is completely game with some very fun and occasionally surprising performances. The soundtrack is intrusive but that’s also getting a bit expected with these movies since Guardians. The action swings wildly between adequate and excellent. The plot is a total afterthought and instead of being a flaw, that’s mostly a pretty wise choice for a movie like this. It also feels simultaneously like a movie that could only be made now and a throwback to dumb muscle-guy action movies form the 80s and 90s. If you like that kind of thing, as I do, then Birds of Prey will feel downright nostalgic in some ways.

The most important thing about the movie, though, is who it’s for. It’s not for the manboys of the internet who chase women off social media, make endless sophistic videos about diversity being bad, etc etc. This movie was made for young women and it doesn’t apologize for anything it explores, glorifies, or condemns. It’s kind of challenging as a result, staring down people who like to criticize media directed at women by different standards than that directed at men. Before you do a deep think about what this movie “says to women”, direct that energy at the stuff you like. It’s not always fun to realize that the tabletop wargame is crypto-fascist or the anime series is deeply misogynistic but I promise that realizing these things is only going to help us all in the long run. Birds of Prey might have problematic elements, but people don’t get to use that as an excuse to dismiss it or pile on because movies with no sympathetic male characters and centering women make them uncomfortable. The manboys need to cut that shit out.

Spoilers of Prey

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Margot Robbie is really the only reason any of this begins to work.

Plot and Structure

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is newly out of her long-standing relationship with Joker. At first she’s just like anyone going through a break-up: kind of a mess, acting out, trying to heal and move on. The complication for her, what makes this conventional setup fun, is that being single puts a huge target on her back. Almost as if unaccompanied women are considered exploitable, vulnerable, defective, etc by society at large. Her shenanigans put her in the middle of a truly ridiculous 80’s style plot involving a rising crime boss and a diamond that holds the secret to finding an old mafia fortune. If Arnold Schwarzenegger wandered into frame chomping a cigar and wearing a henley, he’d fit right in here.

One of the things I consider a minor flaw in Birds of Prey is in its plot structure. The plot is 80s movie nonsense, occasionally lampshaded as such even, but it’s told in a self-consciously disjointed way (especially in the first half) that is meant to deliver a ton of character set-ups and exposition in as madcap and entertaining a way as possible. And I mean, it is kind of entertaining. But it also draws attention to how weak the plot is. Plot is by no means the most important part of a story and belief that it is tends to make people enjoy things less, I think. At the same time, getting out of your own way if you’re telling a story where the plot is intentionally nonsensical seems like a better move. Ultimately, this doesn’t fuck the movie up, it’s just a thing they could have done better.

But at the same time, you can kind of admire how convoluted the plot really is, especially in terms of how many characters are involved. Some of it is very contrived with everyone kinda knowing each other, but the chemistry in the cast sells their interactions at every turn and you believe it when they come together or go at each other.

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These two deserved so much more screen-time.

Action and Aesthetic

I said above that Birds of Prey is all over the place with its action. Sometimes within the same sequence. My guess is that different sequences were handled by different units. Where most action films have one or two noticeably big sequences, this movie has several on top of a lot of action in general. Three of those sequences contain smaller chunks that are very good, larger chunks that are adequate, and one or two bits that are outright bad. Here are some examples:

The scene where Harley attacks a convertible is very well done. The pacing of the choreography feels right for movement in the context of a speeding car and I was impressed by it. It felt like John Wick stuff. There’s also a scene in the Funhouse near the end where the camera weaves around all the characters fighting, which is very Avengers but works well here at its own scale and pace.

An example of a bad one is the jail-cell fight which is full of out-of-place flourishes and speed-ramping as if Zack Snyder showed up to direct a half-hearted mini-sequence within a much longer one where no other part is shot the same as this. It’s a little weird, especially when the bat scene that follows it is downright the best action beat in the film. Harley is a fucking artist with that thing.

Aesthetically, Birds of Prey is what it looks like on the tin. It’s a mix of the grungey urban ruin of last year’s Joker and a glitzier, neon-tinged color scheme that actually recalls the older Batman films, especially Batman Forever. Visually, it sets itself apart from the other DCEU films.

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This is one of my favorite scenes.

Characters and Performance

One other minor gripe is that some of the “Birds” don’t get nearly the screentime they¬† deserve. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth-Winstead) is especially short-changed here. There is also reason to believe that Rosie Perez and Ali Wong, who play exes on either side of a case, once had a bigger chunk of the movie — probably a full on subplot.

That said, both Elizabeth-Winstead and Perez are great in their roles. Perez has done stuff like this before, in Pineapple Express¬†for example, but fits naturally into a dynamic very unlike that movie’s. Plus, she gets to be a good guy this time. Elizabeth-Winstead does as much as she can with her limited screentime, which is mostly action, and is able to get you to like Huntress. Both characters feel much more like unaltered 80s movie archetypes than the others, though they are also (Huntress especially) infused with enoguh irony and self-awareness to bring something extra. One thing I especially liked was how Huntress being so fucking awkward while also so effortlessly elegant in her violence is an economical way to show who she is.

Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) is also good but is playing a character that is conceptually so close to Firefist in Deadpool 2 (chubby ethnic kid with attitude) that it feels closer to the line that separates riffing and ripping off. Basco’s style and performance is very different from Julian Dennison’s so it would be unfair to say it’s just a rip-off or something, but it’s closer to that line than the other “seen that recently somewhere…” stuff that Birds of Prey does. The problem is more that once you get over her aesthetic and the role she fits into the story (troubled kid at the center of trouble), there’s still also the mentor/mentee relationship she has with Quinn both actually and symbolically. It’s all just a bit too similar to Deadpool 2 even if these films were written too close together to be direct influences.

The best part of Birds of Prey might be Ewan McGregor, though. I know that’s an awkward thing to say about a women-centered action movie, cuz he’s like the one guy with a big role, but his performance is just too good. He’s deliciously weird, funny, and scary all at the same time. The scariest scene is the most mundane, as he humiliates a girl just for laughing when he receives bad news. His misogyny isn’t declared loudly but it’s in every interaction he has with women. And men, since his main relationship is with Victor Zsasz, his sadistic right hand bromance. There’s a Mr. Burns and Smithers thing happening here and it is delightful. Zsasz being played by Chris Messina, an actor I’d never expect this from (he’s kind of a romcom guy, right?), makes it even better.

But that said, the real best part of Birds of Prey is Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary. Unlike the other “Birds”, Canary gets a lot of screen-time, a central place in the plot, and a lot of the kinds of moments you’d give to the actual protagonist in a comic book film. She’s kind of the straight man if Harley is the rogue and if this were a full-on buddy movie, which it almost is whenever they are on screen together. Smollett-Bell was not on my radar before this but everything she does here is good. She’s game for the action, sings her own songs, acts a storm against everyone she’s on screen with, and looks great doing all of it. I expected Margot Robbie to be good, so seeing how generous this film (which Robbie had a lot of influence on) is to a co-star is refreshing.

And I mean, that’s a general sort of praise I can give this film overall. At the end, Harley rides off into the sunset and the other girls become the actual Birds of Prey all on their own without her. If you love something, let it go… and that’s what Harley and Margot Robbie are doing. There was some criticism that after all the anticipation for a Birds of Prey film, it ends up really being a Harley Quinn film. Same vein as the criticism that some MCU films are really ensembles rather than solo outings or vice versa. I won’t pretend I really understand this point of view, but I know it’s there enough that I feel like it’s worthwhile to reassure those people that Harley tells the story, which does spend most of its time on her, but in the end acknowledges that the next step shouldn’t involve her. Hollywood being Hollywood, though, and I’d bet on a second Birds of Prey movie featuring her again.

Themes and Takeaways

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They have tons of chemistry.

The most prominent theme in the film is the titular “emancipation”, which here is the idea of making a life for yourself without relying on men. This isn’t because men are inherently bad, but that depending on them leads too often to abuse and exploitation by the bad ones. Harley never stops trusting men and never stops paying for it, for instance, but the other characters are also touched by trauma and abuse in one form or another and it all involves bad men. Ultimately, all of them need to overcome this trauma and find their own footing and that’s something the film gives all of them.

Another theme is a play on the idea that protecting/saving kids is kind of like protecting/saving one’s own innocence or inner child. Most action movies with kids play with that, but Birds of Prey has an interesting take on it that I rather like. Cassandra doesn’t actually represent innocence, since she isn’t especially innocent and the movie is by and large disinterested in those kinds of binaries (you’re not gonna see capitulation to the Madonna/Whore complex here) anyway. Instead, Cassandra is just a girl and protecting/saving her is more about that then adding “innocent” to it. Each of the women makes the choice to help Cassandra, in the end, because she’s a girl like they are/were and she needs them. It’s as simple as solidarity.

That said, Harley probably has a more familiar symbolic relationship along the lines of recovering a sense of morality, innocence, or whatever. I did point this out above as a parallel with Deadpool 2 and I think they are similar. Unlike Deadpool, Harley keeps her protege around an they ride off together littering and all. This is an interesting move considering who Cassandra Cain is in the comics, eh?

Also, is it just me or is this one of the most anti-cop superhero movies? Boots Riley, who made Sorry to Bother You has said he’d never make a Marvel film because those characters are cops. He’s mostly right about that and it’s a thing the MCU itself struggles with from time to time. Birds of Prey is nothing like that. The only good cop in the movie quits and Terminator-esque scene where Harley Quinn attacks a police station is played as a badass one-woman assault on a bunch of complete turds.

Final Thoughts

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Watching Harley kick the shit out of an entire police station was kinda cathartic.

I really liked Birds of Prey. More than I thought I would and I had some reason to believe it was going to be my kinda thing.

While I really didn’t like Joker and hope it doesn’t turn into a trend, I do like this recent willingness the WB has to take some creative risks with this thing they’ve shown very little real aptitude for until recently. And really, I credit Margot Robbie, Christina Hodson, and Cathy Yan more than I do the executives. Especially since it looks like they changed their cool-ass title for something dumber, with a colon of course, over the weekend box office. I think this movie is gonna move on word of mouth and they’re jumping the gun. I’d also bet every one of those cowards is a man.

With Birds‘s production team led by women, there are probably all kinds of small touches that I wouldn’t be positioned to easily see. Some stuff was apparent to me, though, and to the people I saw the film with. Making Harley’s costuming less overtly sexy, for example, is a Move. One that feels right. The costuming in general in this film feels like what Snyder was going for back in the day with Sucker Punch and without (most of) the fetishistic aspects. Another example is in small, subtle nods to surviving or processing trauma even as it’s transpiring. I noticed this with Canary while Black Mask humiliates that woman. She tries to be tough but she’s visibly shook and lets a single tear slip out before her facade breaks and she tries to walk away, which is a big turning point that isn’t treated as such. Another example is Harley herself, going to a fantastic Marilyn Monroe song and dance number in her head as Mask and Zsasz beat and threaten her.

Stuff like this suggests that Birds of Prey is deeper than it seems and I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of writing and analysis it inspires. Can’t say that about every comic book movie.