Audacious, Subversive, Confrontational — “Birds of Prey”

I didn’t think I’d be writing this, but “Birds of Prey” is in that elite category of best superhero movies we’ve got. So you know where I’m coming from, I’m a bit exhausted on superhero films. I still go see them, and I think they’re better than they’ve ever been…so why are they sometimes tiring? There’s always the potential that I’ll be walking into something that feels extremely similar to what I’ve seen before.

That happened quickly with the Zack Snyder-directed Superman, Batman, and Justice League films. Everything began to feel blue, black, grim, and strangely plastic. Characters got less and less time to simply be themselves.

It’s taken Marvel longer to get there, but it’s found its own pitfalls. Fulfilling as it was as I watched it, I left “Avengers: Endgame” feeling like it was a largely empty experience. That was a strange feeling. I’d just cried at the sacrifice made at the end; I was excited by the fights; I laughed when expected to.

That’s the thing. As solo superhero movies increasingly get to extend into other genres and make more blatant social and political statements, the most bankable core films color by the numbers more and more. They often do so extremely well, even artfully – but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re doing what I’ve seen before. I was excited, laughed, and cried when the filmmakers expected – and when I expected. I miss being surprised by those things.

When watching superhero films, sometimes I feel like I’m having more of a Pavlovian response than an honest emotion. What’s worse is that it becomes difficult to tell the difference.

Enter “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn”. It’s thematically blunt and wants you to know it. It’s also wacky, violent, slapstick fun. The story is told out of order, sometimes under various influences, by villain-as-antihero Harley Quinn.

It boils down to finding a gemstone everyone’s after, which means capturing the young pickpocket who stole it. Gotham City’s criminal underworld has just become aware that Quinn is no longer protected by the Joker, so they’re after both Quinn and the gemstone. Of course, it becomes much more complicated than that, but let’s not spoil a good thing.

Something I am thankful for is that the Joker is passingly referenced, but never seen. This is a wonderful way to acknowledge Jared Leto’s Joker while hopefully never having to see that version on screen again.

Quinn ends up alternately running from and working with the pickpocket Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco), under-appreciated police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a singer trying to hide a superpower in Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and vengeful assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead at her Winsteadiest).

I found myself thinking chiefly of two films as I watched, and they aren’t what I’d call similar. “The Usual Suspects” came to mind because of the out-of-order storytelling. Quinn is an inherently untrustworthy narrator, though for our purposes we can believe what she’s telling us. She’s more importantly a narrator who wants to tell the audience the thought she’s most excited about before filling in its context. This creates moments where we take guesses why she’s doing something, but we have to wait to be proven right or wrong. Essentially, events are strung together in a way that makes sense to her, and we pick up on how they fit together as we listen and watch. It feels conversational.

Birds of Prey Harley Quinn cocaine scene.jpg

The other film that came to mind is “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Despite some problems I have with that film, it still may be the best example of fusing traditional animation into live action. The comparison isn’t because “Birds of Prey” incorporates a ton of animation. It opens with an animated sequence. When they’re introduced, new characters get a freeze-frame that’s sometimes drawn all over like the cover of a Trapper Keeper.

Other than that, there’s not a great deal of animation used in the film. “Roger Rabbit” comes to mind more because of the way Quinn herself exists in her story. She’s all but a cartoon character at times, and in terms of actors emulating past portrayals, her performance is as close to the 1990s “Batman: The Animated Series” as anyone will ever get in live action.

The work Robbie’s doing here is complicated, and it requires comedic and dramatic performances that fit a range of different genres to function. Beyond that, she’s doing most of her own stunts and fight choreography. The same praise we once gave to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean” should be finding its way to Robbie in “Birds of Prey”. (It won’t, but that’s another conversation.)

“Birds of Prey” navigates a ludicrous range of influences and genres while doing all this. Director Cathy Yan starts by essentially taking Zack Snyder’s midnight blue-and-black DCEU and exploding bright colors all over it. What follows pulls from blaxploitation cinema, kung fu films, Michael Mann cop montages, Marilyn Monroe dance numbers, fashion magazines, “Trainspotting”, and Mel Brooks comedies.

Do you want a film that draws its set design influences equally from “A Clockwork Orange” and the 1960s “Batman” TV show? You have found it and it somehow works really well.

This isn’t just pulling from previous cinema, though. It’s also drawing from ultra-modern influences. Quinn’s meta interaction with the story means she occasionally interrupts herself to look at the camera and talk to the audience. It isn’t new for those who grew up watching “Saved by the Bell” and “Wayne’s World”, and it isn’t overdone, but the specific presentation here often recalls Twitch streamers and YouTube influencers.

It should all be a mess. It may be to some people. Yet while Yan is willing to spill utter chaos on us, it never gets in the way of presenting Quinn and her story. That’s what’s most impressive. A ridiculously complicated bit of interwoven choreography and cinematography will cut to a joke at the drop of a hat. Both Robbie and the editing need to be utterly on point to make it work. They both need to be so perfectly timed that they seem completely relaxed in the delivery. Yan’s broad comedy and action set-ups fuse with an editing and lead performance so exact and in rhythm they seem off-the-cuff.

Cathy Yan Margot Robbie Birds of Prey.jpg

In other words, that chaos holds together because that rhythm and relationship between Yan as director and Robbie as actor can veer from the broad to the precise with such control that it all seems easy. “Birds of Prey” is what happens when you watch masters of their craft who synchronize with each other perfectly.

This same sensibility shapes the action, too. The set-pieces here are as good as you can get, in large part because Yan makes the job so much more complicated than it has to be.

The action scenes live off their props and set design elements. Yan’s set pieces are often immensely complicated, yet they flow naturally. There’s a cartoon logic at play in a more dramatic live-action presentation. Robbie constantly makes you wonder why all the people trying to kill Quinn brought guns to her baseball bat fight.

There’s also a consistent feel despite Yan regularly switching filmmaking tools in these fights. Pastel smoke grenades and sandbag bullets that explode in glitter get slow-motion cause they’re so colorful, while Robbie plays the fight slapstick for the camera.

You expect that to be the way fights happen in this movie, yet a few scenes later the fight is hard hitting and plays at full speed. The comedy comes instead from reaction shots cut in for Robbie to deliver dialogue.

A fairly straightforward fight beneath drenching water gets choreography movements edited in isolation – one or two movements per edit, a few seconds per shot.

A later fight involving dozens of characters, roller skates, guns, shifting elements on a rotating set, mirrors, all while swapping fight partners, props, and weapons features some shockingly long takes.

The minute you think you understand how the film wants to present its fight scenes, it’s turned that approach on its head. At the same time, they all feel part of a whole. That constant change in presentation makes sense. Yan is a director at the absolute top of her game, in complete control of what she wants to do, working with an actor who can essentially enable her to do anything she wants – in part because Robbie’s that good of an actor, and in part because she’s also the producer and can give Yan the cover to do it.

This film, Yan’s direction, and Robbie’s performance are all elements I’m fairly certain I’ll be talking about at the end of the year.

This doesn’t even get to the themes and elements at play: a refreshingly aggressive, unhidden feminism and extensive commentary on white male privilege and toxic masculinity – often through Ewan McGregor’s villain Black Mask.

The cast is diverse, which makes the world feel inhabited, more realistic, and more consequential.

This is a movie that treats subversion as something that you shove in the audience’s face and use to confront them, rather than an option you politely offer and hope they one day notice. In that way, Quinn might be the hero we need, not just the one we deserve.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “Birds of Prey” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Margot Robbie plays Harley Quinn. Rosie Perez plays Renee Montoya. Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays Black Canary. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Huntress. Ella Jay Basco plays Cassandra Cain. Ali Wong plays Ellen Yee. There are various other women with brief speaking parts.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes. I’d say that it’s possible the majority of the dialogue is between women, but studies show that men are incredibly bad at assessing this ratio, so I could very easily be wrong.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. They often talk about their plans, their frustrations, plot developments, and each other.

When they do talk about men, it’s often about men standing in their way or taking credit for their accomplishments.

Quinn’s narrative monologue makes up a lot of the film, so it’s also worth addressing. It starts off revolving around her break-up with the Joker, but quickly moves along to the plot, and discussions of the other characters – mostly, but not exclusively women.

This section is a way to talk about whether a film meets some excruciatingly basic expectations. It’s not a measure of whether something is feminist or not. “Birds of Prey” is far more confrontational about feminist aspects than a lot of films, but I also recognize the character in some ways serves a very male gaze. That isn’t quite toned down in the sense that 190 is less than 200 but still a lot. More what’s communicated is that Quinn embraces her own sense of style for herself – because it’s who she wants to be – and less for the male gaze. That it still serves that gaze is complicated.

There’s also the conversation that Anita Sarkeesian brings up in relation to many movies where women demonstrate equality by displaying a violence that’s typically understood as male. Sarkeesian has said in the past about similar films (such as “Mad Max: Fury Road”) that embracing and performing male violence as women is an act that solidifies patriarchy rather than dissolving it.

I did think about this because of the extent to which Quinn is a character who plays to the male gaze. I write about fight choreography often, and is her violence equalizing, tantalizing, or both? If it’s equalizing, does the notion that it’s tantalizing undermine it? Or am I reading tantalization where there is none, and introducing that aspect through my own bias?

I can say that the film often delivers feminist ideas in a way that’s more forthright than most, but that it also potentially possesses problematic elements. I try to be careful with this section because it should be informational. This section exists because it’s something all critics should be engaging, not in order to tell someone what to think.

I’m a man, so I’m not qualified to assess the extent to which the feminism works or doesn’t work. What I can do in this section is provide information and be transparent about how it interacts with the biases I bring. I can communicate some of the specific questions that I’m unable to answer because – as a man – I’m not the one qualified to do so. Ideally, that communicates important feminist elements about the film without pretending I’m qualified to then judge or assess those elements.

It’s also important to highlight Black Mask’s embodiment of white male privilege and incel-adjacent toxic masculinity. He becomes excited about all the things he has, showing off supposedly colonialist treasures while talking about the exotic places he got them from. If someone isn’t in his employ, he wonders why they aren’t “his”, as if they’re toys. He abuses those around him, he perceives others’ emotions as targeting him when he’s upset, and he becomes upset when things that were never his to start with are “taken” from him.

McGregor delivers a beautiful lampoon of all these things succinctly, and characters like Quinn and Black Canary criticize this through their reactions and monologues.

Another consistent theme is men taking credit for the work of women. Joker always took credit for Quinn’s achievements. Montoya’s police captain was promoted for her work. Black Canary can be used by Black Mask, but he can’t trust her. Everyone assumes a mysterious “Crossbow Killer” is a man when she’s a woman.

Diversity

This is also a good section to address the film’s diversity in greater depth. Three of our heroes/anti-heroes are non-white. It’s good to see. The surrounding characters are also very diverse – this includes good guys, bad guys, and bystanders.

Some characters who betray in both large ways and the everyday are non-white. You always want to be careful when presenting people of color as traitorous or self-interested. You threaten to portray all people of that race or ethnicity as being that way because there’s so little other representation for people of color in media – and especially superhero films.

I’m not sure to what extent this is or isn’t stopped off by three of our heroes being Latina, Black, and Korean-Filipino – especially because they’re anti-heroes and not exemplary heroes. Stereotypes are generally avoided, and the film as a whole has an interest in portraying a diverse world. In general, I’m pretty happy with how it comes off. It’s not just for the sake of diversity, though that’s important on its own terms. It’s also because a world that looks like ours feels like it has more consequence, regardless of what genres it’s hopping through.

The Batman universe and its rogues’ gallery has always struggled with portraying mental health. It’s the major Achilles heel that tends to limit its aspects of representation. Criminality in Batman’s world is often associated with mental illness, rather than greed or bigotry.

“Birds of Prey” doesn’t fix this, but it does avoid to some extent presenting Harley Quinn as a criminal due to any mental health issues. Her presentation here is more akin to an outlaw hero. Others call her “crazy” and sometimes she points out the equally ridiculous things they’re doing. They call her dumb and she reminds them she has a PhD. I wouldn’t say “Birds of Prey” avoids further harm along these lines, but it avoids leaning on it the way so many other Batman universe stories have.

Rosie Perez

One thing in particular that gave me joy is that I never knew how much I wanted to see Rosie Perez beat dudes up. She was an outspoken Latina who broke ground for Latinas in film in the early 90s before seeing declining work and criticism for everything that made her identifiably Puerto Rican and Nuyorican – her skin color, her accent, her presentation. Growing up then, she only ever came up when someone needed to make fun of Latinas. I didn’t know about her indie film history, her awards, any of that. Growing up in a very white suburb, my only understanding of her was that she was someone shameful that reflected aspects of my Latino heritage that I felt I should hide.

So it feels really good to see her beat down villains at 55 years old. It doesn’t just feel redemptive, it also feels like – here’s this person who white peers used to reinforce my otherness. And now she’s the closest thing the film has to a hero, fighting a corrupt system and the people who made it that way with brass knuckles.

I don’t often think of Perez or the way she was talked about back then. It applied to countless Latinx people. Yet when one of them rises and I recall how my white peers focused their antagonism on something they compartmentalized as otherness, it feels freeing to see her still fighting back, as an actor and as a character. She never really stopped as an activist for Puerto Rico, yet that doesn’t get the attention that being in a superhero movie can. It pushes acceptance in an additional way, and I can’t help but be thankful there are other Latinx kids today seeing her be accepted for the roles she once would’ve had no chance at playing.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

4 thoughts on “Audacious, Subversive, Confrontational — “Birds of Prey””

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s