Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Finally, a DC movie that fucking gets it.

Sorry for the language right off the bat, except I’m not sorry at all. Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is rated R for the same reasons Deadpool is — language, violence, etc. beyond the standard sanitized superhero fare — but that’s not really why I’m going in hard on the first sentence. I’m going hard because you know what? It’s more fun that way, and this movie is funnnnn.

From its very first moments, Birds of Prey is totally liberated from the garbage that came before it. It’s a fuck-you glitter bomb aimed directly at all the middle-aged boys who made (or loved) Suicide Squad and Joker. It has absolutely no time or patience for men — any men at all. Good ones, bad ones, boring ones, batshit ones. It’s fucking glorious.

And you know why, right? It starts with Margot Robbie, the only person who came out of Suicide Squad unscathed because she was the only one who actually cared about the potential of a big screen Harley Quinn. Suicide Squad’s trash aesthetics could’ve killed “Daddy’s Little Monster” for good if Robbie hadn’t fought for a new vehicle that matched her vision for a Harley without Mistah J. You know who can’t imagine Harley without the Joker? Men. Specifically David Ayer, whose fundamental misunderstanding of every character (not just Harley!) in Suicide Squad makes it the most embarrassing attempt at grimdark in recent memory. No wonder Robbie kicked him to the curb. 

(Probably worth mentioning here that Jared Leto, with all his abusive on-set fuckery toward his fellow castmates, needed absolutely no help seeing himself out of the DCEU.)

Enter director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson. Not a single team in the entire DCEU has produced a movie as good as this one. From the outset, Yan and Hodson demonstrate that they actually get it — they get why women love Harley Quinn so much. It’s not because she’s the Joker’s girlfriend and, oooh, women are just so in love with the Joker, he’s so bad, maybe we can fix him. Please. It’s because Harley’s a chaos tornado with no limits, killer style and a fucking PhD.

Women love Harley because they want to be Harley. They want to come at all the forces in the world that conspire to keep them down with a grin that’s all teeth and a baseball bat that never stops swinging. Watching Harley break an asshole’s legs after he calls her a slut is so magnificently cathartic that I would happily play those two seconds on a loop just to pump myself up before a particularly daunting day and to hear the way she cackles unapologetically while he screams.

Too much? Fine. Let’s talk about something else.

As beloved as Harley is, she wouldn’t be much fun without a supporting cast to befriend and annoy in equal measure, which is where the titular Birds of Prey come in. For most of its history as a comic book, Birds of Prey was a third-tier title that gathered sidelined Bat-heroines like Barbara Gordon / Batgirl post-spinal injury and too-angry-for-even-Batman Helena Bertinelli / Huntress and gave them something to do in an effort to give lip service to girl power. Gail Simone helped change that with a strong run beginning in 2003, but the idea that any of the Birds would make it to the big screen was always something of an impossible dream.

Well, here’s Hodson again, proving that dreams do come true! Harley says at the beginning of Birds of Prey that she’s not the only broad in Gotham looking for emancipation, which is just about the most meta thing she could say about Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). For decades, these two characters have been tethered to the male heroes for whom they were created — Green Arrow and Batman, respectively — but Hodson neatly erases both from their history and allows them to exist in Gotham fully formed, fully their own selves. (That said, do I very much want a POC Oliver Queen to call Smollett-Bell’s Canary “pretty bird” in the next BoP? YOU BET I DO!) 

Hodson’s sidestep of comic-book canon is so clever, both here and elsewhere, that it makes you wonder why the DCEU has been so beholden to it in the past, particularly with Wonder Woman and her bullshit origin. Without any male weight dragging them down, Canary and Huntress become refreshing, fascinating characters you instantly want to spend more time with, even though the nature of the movie always returns to Harley. The same could be said for Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), with the additional note that the way both of them say “fuck” ought to be preserved and sent into space so the aliens can hear perfection at its source.

Oh, I guess there are a couple men in this movie. Whatever. They’re the villains, obviously. Ewan McGregor as crime lord Roman Sionis / Black Mask and Chris Messina as his right-hand man Victor Zsasz (and maybe boyfriend, as they are certainly queer-coded and their relationship ambiguous on purpose) both ham it the fuck up to an amazing degree, and that’s why they work so well as antagonists: They’re fucking fun. They’re demented, yes, and the depths of their depravity make for some truly shocking moments, but both Yan and Hodson know just how far to take them without crossing the line into gross. Sionis and Zsasz both get off on power and murder. A lazier and crueler writer would add a sexual component to their malice; Hodson never does, and both villains are more interesting (and, again, fun) because of it.

And okay, flaws, blah blah blah, nothing’s perfect, blah. All I have to say about the poor pacing and thin plot is that if it didn’t bother you with Deadpool, it certainly shouldn’t bother you here. Besides, Birds of Prey has more than enough snazziness to make up for it (whereas Deadpool barely had more than Ryan Reynolds’s personality), from its exquisitely curated soundtrack to its drool-worthy costumes (ERIN BENACH OSCAR WHEN) and breakfast sandwiches. Also a hyena with a very pointed name. Wink, wink.

Listen! You may not like Birds of Prey. It’s not for everyone. That’s the whole damn point. From the little things like giving a new friend a hair tie in the middle of a fight to waiting for your kid sister to take an inconvenient shit, this movie is explicitly by, about and for women, full stop. If you’re a man who enjoys it, great! If you’re not, go away, think on your sins and never speak to me again. This is the only movie I’ve ever walked out of wanting to stomp around and break something for the fun of it. And this is the only superhero movie that truly understands that more women like superheroes than men.

It’s about time they fucking got it.



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Aly Caviness is lifelong film obsessive, co-founder of Midwest Film Journal, and member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Through Lynch, her grandmother taught her how to spot “The Girl,” and through Frankenstein, her grandfather taught her how to love in spite of fear. She blames Jack Sparrow for her MA in colonial Atlantic history, Guy Pearce for her marriage, and Star Wars for her son.


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