Birds of Prey: Furiously Flawed, But Important

I’m gonna be real with you, lovely reader: I didn’t watch Suicide Squad. I just... couldn’t. While I didn’t think Batman vs. Superman was as bad as people made it out to be in 2016, the news that Suicide Squad was actually worse was enough to dissuade me. There’s only so much sabotage of beloved characters I can take, even though I enjoyed David Ayer’s past works (specifically Fury, a white-knuckled World War 2 bildungsroman) and I liked the cast. One cast member that particularly stood out was Margot Robbie. She was fairly new at the time (before, she was Jordan Belfort’s girlfriend in Wolf of Wall Street, and that’s about it), but something told me she was going to be a superstar. Then, she was in I, Tonya, which she was fantastic in, and this year, she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. Turns out my intuition was correct, and so, despite my aversion to Suicide Squad, I found myself excited to see its sequel, and her in it—and my intuition was correct again, because Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a fun, if very flawed, time.

The film follows Harley Quinn (Robbie) after her breakup with The Joker. After the horrible, drunken decision to make that fact public with a literal bang, she’s now on the run from every villain in Gotham she’s pissed off in the past, namely Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask. Along the way, she runs into Dinah Lance, Cassandra Cain, Renee Montoya, and The Huntress (who shall remain nameless for spoiler reasons). Action ensues, and, while I generally dislike starting my reviews with a film’s negatives… a lot of confusing and contrived action ensues, which is a shame, because there’s much that’s actually good about it.

The narrative is, by far, the film’s worst asset. It’s somehow simple (people chasing after a special diamond) and complex (way too many people are chasing after that stupid diamond) at the same time. This is likely because the film is only 90-ish minutes long, which is far too short for a film of this scale. Also, there are so many coincidences that push the story forward that it’s hard to take things seriously. Like, wow, important character Cassandra Cain just happened to pickpocket the diamond from Black Mask’s henchman! Wow, Huntress somehow managed to kill the fourth person on her hitlist at the exact same time he was about to kill Dinah and Cassandra! I understand that this is a superhero film, and realism isn’t always the highest priority, but there’s only so much my weight my suspension of disbelief can handle. The construction of events in this film shattered it on numerous occasions.

Speaking of realism, the action scenes defy the laws of everything quite a few times. This isn’t as egregious as the script, but there were some stunts that had me scratching my head. For example, in the climax, Harley somehow manages to successfully do a backflip from the front of a moving car that’s pushing her forward, and lands… in the car. Uh… excuse me?! This wouldn’t be an issue with a character that actually has superpowers, but Harley does not, and while it looked awesome, I just couldn’t get behind it. However, that moment, and a few others peppered throughout the action scenes, are exceptions, because overall the action scenes are fantastic, with creative choreography, set design (carnival rides, anyone?), and the right amount of gleeful insanity. While it probably wasn’t a good idea for boosting ticket sales, I’m happy this film was rated R, because it’s clear that the rating allowed the filmmakers to just go all out with the blood and glitter, which makes sense, since Batman villains are famous for their darker, more twisted personalities. The action is shot and presented very well too, with crisp editing, smooth camerawork, and well-placed slow motion. It feels more like a Loony Toons episode than anything else, and I see that as an absolute win!

The movie’s biggest positives, though, are the performances. Everyone in this movie just looks like they’re having a blast, and each actress adds a needed layer of charisma to relatively thin characters, particularly Mary Elizabeth-Winstead (who plays Huntress with the right amount of intensity and surprisingly awkward comedy, despite occupying a sparse amount of screentime), Ewan McGregor (his Black Mask is hilarious in the right moments and terrifying in others), and Margot Robbie. Robbie is perfect in this movie, capturing Harley’s sugary but deranged personality in a way that’s both engaging and somehow relatable. I genuinely wish the film wasn’t an origin for the Birds of Prey and just focused squarely on her, because her character arc was the most interesting—she’s regaining her independence after a particularly bad relationship. There was some real potential there for exploring the consequences of emotional abuse and how she’s forging her own identity separate from the Joker, but the film provided the most shallow version of it. Not every movie has to be deep, though, and I was pretty content just watching Harley Quinn being Harley Quinn.

As for general themes… well, this film explicitly avoids attaching any morals or even deeper ideas, really. I’m truly conflicted over whether that’s a good or bad thing. Films like the John Wick franchise don’t have any deeper themes, but I’d be more than happy to recommend them because the aesthetics, character chemistry, and action scenes are so fantastic it doesn’t need themes. Sometimes, films can just be aesthetic experiences that don’t make you question your life or learn anything new, and that’s fine. It’s just… something about Birds of Prey rang very hollow in that regard, because it wants to have its cake (be a fun action movie without moral baggage) and eat it too (promote feminism). In the film, there’s constant talk about women being underestimated, and that’s definitely a theme worth exploring, but just like Harley’s breakup, it’s so shallow. It doesn’t have any genuinely empowering moments, like “No Man’s Land” in Wonder Woman, or anything that makes me want to stand up and shout “YEAH, FEMINISM!” It wouldn’t be much of a bother if the film didn’t seem to be aimed at inducing that reaction, but to be fair, it’s much less obnoxious than I’m making it out to be.

However, I’m also deeply uncomfortable with arguing that every movie about women performing typically masculine roles has to make a statement, or even make a statement well. The fact that Birds of Prey, a shallow carnival ride about morally-ambiguous women kicking ass, even exists should be celebrated, because I’m so sick of the idea that characters, especially female characters, have to be perfect role models. I want realistic or even evil women portrayed in film with the same level of justification for their behavior as men, because women who are not perfect angels exist, and are the majority. I know, shocking. I want more Hustlers, I want more The Act, I want more The Farewell, I want more I, Tonya, I want more of Line of Duty—hell, I even want more Twilight, which embraces the vulnerabilities of adolescent womanhood in a way that remains criminally underexplored. I want Breaking Bad but with women, I want a female Joker... I JUST WANT WOMEN WHO ARE HUMAN AND DO BAD THINGS, WITHOUT BEING HELD TO AN IMPOSSIBLE STANDARD OF PURITY, IN MY MOVIES.

In this sense, the actual quality of Birds of Prey feels irrelevant. It’s nowhere near perfect, and in the process of writing this article, my opinion of it as a film has actually declined (this article was originally called “Birds of Prey: Feminine Fury with a Sugary Coat” before evolving to “Birds of Prey: Furiously Fun, but Flawed” and then I settled with the current, much more derogatory title) but my opinion of it as a concept (which is a solid “yes please!”) hasn’t in the slightest. I really hope this film struggling at the box office doesn’t lock the door on future projects in this vein, or convince executives that people don’t want films about imperfect women, because there is so, so much unlocked potential here, and I don’t want to see it squandered by an imperfect movie. Ultimately, I can’t say I recommend Birds of Prey beyond a simple “if you want a fun turn-your-brain-off experience, go ahead,” but if you want more movies that are “fun turn-your-brain-off experiences for women without any moral baggage,” then definitely go see it. It’s not perfect, and I was disappointed by it, but I’m glad it exists.

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