In a 2011 episode of the cartoon Batman: The Brave & the Bold, three heroines sang, “While all the boys can always save the day, no one does it better than the Birds of Prey!” Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)? Exact same energy.
The DC Extended Universe hasn’t even reached the ten film milestone, but it’s already widening its range with its second woman-centric film after Wonder Woman.
BoP starts off 2020’s slate of superhero movies with a bang. Post-Suicide Squad, Dr. Harleen Quinzel AKA Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) wants to prove herself capable of standing on her own. So she very publicly announces her ‘singlehood’ to Gotham. Without the protection that comes with being “Joker’s Girlfriend”, every baddie in the city is out for revenge. And this includes sadistic nightclub owner Roman Sionis AKA Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
Bargaining for her life, Harley offers to retrieve a valuable diamond swiped by talented pickpocket Cassandra “Cass” Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Along the way, she must thwart the efforts of Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and cross paths with nightclub singer Dinah Lance AKA Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and mysterious assassin Helena Bertinelli AKA
Crossbow Killer Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Sounds chaotic? It is.
There is a lot to like about BoP. It’s got a kickass soundtrack (dominated by female artistes), the perfect balance of serious grit and wacky explosiveness, and an easy chemistry between the film’s five leads. DC’s first comic book superhero film led by this many women on screen and behind the scenes is every bit the romp the trailers have set it up to be. Instant competition between women is a dreaded, tiring trope for me, so it is always a delight to have a story of female solidarity instead.
BoP received an NC16 rating but was passed clean by IMDA, so I wasn’t expecting any explicit acknowledgement of any queerness in the film. (Remember, teen-friendly Love, Simon was rated R21 and the background sapphic kiss in The Rise of Skywalker was cut.) But to my pleasant surprise and delight, the opening animated sequence on Harley’s life story provided a nod to her bisexuality, albeit a blink-and-miss one. Renee, who is canonically a lesbian in the comics, also has her sexuality clearly acknowledged as soon as Ali Wong’s character is introduced as her “ex”. Aside from those brief scenes, their attraction to women isn’t referenced again. Both scenes are also very snippable, should more anti-LGBTQ+ countries choose to censor them. In any case, it’s very important to me as a queer woman to have even these crumbs left alone.
Harley Quinn & the Birds of Prey would’ve been a more apt title for this film. Harley narrates a good portion of the film from her perspective — leading to the non-linear storytelling in the first half due to her disorganized thought process — and is the catalyst in bringing these women to join hands against a common foe. Each woman’s backstory is told in a snappy run-through, so the average moviegoer needn’t skim through Wikipedia entries to enjoy the film.
While I’m personally not a huge Harley fan, Robbie undoubtedly owns this role.
It is a testament to her talent that Harley effortlessly slips from zany giddiness to violent rage to heart-wrenching despondence. Unsurprisingly, Harley is the source of most of the film’s humor, with her sassy one-liners and over-the-top antics. Regardless, writer Christina Hodson (who is also writing the upcoming Flash solo) makes sure never to oversaturate the film’s gags. Harley thankfully isn’t much of a quipper during action scenes, giving you the opportunity to admire her amazing fighting prowess. BoP maintains Harley as more anti-heroine than outright villainess. Kill count? Limited. Massive injuries inflicted? Definitely.
Robbie once said “Harley loves interacting with people”, and the whole movie doubles down on that with memorable scenes involving Harley and one or more of the other women.
Continuing the DCEU’s theme of maternal influence on their heroes, Dinah’s backstory adapts the comic canon that the Black Canary mantle is a legacy. When we meet Dinah she is disillusioned after losing her mother to the crimefighting world. Despite her outward indifference, the apple clearly doesn’t fall from the tree. Dinah is increasingly unable to turn a blind eye to those in trouble.
Smollett-Bell is a fantastic choice for a heroine known for her caring heart. She pulls off Dinah’s inner conflict and distress over a fellow woman’s harassment convincingly. I commend the film for ensuring that Dinah’s Canary Cry, a supersonic scream that has been known to shatter matter and even hurt Superman in the comics, isn’t just a deus ex machina. Before its exciting revelation in the third act, the Cry is alluded to earlier in the film not once but twice; the mantle being not the only thing that Dinah inherits from her mother. The film also goes out of its way to show why the Cry isn’t used more often, and that’s appreciated.
Renee Montoya was given more screentime than I had expected, but that helps serving as an antagonist to Harley for the first two acts. As the tough-as-nails, dedicated police detective, Perez plays Renee with the frustration many career women can definitely relate to when it comes to workplace microaggressions. Her opening scene shows how skilled an investigator she is, though that analytical mind could’ve been played on more throughout the rest of the film.
Props to director Cathy Yan for fighting to cast Perez, a 55-year-old Oscar nominee in such an action-intensive role, fighting back against the notion that only male actors in this age range can play comic book heroes.
It is, however, glaring that the lesbophobia that Renee struggles against in the comics was left out, insinuating that sexism was the only thing limiting her career. (The Gotham Police Department is sexist but not homophobic. Who would’ve thought.) Personally, it would’ve been more nuanced and intersectional to include that aspect of her life. The creatives behind BoP have pledged to showcase the diversity of women, but with diversity comes the different intersections of women’s struggle.
Rounding up the women is Helena, who is first introduced to us as a calculating cold-blooded killer. Even with the briefest amount of screentime among the women, she avoids becoming a one-dimensional archetype. We get to see the different facets of her personality, formed due to her traumatic childhood and isolated assassin training. Audiences would no doubt warm up to her quickly, as Winstead makes social awkwardness an endearing trait.
The adult women thus far have been allowed more complexity than one would expect in a team film. The creators largely succeeded in the task of introducing relatively unknown characters, while still referencing their comic source.
However comic fans of Cassandra Cain would recognise very little of her cinematic counterpart. It’s even more surprising that two women of East Asian descent — director Yan and writer Hodson — would choose to reinterpret such a prominent East Asian female character this way. Cass’ badass martial arts skills and her comic origin of being groomed to be the greatest assassin have been omitted. But more importantly, so are the core traits of deep empathy, compassion for all, and a belief in self-redemption that Cass’ comic counterpart is known for.
Considering how much screentime Basco and Robbie shared, it’s not a stretch to depict these core traits of Cass Cain. Especially given Harley’s character growth in the film.
It would be understandable if Hodson wished to avoid the cliched “silent Asian martial artist” trope. It’s already been done with Suicide Squad’s Katana. Yet, this also ends up erasing Cass’ non-verbal, neuroatypical traits that a number of fans interpret as autistic-coded. It also dismisses how a non-verbal character can also be just as expressive with her facial and body language. Cass has always been expressive, in contrast with the more stoic Katana.
The film also doesn’t devote as much time to delve into Cass’ inner machinations as it did for the other women. As a long-time Cassandra fan, it dampened my overall enjoyment of the film.
All that said, if you have never picked up a Cassandra Cain comic, you would likely be amused by Basco’s wise-cracking, adorable pre-teen and her charming dynamic with Robbie’s Harley.
What’s a superhero story without its villains? Against the women is the narcissistic Black Mask. McGregor plays the unhinged Roman with enough gleeful menace to make skin crawl but stops just shy of camp. Roman notably vents his temperamental outbursts at women. In one scene, he lashes out at an innocent female patron of his nightclub over a perceived slight against him. It is downright unsettling and perhaps hits too close for comfort.
Black Mask is aided by the loyal and equally deranged Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). Unfortunately Zsasz doesn’t get much of a chance to shine, remaining largely in the shadow of Roman’s insatiable flamboyance.
With such a commendable cast of characters, director Yan knows she has a great sandbox to play with. She doesn’t miss a beat. Despite a resume filled with independent short films, Yan certainly knows how to kick down the door of the Blockbuster Directors Club with this debut. She ably embraces the MPAA’s R rating with multiple F-bombs and ferocious fighting. The female leads also take painful hits in return, showcasing how raw and messy women characters can be just like their male counterparts.
Yan isn’t afraid to remind audiences who’s behind the camera. With the baring of cleavages, midriffs, and shorts, it could’ve easily slipped from sexy to sexualized . Thanks to the mindful directorial eye, these women are treated with dignity. Gone are the male gaze-y shots such as those that plagued Harley in her previous film outing.
There are also many gorgeous shots to be found in this street-level superhero film; the overall aesthetic of Gotham feels familiar yet also unique enough to stand apart from previous iterations.
BoP is boosted from having Chad Stahelski (known for his John Wick films) and his company 87eleven assisting with the action sequences. The fight scenes are drawn out to their best capacity, and they are a huge highlight of the film. Raw brutality is emphasized with the notable sounds of bruising and bones breaking.
I appreciated the beauty of the different fighting styles each woman exhibits at their climatic team up scene. The excellent camerawork elevates it, to the audience’s benefit. Harley’s fight scenes are undeniably the flashiest, given her character’s personality and gymnastics/acrobatic influence.
And words are simply not enough to describe the breathtaking action sequence in the third act.
BoP is an enjoyably wild ride from start to finish. The pacing may come off as awkward in the first act, but settles in quickly afterwards without a hitch. As an origin story of a team coming together, it does the job of whetting my appetite for more.
It’s this reviewer’s wish to have Warner Brothers greenlight a sequel focusing solely on the Birds. These three characters come across as strong enough to stand on their own without a boost from one very much emancipated Harley Quinn.
BoP doesn’t feel like a cookie-cutter superhero film, echoing Yan’s belief that “You can’t keep giving them [the audience] the same amusement park ride over and over again”, and therefore a delightful addition to a franchise that boasts a variety of stories.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is now showing in cinemas.