Review: Birds of Prey (2020)

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Directed by Cathy Yan. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2020.

Premiere Impressions

            Margot Robbie’s interpretation of Harley Quinn is, without debate, the best part of Suicide Squad (2016), the DC Extended Universe’s first anti-hero team-up film. Birds of Prey: And the Far Too Long Title aims to cash in on the positive reaction to the character’s cinematic appearance by placing her front and center in her own film. If there is one thing Birds of Prey does perfectly, it is solidifying the cinematic magic of Robbie as Harley. The film succeeds as both a Harley Quinn vehicle and as an example of a superhero film with a feminist slant.

The success of the film truly depends on capturing the bombastic and colorful essence of Robbie’s leading anti-hero. No matter how many other comic book characters the film tries to squeeze into its script, the film really rests on Harley’s shoulders. When the screen is filled with saturated neon hues, director Cathy Yan demonstrates she clearly understands the essence of the character. In one of the film’s most exciting set pieces, Harley enters the Gotham Police Department armed with an arsenal of fireworks-esque weaponry. The sequence is cartoonish, highly stylized, and, most importantly, violently jubilant. Whereas many modern superhero films frame violence as a necessary means of heroism, Birds of Prey revels in the amusement of it. When the film detours into the subplots of the other anti-heroes, the “Birds,” the film loses a bit of its luster. It’s not that the other characters are uninteresting, or the performances are underwhelming (it’s actually quite a treat to see Rosie Perez in such a prominent role), the issue is that no other characters, and therefore their plotlines, match the excitement of watching Harley. For some, perhaps these less bombastic moments will be a necessary breath, but for me, I felt like the thrill waned a bit each time Harley was not on screen. Luckily, the other characters get infused with a bit of her spirit when they all come together to form the titular crime-fighting squad.

            No matter your specific definition, Birds of Prey certainly exists on the spectrum of feminism. The very presence of an all-female super-team in a contemporary blockbuster is not to be understated. Throughout the brief history of modern superhero cinema, few female-led examples of the genre exist. The critical and financial failures of Catwoman (2004) and Elektra (2005) emboldened studios to use poorly veiled misogynistic logic to reinforce the notion that female superheroes “don’t work” on screen. Therefore, most modern cinematic female heroes exist as part of male-dominated teams, such as in the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and X-Men franchises. Harley Quinn even made her live-action screen debut as part of such a team. The critical and financial success of Wonder Woman, in combination with a rise in pop culture progressivism, undoubtedly shifted the narrative. Birds of Prey reflects this more than any other recent female-driven superhero film through its particular brand of woke-feminism. Is the film exploring any grounded themes of social injustice? Debatable. Does the film do a solid job of bringing women into a genre inequitably dominated by men through a specifically female lens? Absolutely.

Post-Screening Snippets

  • Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is the lack of the titular anti-hero team. Because the origin of Harley Quinn featured prominently in Suicide Squad, I did not expect another origin story, and I definitely did not expect to wait until the film’s climax to see the Birds all come together.
  • The sheer, queer delight of Ewan McGregor’s exceptionally campy villain is reason enough to get to the theater.
  • “Hair tie?” That’s it. That’s the snippet.
  • Am I the only one who left wanting way more hyena action?

The Final Tea

            Like Hugh Jackman, Robert Downey Jr., and Ryan Reynolds, Robbie joins the pantheon of performers who so fully embodies the spirit of a comic book character, it is hard to imagine any other actor playing the role.


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