Harley Quinn, one of the few non-casualties of the rather rocky start to the DC Comics Extended Universe, has returned to the big screen for the first time since her appearance in the critically panned Suicide Squad (2016). This return was, in large part, due to Margot Robbie’s expert ability to give a great deal of texture to Quinn’s rather one-note lines and direction, and Robbie uses her sharp intuition once more as producer of Birds of Prey. Now working with a sword-sharp script, thanks to Christina Hodson of Bumblebee (2018), Robbie is able to give a far greater performance to the already beguiling turn in Suicide Squad that made her a fan favourite. This version of Joker’s famed paramour is a delightfully intoxicating swirl of 90’s-Saturday-morning-cartoon Harley, the earthiness of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny (1992) with the girly flair of Alicia Silverstone in Clueless (1995). This, however, is still an entirely original performance – the uniqueness of Robbie as a performer and a hardworking producer, confirmed by two Oscar nods before her 30th birthday, is evident here in an intoxicating performance of a villainess that should be wholly unlikeable – yet remains the complete opposite.
Margot Robbie has made an inspired choice in her decision to hire Cathy Yan, a relative unknown in the industry (her Sundance sensation Dead Pigs never gained wide release) that outshined the household-name directors. Yan, the first Asian-American woman to direct a comic book movie, a genre that is already reluctant to hire white female directors, feels highly overdue and brings some much-needed fresh ideas to the table. Robbie, as the producer who pitched the film, has proven she is actively doing more to diversify the film industry than the empty promises we hear about industry discrimination peppered throughout every awards season by major stars. Promises of inclusion riders and diversity in front of, and behind, the camera seem to disappear in a puff of smoke every year, and, as data suggests, progress has been slow. All-female action scenes in movies have become increasingly common in the last decade, but unlike rather gimmicky gestures we’ve seen in the last two Avengers movies, Yan provides genuine depth to her female comic book characters.
Birds of Prey, set in a rather indeterminate time after Suicide Squad, follows Harley Quinn as she makes her way through the crime-ridden world of Gotham without the protection of the Joker, who she has broken up with off-screen. Unravelling herself from Joker’s toxic influence, Harley is tightly wrapped up in her worst qualities – particularly her willingness to disregard others. Tasked with finding a lost diamond for nightclub-owning gangster Roman Sinois (Ewan McGregor), Harley bumps heads with other women under Sinois’ thumb, including Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). United under the one cause of saving Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a young girl in possession of the diamond Sinois is looking for, the rag-tag team of anti-heroines quickly learn to untangle themselves from Sinois’ manipulation. The film’s electric ensemble cast, with particularly standout performances from Jurnee Smolett-Bell and Ewan McGregor, are given a coked-up candyland of a playground by Yan to play their characters within. The film’s pacing, plotting and visuals work in perfect harmony to provide the cartoon campiness reminiscent of comic book movies that rise to the levels of truly great film-making – as opposed to simply great superhero movie making, such as Into the Spider-verse (2018).
Birds of Prey, however, remains entirely its own creation. Feeling like what the creators of Suicide Squad were planning to make in the storyboarding stage, Yan’s artistic and executive talents succeeds at implementing what so many have failed to do before her. While the film has its definitive flaws – running out of gas towards the end, as well as a personal feeling of dying for even more scenes of Ewan McGregor chewing the scenery – it’s hard to get too bogged down in any issues when the final product is so avant-garde for its genre. With a film so rich in diversity in both its cast and plot (an argument could be put forward that Birds of Prey is the most LGBT-friendly comic book movie), the lingering feeling after the credits have rolled is of excitement. Although lacking in the financial support of more established blockbusters, Cathy Yan and co. have raised the bar for portraying a franchise – especially for female characters – on screen.
Birds of Prey, in its use of female empowerment, feels like a much-needed palate cleanser in the months following JJ Abrams’ faltering closure of Rey’s character arc in The Rise of Skywalker (2019). Margot Robbie has been an outspoken critic of coercing Harley into a mere extension of Joker, telling ScreenRant “I guess what’s always surprised me, or the thing… and I said this when publicizing Suicide Squad, the first film, is that her relationship with Joker always did confuse me the most”. Robbie, as producer of Birds of Prey, seemingly scrapped a Joker and Harley spin-off shortly following Suicide Squad, instead vouching for Harley to go on a journey of self-discovery rather playing a literal harlequin to Jared Leto.
Abrams’ retconning of Rian Johnson’s conclusions on Rey’s lineage The Last Jedi (2017) came across as a heartbreakingly pathetic plea to the “Mary Sue” criticisms of Rey – a criticism that Daisy Ridley herself found to be sexist. In doing so, Abrams gave Star Wars’ male characters the bulk of the credit for Rey’s abilities, as well as a self-indulgent nostalgia-fest for disgruntled fanboys who – according to box office stats – never intended to see the film in the first place. Robbie, instead, vouched for the opposite for Harley – shown through unapologetically powerful action scenes and character development tied to new characters she discovers through her own journey – rather than instantly gratifying throwbacks to familiar faces. Better yet, Robbie’s choice to emancipate Harley does not give one single shit about the Mary Sue criticisms and refuses to lay Harley’s anti-heroic abilities at the feet of Joker.
Cathy Yan, rather ironically, delivered in Birds of Prey what the core message of the Star Wars sequel trilogy was supposed to be: “let the past die” – Kylo Ren, under the masterful writing of Rian Johnson, states – “kill it, if you have to”. Armed with a fraction of the budget and writers of high-end Disney projects, Harley’s first solo outing understands the longevity and importance of delivering a unique product more than most industry bigwigs. Suicide Squad ended with an unearned embrace between Harley and Joker as he liberates her from prison – a rather muddled metaphor to end on considering their established abusive relationship previously in the film. This ending – a tying of a ludicrous bow on an already laughable package – expected a guaranteed sequel of the box office hit, which, upon the arrival of greater talents such as Joaquin Phoenix and James Gunn (director of the Suicide Squad reboot) will likely never come to fruition.
Yan declines to follow the rather awkward start of the DC Universe (vastly improved by newer entries such as Shazam!) and instead, lets Harley be – well, – Harley. There’s no erasure of her established origin at the hands of Joker, as we’re given brief snippets of Harley’s first on-screen appearance, but Birds of Prey grants Harley the solo adventure she deserves. Once more, Yan succeeds at Abrams’ failures by understanding that killing the past does not mean a censorship of established franchise lore, and felt like a welcome return of “Rey Nobody” gifted to us by Johnson in The Last Jedi.
Birds of Prey’s portrayal of female friendship (rather delightfully summarised in the simple act of sharing a hair tie), demonstrates that going it alone, without a connection to an established figure, does not equate loneliness. No man – or woman in this case – is an island; another careless mistake Abrams makes by killing off Rey’s closest confidants in The Rise of Skywalker. Instead, a fun, feminist celebration of the campiness and bubblegum punk DC comics lets Harley Quinn thrive and exists within a loving tribute. The film stands firmly both in this world, and alongside it – a new, bright future, unconcerned with ticking boxes that please long term fans or shedding its colourful feathers for the sake of grittiness. Ultimately, Birds of Prey, shows that if you want a job done properly – ask a woman to do it.
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is in cinemas now
By Bethany Gemmell
Bethany Gemmell is currently a student at The University of Edinburgh. She has a highly embarrassing talent of being able to tell which episode of Friends she’s watching in about 15 seconds of screen-time. Bethany’s favourite scene in all of cinema is in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout sees Boo Radley for the first time. You can follow her on twitter @chandIermonica.