‘Birds of Prey’ Is a Rambunctious Riot Grrrl Delight

It’s predominantly understood, in as much as it is practically common knowledge among film writers and observant viewers at this point, that DC and Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe found itself in such a precarious spiral post-Justice League’s calamitous showing because the two companies felt too hurried to compete with the already culturally and financially dominant Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the Walt Disney Company by extension. Focused on establishing the swath of characters and hero/villain team-ups rather than the shared continuity between individual films that’s helped Marvel stay at the forefront, they handed off arguably their most important projects and characters to a single, talented filmmaker (along with a pair of fan-favorite filmmaking siblings) whose overall vision for the properties was interesting, to say the least. Not only was it a presiding aesthetic that more-so delineated the DCEU as the anti-Marvel brand rather than sold its own uniqueness, it was a vibe the majority of audiences weren’t willing to abide, aside for one film of the total five.

They tried to copy and catch up with Marvel before they could feasibly do so, and the results were disastrous. Spectacularly disastrous, even, in a variety of embarrassing and absolutely tragic fashions that were quite public. How ironic it is, then, that the most beneficial modus operandi for the broader franchise’s long-term viability is to copy Marvel once more.

Sorry, that’s a bit unfair, perhaps even misleading. DC and Marvel arrived at a similar creative plateau and cruise control through differing paths, and DC’s own rocky journey arguably got them there first. Over the course of a decade, Marvel grew and sustained the goodwill of fans and audiences well enough to have earned the sort of cooldown where, at least from the outside, they don’t have to worry as much about shared continuity between individual franchises, or especially about jumping into a brand new slate of team-up fireworks displays that bind an increasingly head-spinning array of mythos and canon. Fans trust them enough for a brief hiatus, of sorts. DC arrived in a similar circumstance by accident, as failure after failure has bred a new line-up and connective aesthetic, led by Aquaman, Shazam! and now Birds of Prey, focused on generating satisfactory individual moviegoing experiences without selling the explicit promise of an all-encompassing franchise. Oh, they’ll still advertise small canonical teases within their storytelling, like Marvel’s own Black Widow prequel and The Eternals certainly will, but how it all comes together doesn’t seem to be a primary concern.

All of which makes now about the best possible moment for Margot Robbie to ask DC fans and casual moviegoers, “Remember I was the only fun and tolerable part of Suicide Squad?” To say the executives of DC and Warner Bros. were collectively thanking their lucky stars that Robbie, an increasingly influential businesswoman in her own right, wanted to continue working with them is an understatement, just as it cannot be equally overstated how much of a necessary, yet still formulaic shot in the arm Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) represents for the DCEU – even after the tonal and creative, yet still formulaic shots in the arm that were Aquaman and Shazam! More than simply a more streamlined and uncomplicated narrative and viewing experience, distinctly setting itself apart from its alliterative predecessor in that facet alone, the film is an anarchic blast, crafting an endeavor as livewire and fun as comic book filmmaking gets, even when it’s an on-the-nose metaphor for getting out of and getting over an abusive relationship.

In a neat change of pace, however, it’s an abusive relationship Hodson’s screenplay wastes no time in resolving with metaphorically and literally vibrant explosiveness. Considering the historical treatment of this sort of subplot, the film refreshingly confines Harley Quinn’s romantic bereavement process to the first act, allowing her uncoupling from Mr. J to feel proactive and genuinely empowering as opposed to consistently haunting her throughout the narrative, though it will prove a symbolic reference point as the rest of our ‘Birds of Prey’ shed their respective burdens brought upon by various predominantly male power structures. It admirably avoids that easy narrative trap when its Roman Sionis, AKA Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) is only some pancake make-up and a cascade of exceedingly poor tattoo and fashion choices from mirroring the Clown Prince of Crime, himself. Such sidestepping is perhaps even the film’s own way of signaling to us that the remaining plot will resemble a condensed romp through irreverent, if choppily told mayhem.

By the time the narrative and action hit their rainbow-colored, cocaine-induced stride, ‘choppy’ is the least of anyone’s concerns, but the path chosen to get there is worth mentioning in as much as it nearly costs the film of its pacing. No doubt mimicking Harley’s impish impudence in its abandonment of a traditional three-act structure (all well and good, by the way), repetitious flashbacks throughout what feels like an elongated first act – coming after an elongated prologue? – gradually reveal the myriad of moving components connecting each character to the plot’s primary thrust. Not only does it artificially delay the inciting incident for little more than faint stylistic purpose in a film that explicitly intends not to overstay its welcome, it narratively shortchanges the Birds of Prey known from the comics. That might honestly be a tad forgivable assuming future films dive a little deeper into the nuances of their personalities, effectively affirming that this film is an unabashed commercial or even test reel for DC’s forthcoming release slate, yet it hardly mitigates the frustration of these characters, particularly Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress, occasionally seeming more as convenient plot devices.

Though as will be explained later, there are a lot of interesting directorial choices happening around these characters in lieu of narrative choices occurring for them, and when the exploitation genre-influenced set-pieces kick in, you’d better believe you’ll be willing to forgive a misstep or two. While there isn’t much material present for these actors to fully immerse themselves in, pretty much everyone in the main cast with a fighting role seamlessly equips themselves into action mode – even if it is doubles and stunt-people doing much of the metaphorical and physical leg work. Winstead and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, the latter of whom plays Black Canary, are instant charisma magnets, and Robbie’s pitch-perfect reprisal of Harley Quinn speaks for itself (see: “only fun and tolerable part of Suicide Squad). On the villain side, watching Chris Messina ham it up is a delight, while McGregor might be the film’s one acting weak point, not because he doesn’t ably commit to the part, imbuing his Roman Sionis with enough self-conscious machismo to offset the flamboyance that often consciously or unconsciously queer-codes superhero villains, yet never feeling convincingly zany and erratic enough to convey a larger than life zeal that seemed the intent for his approach.

So with its unmistakably Deadpool-like energy, style and sense of humor, it’s tempting to suggest Birds of Prey more actively participates in a covert disregard for Zack Snyder and the Nolan brothers’ (partially) contributions, as if the aforementioned ‘explosive’ scene, among other minor character conflicts, and overall execution were emblematic of a broader meta-contextual thematic undercurrent of letting go of the past. Yan and Co. and likely DC, however, aren’t particularly interested in engaging in that sort of cheap shot dialogue. Of course, that’s partially due to DC sticking with its upcoming James Gunn-led Suicide Squad sequel and generally turning a blind eye to Snyder’s films instead of entirely disregarding them, but that doesn’t mean this film isn’t willing to leave some sly comments and concerns about where the franchise has been. Appropriately, it instead uses the cinematic language of anti-establishment sentiment central to Harley Quinn’s character – as well as exploitation cinema – as a vehicle for implicitly questioning the broader cultural fixation on male antagonists and reapplying various coded-masculine filmmaking conventions through a female lens, including the visual vibes symbolic of DC and Warner Bros.’ fallacious decision-making.

In many ways, it treats the Joker as fundamentally irrelevant, including one entertainingly blunt dig at the character from Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain that anyone who slummed their way through Todd Phillips’s Joker will get an intermittent kick out of. It borrows the narrative conventions and techniques integral to hyper-masculine cop shows and exploitation cinema, adapting the aesthetic for a female gaze uncommon to something like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series or even the female-led ‘70s blaxploitation films, whose deservedly beloved protagonists were nonetheless often idealized approximations of empowered Black femininity drawn up by white male writers and directors – which you’ll soon realize means a far more compelling and exciting representation of Black Canary in relation to her contemporaries or portrayal in the comics. Even Winstead’s Huntress has her backstory and resulting dour, no-bullshit swagger respectively used for exploitation genre appropriation and played for winking mugs to camera, as if her demeanor were a self-reflexive stand-in for a darker, Snyder-ized portrayal of superheroes.

Fittingly, McGregor’s sadistic, face-stealing underworld psychopath and his No. 2, Chris Messina’s heavily scarred, hyena-like Victor Zszaz, feel exponentially, if intentionally out of place in the narrative, embodying the eccentricities and brutality that would’ve felt more at home in Batman v. Superman’s self-consciously macho R-rated cut (not to say the theatrical cut wasn’t that, as well). Though that incongruity partially compels us to somewhat dismiss them and their inflated sense of skulking, narcissistic self-seriousness, the film is sure to remind us not to neglect their more violent actions and behaviors, indicative of how misogynist male power structures have traditionally manifested their authority. Harley Quinn herself expresses as much discontent with Roman’s cliched mannerisms while tied down, maintaining a maniacal smile despite the beating Roman doles out.

Additionally noteworthy, then, is the final act’s climactic showdown between Harley Quinn and Roman, taking place at night on a seaside dock called Founders Pier, misty in all of its Snyder-ish goodness and about as overt a callback the film contains to the DCEU’s yet-to-be-revised legacy. Approaching a concealed Roman, Harley carefully walks past the shadowy figures of statues surely underlining exclusively male historical achievement, visually realized here as homogenized blobs of darkness. Perhaps all the more reason why Harley shoots the head off of one of them, mistaking it for Roman. Come the scene’s resolution, it effectively represents a woman – one with a penchant for upsetting the status quo – positively intruding upon a Snyder-like, relentlessly coded masculine space, significantly arriving after many of Roman’s henchmen already failed to overtake the colorful clown fortress in which Harley and her more goody-two-shoes cohorts hide out. For what it’s worth, said final act also contains a very nonchalantly handled addition of one character’s abilities that’s as genuinely breathtaking as it is unironically hilarious in execution.

Such a final sequence is effortlessly symptomatic of and reinforces a key, rather blistering truth about the previous state of the DCEU franchise. In effect, Birds of Prey individually does a better job of pulling off DC and WB’s franchise introduction strategy; declare what you are not, but also firmly state what you are. It isn’t the grim and nihilistic Man of Steel or Batman v, Superman, and it’s hardly even the uplifting and colorful, sporadically operatic touches of the many MCU properties, though it definitely is uplifting and colorful. It is, however, a potent incarnation of superhero cinema by way of riot grrrl poptimist, grindhouse-adjacent madness that doesn’t bog itself down rolling its eyes at the former, though it certainly gets in a few good jabs. I admit that the bulk of this might be me projecting what Yan and Co. intended to deliver, and while these potentially – something I likely should have stressed a few paragraphs ago –  referential details comprise a comparatively less significant portion of this film’s successful formula, they are no less positive symptoms of the formula and worth highlighting.

Look, if you need more evidence for how fun Birds of Prey is, Robbie’s Harley Quinn has a more compelling and emotionally resonant love story with a more questionably healthy than usual breakfast sandwich than she ever did with her ‘damaged,’ green-haired puddin’ pop.

3.5/5

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