Image via Warner Bros.

Lightening Up Superheroes

Birds of Prey tweaks patriarchy with style and humor

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), last seen in Suicide Squad, is having a rotten day. She and the Joker split up, which makes it open season on Harley; without Mr. J’s reputation to protect her, she’s fair game. 

Also, she hasn’t had breakfast.

Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (full title: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) doesn’t start with this very bad day; it starts with Harley’s backstory, guaranteeing that you don’t need to be a DC Comics expert to grasp the basics of Harley’s rough life and general demeanor. She’s pink hair and a Ph.D., playfulness and punching, and in Robbie’s delightfully manic performance, she’s one of the best things to happen to the “why-so-serious” DC universe.

The other best things include Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya, a cop tired of watching her male colleagues get all the credit; Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress/Helena Bertinelli, hell-bent on revenge and not great in social settings; Jurnee Smollett-Bell as the multi-talented Black Canary/Dinah Lance, who has a shitty boss; and Ella Jay Basco as young Cass Cain, a pickpocket who becomes the target of said shitty boss, Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor).

There’s a plot — outside of Harley hunting season, it involves a diamond, Roman’s many, many issues and some tasty vengeance — but this is Harley’s movie, and if you’re not here for her character, you will probably not love it. I did. From every exploding glittery beanbag, every precisely choreographed fight sequence, every scene that balanced staying true to Harley’s aesthetic with making a point about the patriarchy.

The villain is Roman, whose ego is bigger than the statue he has of himself, but the villain is also all of the men who see Harley without the Joker and think she now belongs to them — that she’s just prey. Has she pissed them all off?

Yes, but sometimes it’s just by existing. (The list of reasons why Roman hates Harley includes that she has a vagina.) The most uncomfortable scene in this film isn’t cartoon violence; it’s when Roman doesn’t like the way a woman is laughing and steps in to control her. Yan and writer Christina Hodson won’t let you look away: This is where all the other threats to our heroines stem from. They’re fighting for their lives, but they’re also fighting for Cass — for her chance to grow up in a better, more just world.

Lest you think that sounds too serious, please know that the grand finale takes place largely in a funhouse, which allows for the fighting to be even more clever than it is the rest of the movie. Harley fights on roller skates and fights like a gymnast, and the violence leans toward the cathartic over the simply gratuitous.

The bar for female-led comic-book movies is so low that I wanted to see this one largely because of a single scene: Harley pausing mid-battle to give Dinah a hair tie. It’s a note of practicality (and of getting out from under the male gaze) that I’ve long wanted from action movies. It’s also about camaraderie, partnership and support. Birds of Prey is primarily Harley’s movie, but she’s not the one special girl who deserves a story because she’s not like other girls. She’s a woman having a horrible day who finds a group of friends (of different ages, even), and they get through it together.

I’m ready for the sequel.

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