DCEU introduced their newest supervillain installment, this time for the female-led standalone Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey—directed by DC’s third female director Cathy Yan.
The film is a delightful mash-up of everything glamorous and violent about being a woman, a thoroughly enjoyable ride that delivers colorful action at a near pitch-perfect pacing that allowed all four of its starring women to carve out their own onscreen space and shine
The film begins by re-introducing us to Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) right after her break-up with the Joker, a separation that’s left her scornful and expensing a lot of tears in her new independently-owned apartment, spraying cheese directly into her mouth from a can.
It’s in this struggle for Harley to discover herself apart from her long-term relationship with the Joker that the audience learns, alongside Harley herself, what her motivations are outside of committing crime and shadowing the Joker. They happen to be not too far removed from what women outside Gotham City possess—the ability to have their own space, spending time with friends, and eating high-calorie foods.
Harley Quinn proves that she doesn’t need the Joker to make her own trouble in Gotham City, creating her own list of offences against mostly men—from breaking legs, noses, and feeding men to her pet hyena—proving that her child-like and gauche demeanor isn’t one to be underestimated.
The film’s shining moments center on the powerful women that are part of Harley Quinn’s girl posse in her glamorous and gritty world.
One of those girls is Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) as a night club entertainer who works for crime lord Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), an egotistical literal manifestation of the fragile male ego. Throughout the film, we see Dinah Lance struggling with how to use her voice, especially in uncomfortable situations. It’s a too-familiar struggle that we see echoed in our current political landscape that silences women’s voices. Dinah comes into her own voice in her own way in the form of a moving, superhero-moment ultrasonic scream.
Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is a tenacious detective navigating something those who identify as a woman know all too well: sexism in a male-dominated workplace. Perez’s performance is an unshakeable anchor, and she holds herself well in a group of comparatively unhinged characters.
The last of the group Helena Bertinelli/The Huntress (a gloriously deadpan Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the rigorous, socially awkward, daughter of the richest mob family in Gotham City, on a mission to avenge her family’s brutal murder.
The women in the film are a force to be reckoned with, and thanks to Cathy Yan’s fast cuts and swift direction, are each given their moment to shine and truly command their own storylines in the film. In spite of what the film’s title might suggest, it never feels as though the film needs Harley Quinn’s flashy moves and irreverent quips to propel the story forward.
As a salute to the original title, The Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, it truly is an emancipation of not just the infamous Harley Quinn, but the women she meets along the way as well, working towards overcoming the stifling constraints of their situations, both personal and political.
Prior to the film’s release, the representation of the film was often said to be one of its biggest selling points, especially regarding its long-overdue increased visibility of women in leading roles. It might be a few years yet before we see a woman of colour lead a DCEU or MCU standalone film, but what Birds of Prey does effortlessly deliver is fierce, multi-faceted women of colour taking up space that has never really been offered to them before with no qualms or reservations.
Another of the film’s stand-outs was Cassandra Cain, played by 13-year-old Korean- and Filipina-American actress, Ella Jay Basco. Cassandra is a bright, unclaimed, potty-mouthed young girl who steals every scene she’s in. You root for her as a friend, and worry for her well-being like a sister.
As unassuming and standoffish as she comes across, Cassandra is not the character in the film you expect to be the one to stir up as much drama as she does, but it’s refreshing (and necessary, even) for someone that looks like her to be represented on screen in a film of this stature, playing such an important role in the growth and development of the protagonist, Harley.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s performance as Dinah Lance was strong, delivering her off-beat lines with the adeptness only a seasoned actor such as Bell could pull off. However, her character left much to the imagination as the film does not dive nearly deep enough into her backstory. The film alludes to the fact that Dinah has powers and works professionally under the moniker Black Canary, but never fully explores how and why she has more visible superpowers than that of the titular protagonist.
That being said, Birds of Prey goes beyond performative racial or ethnic representation. Renee Montoya is a middle-aged veteran detective in her field kicking every bit of ass just as hard as her younger counterparts. Her achievements in the field are discredited and given second and third priority to her male colleagues who take promotions based on her work, not their own.
It’s rare to see an Afro-Latina of her stature and experience in both career and life at the forefront of a superhero film. Such blockbuster fare is often centered on younger, more physically appealing characters and their journeys and perspectives.
Detective Montoya represents the women who don’t need lessons on what fight to fight; the women whose ferocity and determination isn’t something that can be diminished with age. She is the only character in the film that shows us that no matter how hard you work and achieve, if you’re a woman, especially a woman of colour, sexism will consistently be used as a weapon to try to discredit you, and tell you you’re not enough.
In a similar light, though Harley Quinn’s story mainly takes place in the fictional world of Gotham City, several aspects of her daily life mirror that of women’s everyday experiences in the real world.
Even a supervillain such as Harley can’t escape the same fears and traumas that often affect women in our own reality. In midst of combating Black Mask and his minions, she finds herself in situations where creepy men attempt to take advantage of her when she’s intoxicated and expect her to obey their every demand.
But, of course, this being a film about a villain, Harley Quinn and her friends take none of that. The fight scenes, which involve bulletproof corsets, checkered hammers, and glitter bomb guns, were both fun and honestly gruesome. Yan doesn’t hold back on the violence in the fight scenes just because the people in it are women. She achieves a deeply satisfying balance between entertaining violence and colorful extravagance.
Although Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is only DCEU and MCU’s third recent female-led movie, following Wonder Woman (2017) and Captain Marvel (2019), opening weekend at the box office was quickly deemed a commercial bomb and used to diminish many of its redeeming qualities.
But films like Birds of Prey are important and marketable even just for the mere fact that films directed, written and centering women are scarce. According to a study conducted by Creative Artists Agency and shift7, research shows that female-led movies are successful, top-grossing.
Films about women like Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey are testament to the importance of women writing—or, in this case, re-writing—their own narratives and coming into their own agency. Harley represents the type of women that we rarely get to see on screen: the ones who are allowed to be messed-up, angry, and vocal, just as much as men are. She’s a walking contradiction of a woman, both aggressive and compassionate. More importantly, she is proof you don’t need to choose between either to be valid.
Edited by Abeer Khan