By Peg Aloi
The apocalyptic mayhem is glorious and certainly cathartic. Still, I have to ask: Is this how women will rise up and take what’s ours? With violence?
Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, directed by Cathy Yan. Screening at Embassy Cinema, AMC Assembly Row 12, Somerville Theatre, and other movie houses around New England.
First, a confession: I don’t really watch superhero movies and I don’t really have that much interest in them. No lie, I barely know the difference between DC and Marvel. Now, of course, these kinds of films are often really well made and entertaining, but in a world where there’s so much excellent cinema and television to be seen, plus real life to be lived, I don’t tend to give them too much of my time or attention (though I loved The Lego Batman Movie).
All that said, I was intrigued by the recent brouhaha around Birds of Prey, the latest Harley Quinn vehicle. Apparently it wasn’t drawing the expected audiences because, somehow, people didn’t know what it was about. Because Harley Quinn’s name wasn’t in the title? And so, via an unprecedented move, the studio or possibly the distributors decided to change the title in its second week of U. S. release. It is now Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. Whereas previously it was Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
Why was it that this film needed this highly publicized tweak to sell more tickets? One theory is that superhero stories about women don’t attract the same hefty audience numbers as those based on male heroes. And, of course, as we’ve all heard ad infinitum over the last few months, superhero fandom is rife with sexism. The recent negative criticism launched at the artful but extremely disturbing Joker (for which Joaquin Phoenix won an Oscar for best actor and deservedly so) suggests the DC universe has been stained by that film’s unapologetic violence, perverseness, and all-around misanthropy. Because misogyny runs rampant among superhero mavens, another, and easier, explanation is that guys just don’t like to see superhero movies with chicks in them (witness all the ridiculous resistance of male fans to, even hostility toward, Wonder Woman with Gal Gadot).
I’m happy to report, though, that the birds of prey here, written and directed by women (Christina Hodson and Cathy Yan respectively), fight their way through a proto-feminist — yet at times absurdly sexist — fantastical romp that is grounded in the kind of greedy urban angst most everyone can relate to. Who among us (I’m talking to you, ladies) hasn’t broken up with a sociopath and felt angry enough to physically smash everything in striking distance?
The film begins with a sassy prologue that clues us in to precisely what might be meant by “emancipation,” although things are not all that fantabulous at first. I found the running voice-over narration by Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie, reprising her role from 2017’s Suicide Squad) to be inordinately helpful. Since Harley is a self-absorbed agent of chaos with a heart of gold (sometimes) and has a score to settle with her ex (the Joker), she frequently halts the film’s action to backtrack for the sake of providing some (occasionally self-serving) context. It’s as if the filmmakers understand that, 1) there will be women seeing this film who, like me, aren’t huge superhero buffs, but also 2) women are smart and we can figure things out if you give us the basic ingredients and tools to do so. And so we are given colorful and clever comic book flashbacks that bring us up to speed. Why is Harley on a nonstop bender driven by heartbreak and self-sabotage? Why are most of her friends mad at her? Why does half of Gotham City want her dead? These clever “catch-up” scenes are very well placed, managing to add intensity and intrigue to the segments they interrupt.
On one hungover morning Harley is savoring her favorite indulgence, a hot fresh bacon breakfast sandwich, but she is interrupted by an angry thug. Harley finds herself on the run from Gotham’s main crime boss, Roman Sionis (a smooth Ewan McGregor), and his creepy henchman (a brilliant Chris Messina). This is a brilliant scene: slow-motion photography captures the object of Harley’s gustatory obsession and aptly details how upsetting it is for her to have her small daily pleasures thwarted. Harley is all appetites: she drinks heavily, smiles knowingly when a bag of cocaine bursts and sends some amphetamine laden dust her way, and even lets creepy guys drunkenly grope her. But she also craves comfort and solitude; in between sessions of dubious excess, she stays at home watching cartoons with Bruce, her pet hyena.
Eventually, Harley teams up with some other women: Rosie Perez as a washed-up detective, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a self-styled crossbow assassin bent on revenge, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as “Black Canary,” a nightclub singer who is Sionis’s new driver. The quartet begin chasing and then protecting a young pickpocket who has inadvertently stolen something everyone wants. They bond over how shitty men are. They get why Harley cuts her hair and drinks with abandon cuz they’ve all been there. And they kick ass, literally, in some beautifully choreographed scenes that involve motorcycles, roller skates, and an abandoned carnival. The mind-bending color, creative urban details, stunning costumes, and frenetic energy create a dizzying spectacle — and there’s a heart-pounding soundtrack to boot.
I’m not going to say the feminist messaging is all positive: I mean, as satisfying as it is to watch these characters band together to defeat the bad guys, the main point seems to be that the only way to best men is to beat them at their own game, and that game is physical domination. And the battles aren’t all martial arts moves: there are guns and knives and broken glass and explosives. The apocalyptic mayhem is glorious and certainly cathartic. Still, I have to ask: Is this how women will rise up and take what’s ours? With violence? There’s plenty of ingenuity involved, but brute force is inevitably what wins the day. And that’s why I don’t like superhero movies.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.