‘Turns out I’m not the only dame in Gotham looking for emancipation.’
–Harley Quinn, Birds of Prey
After the middling returns on Justice League, DC has broken away from their perceived Marvel-envy with a wide variety of films, ranging from the underwater epic Aquaman, teen-frenzied Shazam! and the dark and brooding Joker. With Birds of Prey, they continue the trend of well-written solo pieces that focus on character as opposed to forcing the next Avengers-type film. While cross-overs are inevitable (Quinn has already been confirmed for the James Gunn’s Suicide Squad film), the new approach has allowed each film in their canon to have their own flavour. Thankfully, Birds of Preycontinues the trend as a fun and free-wheeling burst of color and energy that breathes fire when it needs to and, more importantly, continues to breathe life into DC’s film slate.
Directed by Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs), Birds of Prey (or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) reintroduces us to the unpredictable Harley Quinn. Finally free from her relationship with the Joker, Quinn suddenly finds that she has a target on her back and she’s forced to go on the run from narcissistic crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan Macgregor), his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), and every other thug in the city. But things soon begin to even out for Harley when she finds herself an unexpected ally with three lethal women – Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).
Wild and unruly, Birds of Prey earns it’s ‘R-rating’ (though surprisingly less extreme than it could have been) and plays with fractured story-telling and breaking the ‘fourth wall’. (In fact, the film has so much freedom that it begs the question as to whether or not DC has found their answer to Deadpool.) For her second time in the role, Robbie seems even more comfortable as affable anti-heroine, Harley Quinn, as she bounds through the film with playful enthusiasm. (Incidentally, newcomers Perez, Winstead and Smollet-Bell also prove to be solid female counters to craziness.) What’s more, Yan’s desire to bathe the screen in colour helps Birds of Prey become a visual treat. Told entirely from Quinn’s perspective, the film uses every brightly lit neon possibility from glitter bombs to a Madonna-throwback sequence in an effort to bring the chaos of her mind to life. As a result, the film becomes an erratic but playful venture that doesn’t always stick the landing with its humour but offers enough quality performances and entertainment to deem the film a success.
While the film follows Quinn on her quest for survival, the subtext of the film focuses on Quinn’s journey to spiritual freedom from the men in her life, especially the Joker (who remains unseen in the film). In a distinct shift from her debut in Suicide Squad, Birds shows off Harley’s intelligence rather than focusing on her physical beauty. All but forgotten in her first film, the character does have doctorate in psychology and Birds allows her to make use of it, without losing her wild side.
What’s more, after ‘emancipating’ herself from her relationship with Mr. J, Quinn sends a message to the city that she’s finally a free agent. The problem is, however, that this action emboldens the other men of Gotham’s criminal underworld who were afraid to hurt her for fear of Joker’s wrath. With this in mind, the film quickly becomes a metaphor for breaking free from the abusiveness of male-dominance in a culture that ignores the value and intelligence of women. Though men comment on the softness of her skin or her pretty face, few take her seriously as a threat on her own. (Incidentally, Quinn’s journey parallels that of the other women in the film as well, each seeking to free themselves from under the thumb of their male oppressors.) As a result, Harley’s journey becomes less about finding safety but more about finding herself, and empowering others to do the same.
Enthusiastic and rowdy, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) proves to be another successful entry into the suddenly energized DC canon of films. As the demented by intelligent Quinn, Robbie continues to create a character worth watching. Though the humour doesn’t always work, Birds of Prey is a visual treat with enough strong performances to suggest that his will become another viable franchise for the future. After all, if Quinn really isn’t ‘the only dame in Gotham looking for emancipation’, Robbie still has a lot of work to do.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is free to fly in theatres on Friday, February 7th, 2020.