Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
So, I often yawn or drift off in Marvel and DC movies. So many of them have predictable templates requiring explosions, chases and sneering villains that they all dissolve into CGI stew.
But, every so often, one of these comic franchises keeps me awake and intrigued – like “Black Panther,” for example, or “Wonder Woman.”
I’m not going to put “Birds of Prey” alongside those two enjoyable films, but I am here to say that Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn was mesmerizing, amusing and frightening, all at once.
One review aptly described “Birds of Prey” as “Kill Bill” meets “Deadpool” – with an ass-kicking female assassin taking names and throwing out attitude for two hours. Or, as the script tells us, “behind every successful male is a badass broad.”
What I liked most about this film was its subversive feminizing of a genre that’s overwhelmingly patriarchal. “Birds of Prey” was written by a woman, produced by a woman, directed by a woman and features countless scenes where there’s not a man in sight – unless he’s on the ground, moaning.
Harley links tattooed arms in solidarity with Huntress, Montoya, Black Canary and a pre-teen pickpocket – quite the suicide squad.
Now I’m not going to glorify the violence, but I am going to say that seeing a fully female response to a male comic book world is refreshing.
Some feminist critics have gone even further, pulling the pin as they wrote.
A very lively and quite readable review in Salon headlined “a fantabulous, feminist grenade,” proclaims that “the patriarchy will be dismantled with hand grenades and hair ties.”
Writer Williams then invites everyone “to come for the ass kicking, stay for the takedown of rape culture.”
Harley Quinn has escaped her abusive relationship with the Joker and is now a fully empowered and emancipated lady who starts her new life by blowing up a chemical factory to announce she’s single.
Harley is forever reminding us this is a femme-gaze film: “I like how you were able to kick so high in those tight pants,” she says, admiring another femme warrior.
I suppose liking this movie qualifies as a Guilty Pleasure. But why should I feel guilty? I had way more fun at this comic-book film than at so many Marvel/DC cookie-cutter action tales.
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The opening of “Birds of Prey” cleverly animates the back story of Harley Quinn. We learn she was a young genius who earned her doctorate in psychiatry, but then fell under the spell of a messed-up client – The Joker.
Now she’s broken free from her tormentor, and is set to flex her femme powers in ways that would make Snow White blush. Harley is not waiting for her prince to come back, that’s certain.
It’s interesting that “Birds of Prey” is being ripped by some critics, while being loved by others. Plenty of writers saw nothing but formula violence initiated by a crazy “anarchic” leading lady.
Robbie puts the “chic” in “anarchic.”
For me the femme power in “Birds of Prey” stands as a beacon of hope in a cinematic universe that still tilted towards males. Seeing female filmmakers making films with and about women is encouraging.
As an aside, the costuming in “Panther” was stunning, but Harley’s lipstick was also memorable.
We’ve been praising “Prey” on a meta-level, giving it credit for a critical assault on cultural oppression.
Perhaps we should descend out of the meta-clouds and admit that the plot might be unremarkable.
A young girl pickpocket swallows a diamond and Harley buys laxative. Really? Yes.
And the driving theme is Harley trying to survive as bounty hunters pursue her. Snore.
And there are times when the film puts the pedal to the metal and becomes the cliché we expected.
But then comes cleverness, as when this film starring bad guy Ewan McGregor, launches into a rousing musical number in the style of both Marilyn Monroe and “Moulin Rouge,” a McGregor classic – “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” of course. Delightful!
“Birds of Prey” feels like a long overdue feminist critique of Hollywood’s tendency to ignore and sexualize females in cinema.
Which brings us to Harley. Is she a sex object here or not? In “Suicide Squad” she flirted with that image.
An Australian critic saw empowerment, not exploitation: “It’s a completely different kind of female-led superhero movie…The skin-revealing and skimpy outfits were gone in favour for more practical yet still sexy clothing.”
Seems like females should cast the deciding vote on whether the script empowers or exploits women.
So, I’ll let a female critic, Kayti Burt, take us home.
“The result is something that (somewhat depressingly) feels radical: an action film featuring a diverse group of women that, while intentionally outlandish in some of its narrative elements, is more representative of the female experience than most films that have come before.”