Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)

When it comes to 2016’s live-action Suicide Squad, the one thing almost everyone said they wanted was, “More Harley Quinn, please!” And Margot Robbie still had to become a producer in order to get this made…and/or get this made instead of the various other Harley-centric projects that were competing with it for air. Allegedly. I have only an outsider’s idea of what’s been going on at Warner Bros. these last few years, and that’s been enough to give me a minor existential crisis. Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll hear the True Hollywood Story of it all in another half-decade. Meanwhile, this was the last movie I saw in a theater before that first lockdown, and thank the gods. If it’d been something like Sonic the Hedgehog, or Jumanji 4, I’d be even more pissed than usual.

Harley’s journey to the big screen is refreshingly straightforward since she’s not even thirty years old. By creating a character the Joker could talk to, Batman: The Animated Series co-creator Paul Dini accidentally did the same thing Geordi La Forge did when he told the computer “create an opponent capable of defeating Data” and the computer spit out a sentient hologram of Professor Moriarty. So despite lacking any diegetic superpowers, Harley shares the Joker’s on-again, off-again ability to break the fourth wall and walk around in her own field of what I can only call “cartoon physics.” (She even pulls the “Oh, look, a penny!” gag in this – and gets away with it.) It took almost fifteen years for her to achieve the fullness of her power, but by 2016, Harley strode through shit other characters needed to be a trained assassins, samurai, or crocodile wrestlers to survive, with little more than a revolver, a baseball bat, those entirely-too-hot pants, and a love of using her PHD to fuck with people.

Or – as Robbie herself put it, much more diplomatically – “Harley needs friends. Harley loves interacting with people, so don’t ever make her do a standalone film.” This she apparently said to the Warner Bros. brass, and thank you for your service, Margot. To quote further, “She’s got to be with other people, it should be a girl gang. I wasn’t seeing enough girl gangs on screen, especially in the action space.” And there is no more prestigious girl gangs in the DC Universe than the Birds of Prey.

Originally created for a 1996 one-shot by Bat-family writer Chuck Dixon, the Birds of Prey really came into their own in 2003, after Gail Simone codified the core lineup of Barbara Gordon, Black Canary and Huntress. For years, the comics ignored, and were ignored by, the wider entertainment world, expanding the roster to eventually include nearly every female DC hero with name recognition…and some without. (My mom got a real kick out of hearing about Lady Blackhawk getting pulled forward through time by a Big Dumb Crossover Event, for example.) And while Harley has remained shackled to the Suicide Squad and its Jungian shadow, the Secret Six (also written by Simone), the Birds have steadily drawn her closer to their orbit as she’s shifted toward anti-heroism. Gotham City remains a hive of scum and villainy, but some are more villainous than others, and Gotham’s vigilante superhero community knows that better than anyone.

That community’s suffered on film due to its constant reduction back to one crazy rich dude who keeps waiting until the end of his trilogies to get any partners in crime-fighting. Back in 2003, the TV network now known as The CW greenlit, produced and then canceled a live action Birds of Prey show after all of one season. (It even featured its own Harley, played by Mia Sara.) Whether Hallie Barry’s Catwoman is even set in Gotham is an open question to this day. And Batgirl was supposed to have her own film by now…courtesy of Avengers writer/director…Joss…Whedon…Turns out we dodged a bullet there, folks.Just like we did when WB rejected his Wonder Woman script.

In any case, Barbara Gordon could not appear in this film, so it falls to Harley to be the unifying force that brings the Birds together in the most Harley of ways: with impulsive violence. They include Dinah Lance – the Black Canary – daughter of a long-dead Gotham City vigilante struggling to get by; Huntress in her late-80s, mob-daughter-on-a-quest-for-vengeance incarnation; and Harley’s fellow cannon-immigrant from The Animated Series, GCPD Detective Renee Montoya. All four are professional women ensnared by some form of patriarchal hierarchy that holds them in nothing but contempt. All four are frustrated in their attempts to escape those hierarchies by the aggrieved entitlement of entrenched power. Personified, for most of them, for most of the film, by up-and-coming Gotham City gangster Roman Sionis, a.k.a. Black Mask, and the criminal empire he’s building to replace the Old Money empire his family cut him off from, probably for being such a dickhead.

In one sense, this is a neighborhood-level sociological study, much like director Cathy Yan’s previous film, Dead Pigs. Because Harley breaks Roman’s driver’s legs, Canary gets promoted from lounge singer to replacement driver. Because Roman’s now-broke-legged driver was snitching to Montoya, Canary inherits that job as well, with a little help from her own, still-functioning-despite-everything conscience. Montoya’s trying to build a case against Roman since he’s smuggling in a diamond that once belong to Huntress’ mob family. A diamond that is in turn stolen by a teenage pickpocket who lives in Canary’s building, Cassandra Cain. Cain, who is out enjoying a pickpocketing stroll through the neighborhood at the exact moment necessary to nab the diamond, in part, because Canary took pity on her and told her to “stay out” of the shitty home life she (and we) could hear all the way from down the stairs.


The diamond McGuffin is the weakest link in all this, but the ambient fun generated by the rest of the movie is more than enough for me to let that slide. It’s fun to watch all the gears of Gotham City grind against each other, watch good actors incarnate some of my favorite Gotham characters, and it’s especially fun to see these characters, who are usually relegated to also-ran or supporting status, enjoy the spotlight to themselves. If anything, I wish they’d done more. I wish this film were longer. And since this is a WB film, in all likelihood, it was longer…until some douchebag who makes nine figures and gets his blood changed out every month, Kieth Richards style, decided it had to be two hours, max, in order to maximize screenings-per-day and make the numbers on some “projected income” spreadsheet turn black.

Speaking of douchebags, Batman comics have tried and failed to do something interesting with Roman Sionis since his creation in the mid-80s. But in the massive and (frankly) too-famous crowd that is Batman’s Rogue’s Gallery, he’s never risen above the level of what wrestling fans call “a jobber.” Harley, of course, identifies exactly why that is through her powers of psychiatry: Romey’s boring. Even in the Batman video games the most interesting thing anyone’s ever done with him was have him turn out to be the Joker in disguise. The fact they cast Ewan McGregor in the role, and seem to have just let him go nuts with it, is the best thing that’s happened to Black Mask since he became a cult leader during No Man’s Land.

That’s partially because Black Mask is also a better villain for the Trump Era than the actual I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not Trump Geoff Johns and Patty Jenkins were working on at the same time, over in Wonder Woman 1984. Unlike that forty-five-year-old boy Max Lord, Roman Sionis is a legitimate son of privilege whose quest for “more” is just a bald-faced end in itself. What you see is what you get and what you see is a spoiled brat. There’s no saccharine, eleventh-hour revelation meant to tug at our heart strings or squeeze out some iota of sympathy for this unthinking, unstable, narcissistic shell. His “tragic” back story isn’t even dramatized, but take it from someone who knows: it’s about as tragic as realizing your parents sometimes talk shit about their friends behind their backs, even after they’ve just had a fun evening at their friend’s house. To which they, naturally, dragged you, and forced you to play with their friend’s weird, moody kid, with whom you had nothing in common. Hell, you don’t even like old Zorro movie!

“Fuck family!” Roman says, to another gangster he’s about to kill, before doing a completely un-self conscious one-eighty and saying, “We could make our own family.” No, you can’t, Roman, because you’re a grasping social climber who speaks out of both sides of your mouth, and everybody knows it. What’s worse, you know everybody knows it, and this only reinforces your delusional that the whole world revolves around you. Which, in turn, reinforces your need to take everything personally. “These are my things!” he rails when he gets bad news, but then again, everyone is a “thing” to him, worth nothing more than their utility in the moment…and sometimes, not even that. If he’d gotten his own TV show instead of his own night club, he’d be a lot happier…but also, probably, on the fast track to becoming president of the United States.

So that’s our villain – the second generation of Gotham City’s upper crust, attempting to join the post-Batman generation of supervillains. In Batman v. Superman, Batman fatalistically compared criminals to weeds, and while he was real depressed in that moment (even for Batman) this is what he was talking about. As any Sopranos fan will tell you (at length), RICO cases didn’t magically make the mob go away, they just made the mob change tactics. Even in Batman films that pretend to be set in something like “our” world (i.e., the ones that namedrop RICO cases), the immediate result of Batman’s (and Gordon’s and Harvey Dent’s) destruction of the old mobs is to create a vacuum some other asshole, with a different criminal organization, rushes to fill. This “better class of criminal” – these Jokers and Harleys and Killer Crocs – grab all the headlines and all the Batman’s attention, creating space for the Roman Sionises and Victor Szazs of the world. Especially when the one member of Gotham’s ruling class who still believes in nobles oblige starts gallivanting around with his Justice League.

It’s always nice to see a populated section of Gotham City, especially during the day. Not the looming skyscrapers of downtown or the decorously abandoned ports, but the home of the working poor, the slumming tourists, and the decaying amusement parks. The Gotham we saw in BvS looked washed out and gray from Clark Kent’s perspective, reflecting his (partially engendered by Lex Luthor but still not entirely wrong) view of the Batman’s morally dubious hypocrisy. Here we see the East End through Harley’s perspective and, to Harley, it’s alive – a bustling metropolis, full of ordinary people, living out their lives among the gangsters, with no shadow of the bat hanging over them. A symbol of her new life, free of the Joker’s influence and the government’s subcutaneous bombs, with all the radical possibilities of freedom that offers…until every low-life hears Harley and Joker have broken up, including Roman Sionis.

I don’t know how things went down in Robbie’s native Australia, but up here in my hemisphere “girl gang” movies fell out of favor once the Concerned Parents of America stopped worrying their kids might do crimes and started worrying their kids might be gay. Or, worse – even if they were straight, that their kids might find out sex could be pleasurable and would not inherent condemn them to Hell. Not that the concerned parents of America don’t still occasionally worry movies will make their kids do crimes, it’s just that all that energy temporarily expended itself in the lead-up to 2019’s Joker. And all those months of hyperventilating hyperbole did was help Joker make a billion dollars. Maybe the concerned parents of America decided to cool it for a bit after that…or maybe they ignored Birds of Prey because you have to be a comic book nerd to even know what a Birds of Prey is, and Warner Bros. did little to educate the civilians. Who the hell releases an R-rated, comic book-inspired action/comedy in the first week of February anyway? Oh, right…Fox did it with Deadpool. But only after a year-long marketing campaign so all-pervasive and weird it rated its own Wikipedia page. This thing had two trailers, a panel at Brazil’s Comic-Con, and some videos on the WBs YouTube, which is as traditional as it gets in the 21st Century.

Yes, I’m bitter. I really liked this movie, and the fact not enough people did is the most disappointing thing about it. I’m resisting the urge to go on a unhinged, socio-political rant about why not enough people liked this film, or even saw it, because I know the real answer is, “COVID, fool.” But also the sad fact remains that a stunning amount of people who watch these comic book movies do so in the desperate hope comic book characters will become role models for children – theirs, or the adult-bodied children they see all around them and occasionally call friends. Some of them are deluded enough to believe all fictional characters, in any medium, should fulfill the same function, because fictional role models are better than real ones. With no lives outside their stories, they’re less likely to disappoint you. Theoretically.

In reality, these characters can disappoint people by doing something as simple as being in a film they don’t like. Or, within that film, wearing real pants to a fight scene, instead of fishnets. Or capes. Or booty shorts that are more “booty” than “shorts.” So, as usual, I’ll be the bigger man and discuss what I personally think tanked this film: aspirational branding. The Wikipedia article on this gets too far into fake Marketing math to be useful, so I’ll define the term myself: an aspirational brand is any product that seeks to sell, not just itself, but also the idea that having the product is, in and of itself, a signifier of success. And this is partially why, say, Wonder Woman succeeded. Diana, by her own creator’s admission, is the definition of an aspirational comic book superhero. We’re supposed to aspire to be as courageous and smart and hot and naturally good with languages as she is…and even if we can’t (kinda hard to be a daughter of Themyscira in this dimension) we can at least aspire to having sweet jobs in the back ends of prestigious museums in expensive cities, brushing off old statues by day and lounging in our sweet, Watergate apartments by night. With our Chris Pine-played boyfriends who will, naturally, let us pick out all his outfits for him.

Contrast that with Harley Quinn. Still aspirational in her own way: having a psych PHD is more than some of us can boast about, and we all (regardless of gender) aspire to get away with being assholes at some point in our lives. But she lives in a shit apartment in a depressed section of the worst city in the multiverse – a city that was already synonymous with crime way before Tim Burton turned it into a Fritz Lang nightmare maze. A city she shares with Canary, Montoya and Cassandra Cain (we never find out where Huntress spends her days, but I doubt its anywhere Bruce Wayne would come across her). A city full of institutions that will not hesitate to turn on any of their members, as all of our characters find out over the course of this film. Huntress’ whole family got betrayed by its mob allies back in the so-called good ol’ days, when mobsters still blathered on about honor. Montoya is betrayed by her unjustly promoted boss and snitching ex-GF in the DA’s office. Harley’s betrayed by the entire criminal fraternity once they realize she no longer has the Joker’s favor. As is Canary, once she starts snitching to Montoya. But Canary also carries a generational chip of betrayal on her shoulders, thanks to the death of her mother at some unspecified point in this fractured universe’s past.

Canary’s is not exactly an aspirational life, either. And to see her here, driving Mr. Sionis and Mr. Szaz, after decades of watching her languish in the thankless role of “Green Arrow’s girlfriend,” almost breaks my heart. It’s supposed to, because I’m supposed to cheer for her ascent out of the hole this movie starts her out in, just as I did with Ben Affleck’s Batman. And I do, because Canary needs friends, too. Because even in the relative darkness of her journey from lounge singer to vigilante hero, I see signs of hope. The idea that “Black Canary” is a title passed from mother to daughter started out as a way for DC to have a Black Canary in the 1940s, fighting Nazis with the Justice Society, and another one in the late-80s founding the then-modern Justice League. Like a lot of other nonsensical attempts to straighten out their own continuity, this accidentally improved things by making Canary’s a generational story. Most of DCs competitors at Marvel, where all roads lead back to Captain America, and even some of the DC heroes’ own movie counterparts, have lacked this generational element to their stories…until now. And unlike all the others (save Montoya,whose characterization in this owes as much to cop movies as it does to Greg Rucka’s cop-drama-in-a-superhero-universe comic, Gotham Central), Canary comes by heroism naturally. She can’t help herself. When confronted by superhero cliché 003, the gang of alley-dwelling thugs, she reacts exactly as one should, even if their victim is Harley. Even Harley deserves a save.

And why not? Harley’s presence animates the entire film, sometimes literally. Amusement Mile- and especially the funhouse that hosts our climactic battle – is a desolate wasteland on the outside…but its insides are alive, it’s floors pristine enough to rollerskate across, and its attractions functional enough to jazz up a fight scene. Harley makes the funhouse fight for her and her just-formed team, and the most Canary notices is a shoe change because Canary can’t break the fourth wall.

This is a metaphor for all these comic book stories, really. If you, the artist, the filmmaker, whatever – animate them with enough belief in their raw, crazy, fun, cool power, they will rise to the occasion and animate everything around them. If we subscribe to the idea that these characters are supposed to provide moral instruction to the Youths, then that is the lesson Harlene Quinzell’s life teaches us. I mean, I don’t subscribe to that idea, but some of my fellow Millennials have kids now, and they should all show their kids this film. It’s the fun, light-hearted, superhero adventure romp some of them have been asking for since Zack Snyder made his first Superman film. The fact not enough people saw it just confirms my theory that people don’t actually want what they say they want, or even know what that is…but that’s a rant for another time.

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