Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is the longest film name that’s ever existed. It’s so drawn out and wacky, it almost reads like a parody or joke. That uncomfortable sentiment is the antithesis of what Director Cathy Yan was aiming for when assembling this girl-gang blockbuster. As a sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad, BOP tells the story of a newly single Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie).
The Clown Princess of Crime has left the Joker behind and sets out to restart life on her own terms. Though, setting forth on a clean slate is more complex than it seems. Harley has a laundry list of enemies that want her six feet under, and none more so than the crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his accomplice Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). Together, Harley bands together with Gotham City Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to protect a local petty thief, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) and evade certain death.
With Birds of Prey being my favorite DC Comics property, watching it debut on the big screen was incredibly important to me. Like most DC films (sadly) my fantasy went slightly off the rails, but just ever so slightly. With full transparency, this film was not bad. I throughly enjoyed the interpretation, but through my lens, it was much like watching a Harry Potter film, called Harry Potter, but centered around Draco Malfoy. Switching elements up doesn’t lower the movie’s quality, but it does contradict the expectations of those who knew and loved BOP prior to viewing.
Most of the key highs and lows of BOP were derived directly from its roster of colorful characters. In this next section I’ll pick-apart the group’s “Cardinal Strengths” (great elements) from the “Fowl Play” (less-than-perfect artistic additions) – bird puns, get it?
Cardinal Strengths VS. Fowl Play
Harley Quinn portrayed by Margot Robbie
- In her second outing as the villainess, Margot Robbie kills it again as Harleen Quinzel. She feels like a cartoon come-to-life, but it’s entirely believable. Even when Robbie breaks out into song, it’s easy to accept and welcomed.
- We’re dealing with a fully realized Harley in BOP. She’s still totally off her rocker, but the writers have also strongly reinforced the fact that she used to be a psychiatrist. This leading lady is smart. Harley is quick to retcon knowledge and diagnose her peers. She’s less of a sexy, single note caricature and more of a multi-layered human being.
- Sometimes Harley’s character feels like it’s directly trying to piggyback off the success of Deadpool. She breaks the fourth wall, but the cartoons at the beginning, the silly nature of her storyline – it feels like DC wished to adapt something that they saw and admired.
- Harley’s leadership role among her peers feels farfetched. Who in their right mind would put their faith in or follow this criminal, even at their lowest moments?
Renee Montoya portrayed by Rosie Perez
- Depicting Renee in a poor workplace environment at the Gotham City Police Department was a purposeful narrative note. It definitely gave her the necessary emotional fuel to leave the force to later become a vigilante.
- Casting Rose Perez as Renee landed on different levels. She’s a great actress, a dual broadway legend/Hollywood legend. On top of that, being a woman of a particular age only enriched the character. Birds of Prey depicts a lgbtqa+ woman in her 50s kicking ass, a total rarity for the superhero genre.
- The dress code gag with the graphic t-shirt felt very tired and almost anti-feminist. Wouldn’t Renee, as a seasoned cop, be smart enough to not wear that in a professional environment? Granted, she can wear whatever she pleases, but it shouldn’t demean her intelligence in the process.
- There were no obvious nods to Montoya’s good friend, The Question. A missed opportunity, maybe it’s too early in the character’s cinematic journey to give her those type of ties?
Cassandra Cain portrayed by Ella Jay Basco
- BOP’s depiction of Cassandra was super entertaining. Although she’s admittedly more compelling from a story perspective starting off as mute, like she did in the comics. Basco’s one-liners steal the show.
- So often characters feel wrongly thrown into the mix of superhero films, but using Cain as a means to bring the group together via the Bertinelli Diamond was an element that gave her purpose.
- Although she’s just a kid, Cassandra felt particularly helpless. I guess we’re ditching her entire “trained by assassins” origin story from the source material?
- It appears as if the DCEU is setting Cassandra up to be Orphan (Cass’s second hero alias) instead of Batgirl II (her first hero alias). From where BOP sits canonically in the DCEU timeline, Dick Grayson has likely become Nightwing, we know Jason Todd has died. This would lead us to believe that Barbara Gordon has already dawned the role of Batgirl. Cass could still become Batgirl II, but the number of times the phrase “orphan” was thrown around hints that the DC heads may have other plans at hand.
Black Canary portrayed by Jurnee Smollett-Bell
- Dinah Lance felt a lot like her comic book counterpart in the early days of her career (aside from being a lounge singer, which came a few incarnations later). Her vibe was so rock and her fighting choreography might have been the best in the film, aside from Harley’s.
- Black Canary’s final costume during the film was a visual win. It successfully treaded the line between fanboy-accuracy and a fresh movie interpretation. Someone, please put Dinah in the Justice League sequel (that probably won’t happen) where she belongs.
- Having a solid backstory play out for some characters but not Black Canary felt like a cheat, especially after Renee mentioned her mom used to help the GCPD. I wish we could have seen the first Black Canary in action. Showing us her demise working alongside the cops would have been more powerful than conversationally mentioning it in passing.
- Waiting for Dinah to use her sonic scream was tiresome. Aside from the ratting of drinks for her introduction, the audience has no visual cue that she’s a metahuman. Casual movie-goers probably didn’t catch on. Also, a brief mention that these powers overexert her, so she doesn’t use them frequently, could have enriched her story arc.
Huntress portrayed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead
- Huntress’s flashback sequence held pretty true to her actual origins with only gentle liberties taken here and there.
- Keeping Huntress a violent entity was smart. Helena is driven by entirely by vengeance. Any corner-cutting to alter her motivations would make Huntress feel like a cardboard cutout of the hero she’s supposed to be.
- The final costume Huntress wore looked nothing short of embarrassing. I understand the practicality of it, but the mask made her look more like the guardian of Party City, as opposed to Gotham City.
- The whole awkward-Tumblr-girl demeanor they slapped Helena with was a left-field choice. It felt more like a tactic to drum-up audience laughter than a serious artistic choice to increase the overall quality of this heroine.
Roman Sionis portrayed by Ewan McGregor and Victor Zsasz portrayed by Chris Messina
- Both Roman and Victor complement each other in the most unexpected but pleasant way. These two villains aren’t traditionally positioned together, but their friendship was an effective pairing. And the acting chops of McGregor and Messina are top notch.
- Roman’s mask and Victor’s scarring were thoughtfully interpreted for BOP. Their looks certainly deviated from their comic companions but in a way that didn’t feel jarring or carless.
- Having a Black Mask that barely wears the mask is just one big deep sigh. It’s understandable that Hollywood actors want to be seen and not concealed in their roles, but in the comic – Roman’s mask is melted to his face. It took the story too long to get Black Mask in head-to-toe costume.
- The film alluded to a homosexual relationship between Roman and Victor, even as production was underway, the rumors stated that these villains would be openly gay. Their friendship felt entirely romantic, almost as if DC nixed a “controversial” kissing sequence and left it on the cutting room floor. In some ways, it’s better they aren’t gay. There’s some gnarly subtext to ‘the only villains that are suitable for a female team-up movie are queer men’.
- Dear DC, these villains were so well done. It’s a shame that you kill all of your bad guys off…every single movie. Except Harley. Because Hot Topic merch.
The Clownery of It All
After being in theaters for over two weeks, BOP is only rapidly losing money as time moves forward (so much so that many movie apps and theaters have lovingly renamed it Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey – for clarity purposes) . For a film that seemed to have all the correct elements to be a total box-office success, what is happening? In short, the confusing title throws people, but that’s just the tip of the messy iceberg. I have a few reasons why I think it’s underperforming in a market that begs for more superhero content. My three cornerstone hunches are listed as follows…
Right Character, Wrong Property
The world is ready for all-female action movie. Even after the failure of Charlie’s Angels (which was actually more fun than the reviews let on) it was the right time to create a movie like BOP. The world is begging for more heroines…and anti-heroines? However, DC’s half-hazard approach to championing Harley Quinn put them in a pickle. On one hand, we know audiences will turn out for this character, but it comes at the expense of altering the original property. It’s my belief that people want to invest in new characters. Look at James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy. With the correct treatment, that largely unknown property has become one of Marvel’s most beloved franchises.
The general emphasis on Harley Quinn gave us a memorable Harley movie, but a very subpar exploration of the Birds of Prey. Going back to the drawing board and calling this film “Harley Quinn: Emancipation” would have solved so many narrative issues. Insert the BOP characters into the film, let them meet up at the end of the story and tease a full-fledged Birds of Prey movie for later down the pipeline.
The Breakup That Broke-Up Offscreen
The toxic relationship between Joker and Harley Quinn was no doubt the pièce de résistance of Suicide Squad. With Jared Leto’s performance being regarded as somewhat lukewarm, (which I disagree with, read more about that here) DC made the executive decision to cancel the then-upcoming Joker VS. Harley Quinn film. Being unable to watch their breakup unfold in the theater takes away the blowout fans know these characters were leading up to. JVHQ was slated to appear before BOP and its absence is notable. Sidebar: JVHQ would have given Jared Leto at least a semi-attempt at public adoration for his Joker portrayal. He rightfully deserves another shot, but he won’t get one. Rumors are leaning into the narrative that Joker will be recast in the DCEU. I guess that’s goodbye Puddin’.
The Rather Upsetting Disclusion of One Barbara Gordon
The disclusion of the character Oracle sent BOP on a rough concourse before it even started shooting. Better known as Barbara Gordon, Oracle started her vigilante career as one of Batman’s right-hand sidekicks, Batgirl. Her costumed career was cut short one fateful night when the Joker knocked at her door, and shot her in the stomach. The result of this catastrophic event left her paralyzed and yearning for justice. Dawning the new alias of ‘Oracle’, Babs discovered a new way of crime-fighting. From her wheelchair, she took ahold the cyberworld, being the voice in the Batfamily’s ears at all times. Using hacking skills and critical know-how, Barbara Gordon proved herself to be the ultimate domineering force. She was also a breath of fresh air for comic enthusiasts. Fans resonated with being a differently-abled badass, she became a symbol of empowerment.
Barbara later joined forces with Dinah Lance and together formed ‘the Birds of Prey’, a group of female heroes who fight DC’s criminal underbelly. Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress became their third and final recruit, and thus the team was born. Oracle is an endless source of information, Black Canary leans towards traditional crime-fighting with her super-sonic scream, while Huntress on the other hand, prefers violent tactics. Together, this team has a balance and focus. They’re fun. They’re dynamic.
By deleting Oracle (due to an alleged Batgirl film coming down the cinematic pipeline, DC felt uncomfortable with two different incarnations of Barbara on screen) the team already feels like its without roots. Whether she’s Batgirl, Oracle, or regular old Barbara Gordon, she adds a purpose to the formation. She’s the building blocks. Remove her from the equation, the entire group feels the void in the worst way.
As a whole, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of a One Harley Quinn is a wild, feministic-funhouse ride of DC easter eggs and humor-ridden hijinks. Not only does this movie deserve your support, and it deserves a kudos for stepping outside the lines of traditional comic book media. I’m well aware I deep dive, over-analyze and shred the fibers of movies to bits, but really, go watch this one.
I earnestly hope that we need to see another R-Rated Birds outing, but the signs are looking unlikely. Instead we may just have to cross our fingers to see the team cameo in other films – and enjoy a good old-fashioned stuffed beaver and egg sandwich, or two.
Who was your favorite character in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn? Let us know in a comment below.
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is in theaters now