‘Ware ye, there be spoilers below~
You ever love a sandwich? I mean, really love it. Love it like dropping it on the sidewalk makes you reflect what in your life led to you this moment? Because Harley Quinn has. And Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020) does involve what a source of joy a good sandwich can be.
Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn was the last movie I saw in the theater before quarantine. I first saw it back in February. I saw it again in March with Screen Editor alex and ever since I’ve been thinking about it and liking it more and more. It is a weird film that reminds me a bit of Lexi Alexander’s stylized and neon Punisher: War Zone (2008)—including a villain exploding in mid-air—and that’s fine by me. Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn has two things superhero movies should have more of: good action and interesting fashion.
It’s a joyful movie. It loves every aspect of comics and filmmaking. You’d think more stories involving characters wearing bold fashion choices would be more interested in fashion and less interested in making costumes dull, but for the most part, no. It’s not a flashy movie, well, fashion aside. But the more you pay attention, the more you notice. It’s a movie that cares about film-making without being about film-making. Director Cathy Yan and cinematographer Matthew Libatique use the whole screen. The shot composition isn’t only “standard coverage.” BoPatFEoOHQ* is the kind of film that has two one-shot set pieces in the first ten minutes: Harley’s bender at a Gotham crime boss Roman Sionis’ night club and police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) recreating the circumstances of a hit at a crime scene.* Both accomplished are with low tech means, including camera hand offs and lighting. It also has a truncated, Baz Luhrmann-esque musical number—Harley peforming “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in a jumpsuit version of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic pink dress–and a GoPro mounted on a cart during a grocery store heist.
Though Birds of Prey are mentioned first in the title, the film is Harley’s story of becoming an independent woman. You might be disappointed if you are expecting a straight superhero movie or a straight Birds of Prey movie. The film is faithful to the characterization of Harley and her perception of the world in the Jimmy Palmiotti / Amanda Connor comics. It has Bernie the taxidermed beaver but no Glenn Danzig-based Big Tony from the comic. Oherwise, it’s a movie about Harley going her own way. The film opens with an animated presentation of Harley’s life up to now, aka, her origin story. But the style doesn’t hearken back to Harley’s historical roots in Warner Brothers’ DC Animated Universe. It hearkens back to her spiritual roots in Looney Tunes. It looks a bit Chuck Jones and not so much Bruce Timm and Darwyn Cooke.
Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is half antihero action-comedy and half Harley’s idea of a Lifetime original movie where a woman leaves a bad relationship, finds herself and starts her own business. Instead of starting her own bakery, Harley does, well, different things. She breaks up with Joker or he broke up with her. It’s completely mutual. Or it’s not. It’s probably not. It doesn’t really matter and we never see him aside from a picture Harley’s been throwing knives at. Afterwards, Harley cuts her hair, gets a pet, takes up a new hobby (roller derby) and goes on a bender all to appropriate soundtrack selections. She even tries to create the perfect business card.
Harley kind of knows that she’s been seen as an extension of the Joker and not taken seriously in herself. And so, she tries not to let anyone know outside her roller derby team. Her team, however, are skeptical that Harley will stay broken up. Harley lets everyone know it’s over for good by blowing up the Ace Chemical plant where Joker pushed her into a vat of something bleaching and caustic. Or she dove in to prove her love. It’s always a little fuzzy and that’s okay because people’s stories about their bad romances are often a little fuzzy.
Some stories we read aspirationally. Maybe we want to be more like Wonder Woman. Maybe we want to believe someone like Superman is out there. Maybe we want to take revenge on Batman and all of his wonderful toys. But sometimes people want or need stories that reflect their negative feelings and experiences in order to feel less isolated, alienated, alone and/or invalid. Harley certainly reflects getting caught up in an abusive relationship. She reflects being out of control, doing terrible things, being messy and trying to achieve a sense of who she is when she is by herself. Watching it, I thought about dudes I have heard and read who express concern about women’s interest in Harley—but not their own.** It’s not that her female fans want to be in an abusive relationship with a clown. It’s that women don’t get a lot of space to be imperfect and sometimes it’s helpful to see a woman who is an “asshole that no one likes” throw up in someone else’s purse.
Sometimes it’s fantastic to see Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) try to figure out who they want to be. And, in Harley’s case, “want to try to be less of a terrible person.” It is amazing to see Renee Montoya in a t-shirt that says, “I Shaved My Balls For This.”
That right there is an Oscar-winning moment for all involved.
Harley has, in her words, “wronged a lot of people” who feel safe coming after her now that she is, theoretically, no longer protected. The most dangerous one being Roman Sionis (Ewan MacGregor), aka, Black Mask, and his partner in probably all senses of the word, fellow misogynist and serial killer Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). McGregor’s Roman Sionis reminds me a bit of Dominic West’s take on Jigsaw in Punisher: War Zone. But Roman also reminds me of some kid who adored the coked up villains of John Hughes movies and the tv show Miami Vice, especially if they were played by Sam Rockwell. Roman wears a peach jacket with a with t-shirt and pale yellow pants. He has pajamas with his own face printed on them.
Roman’s terrible taste might be his most devastating weapon. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. Having Mr. Zsasz cut off people’s faces is his most devastating weapon. But Roman’s taste is truly terrible. It’s just and right to see a characters essential terribleness reflected in his fashion sense.***
Showing Dinah around his condo, Roman shows her an Ecuadorian shrunken head and says, “It’s a thousand years old and now it’s an ornament in my house. Ew.” In a comprehensive twitter thread on the film.**** Lauren Nakao Winn notes that when showing Dinah a mask, he gets the name of the people who made it entirely wrong. I suspect it was deliberate. Yan, screenwriter Christina Hodson and Ewan McGregor know what they are doing . In short, Roman is an awful, narcissistic, entitled, murderous person. And he is the kind of awful that makes Harley, at least, look better and more sympathetic in comparison. He makes Dinah Lance want to do better because she has a basic sense of decency.
Dinah sings in Sionis’ club, the very one Harley goes on a bender in, and because of her basic sense of decency, she interferes with a man probably trying to traffic an extremely inebriated Harley. Unfortunately for Dinah, her fighting skills attract Sionis’ notice and he has Mr. Zsasz inform Dinah that she’s now Roman’s driver. This puts her in a position of hearing things she has been actively working to not know about—in particular things that endanger teen pickpocket, macguffin thief and roller derby enthusiast, Cassandra Cain. Meanwhile, Det. Montoya is trying to track down the “crossbow killer” while receiving no support from her partner and working for a boss who takes credit for her work.
Of course, they all intersect for a big fight at the end. And that fight is worthwhile, though I most enjoyed the evidence locker fight earlier in the film. It’s just nice nice to watch a superhero story that’s thoughtful about action.
There’s been some talk that action movies like the John Wick and the Fast & Furious franchises are “really” superhero stories. I mean, it’s cute. It does what so many fan theories do and tries to assimilate everything into an aesthetic unified field theory where everything is nice, connected, conflict-free and evened out. Everything really was nerdy this whole time. It enables nervous viewers to approach movies like Fast & Furious with nerd theories that make it feel okay to like something involving muscly people driving cars. Multinational media companies like it, too. It’s predictable. You can plan and budget around it. What seems more likely to me is that most contemporary superhero movies are big ol’ blockbuster action movies between two superhero buns and splashed with a dash of melodramatic hot sauce.*****
Superhero stories are the source for the most widely seen and biggest budget action movies now. The thing is, most superhero movies have indifferent action. They focus less on stunt and fight choreography–the action–and rely on the audience understanding either the apocalyptic stakes or the relationships to drive the tension in the fights and in the third act’s final fight where the heroes are swarmed and must overcome nearly impossible odds. Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a better action movie than most superhero movies. And it’s more like smaller budget action movies focused on physical combat, stunts, chases and character revealed not only through action, but fashion. My favorite kind.
Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn reminds me of older Hong Kong and more recent Thai and Indonesian action movies. In the film, there are about seven action set pieces, plus the club montage and musical number that feel like they fit right in with the fights. There’s even a slow motion shot to show us that, yes, indeed, Margot Robbie did bounce her bat off that stunt man. She has a beautiful swing. Director of photography Matthew Libatique shot a fight scene while in a slide that ends when Mary Elizabeth Winstead and the stunt man collide with Libatique. Cathy Yan, herself a choreographer and dancer, worked with stunt coordinators Jon Valera and Jonathan Eusebio from Chad Stahelski’s stunt company 87eleven, as well as Stahelski himself, and it shows in the holding cell, evidence locker and final Booby Trap amusement park fights. They thankfully ditch the quick cuts and shaky cam relying on the choreography to sell itself.
I doubt there will be another Birds of Prey movie, at least one that follows up on this vision. Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn was never meant to be a blockbuster and that’s fine by me. It’s nice to have a healthy genre movie ecosystem. I think Cathy Yan, Christina Dodson and the cast and crew understood where the film stood the whole time. Not everything needs to be a blockbuster. I am glad for a movie that keeps growing on me, a fight in an evidence locker, messy heroes, some fantabulous gold pleather overalls and the joy of a perfect sandwich.
*Yeah, this isn’t any better. I’m going for it. The whole title every other time.
**It makes me concerned about their interest in Harley and how it reflects on their relationships. Does he want to be the Clown Prince of Crime in an abusive relationship with his psychiatrist?
***He has pajamas with his face printed on them.
****I implore you to read Lauren Nakao Winn’s comprehensive thread about Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn for the definitive analysis of the film.
*****I did it and I’d do it again.
Carol Borden likes food, music, fights, interesting clothes and Ewan McGregor camping it up so she really lucked out this time.