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Birds of Prey

Posted February 9, 2020 By Curiosity Inc.

Let’s check back in with the state of DC/WB, shall we?

At the moment, the DC film apparatus is split in twain. On one side are films like Joker, the… *ahem* controversial standalone billion-dollar earner that (*rrrggh*) managed to rack up a number of Oscar nominations on par with Titanic. (And probably a couple of wins, by the time you read this.) Elsewhere, his opposite number has a film in active production, and The Batman has a cast so wildly inconsistent with the Snyder Era that there’s no way it could be set in the same continuity.

At this point, it’s obvious that DC/WB would rightfully love nothing more than to sweep the entire failed DCEU experiment under the rug and move on. But alas, the Snyder Era had too much money and passion poured into it to be a total loss. Thus we have a few characters and actors who continue to be viable franchise leads, and a rabid fanbase that continues to insist on the existence and release of the mythical Snyder Cut (read: a Justice League movie that doesn’t suck). Thus we have the second half of DC/WB.

This is the half in which Shazam sits down to lunch with a stand-in for Henry Cavill’s Superman. Jason Momoa and Amber Heard make an offhand reference to the climactic battle of a film that otherwise has fuck-all to do with the movie they’re presently in. The upcoming Wonder Woman ’84 shows a Gal Godot portrayal of the title character that appears to be in keeping with the DCEU, except that her arsenal has clearly gone through some dramatic changes between movies.

So is the Snyder Era still canon? Is Darkseid still coming? Is Lex Luthor still putting together his supervillain team-up? Are these movies still connected in any meaningful way?

The answer to all these questions appears to be a resounding “Who knows and who cares?!” I don’t know what DC/WB is doing with regard to continuity, and I don’t even think they know either. But so long as they keep turning out legitimately good movies, does it really matter?

The latest example is… *deep breath* Birds of Prey and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, with Exec Producer Margot Robbie returning as the namesake Harley Quinn. Also on board are Christina Hodson — the same screenwriter who recently knocked Bumblebee out of the park — and Cathy Yan, here making her sophomore feature. A couple of throwaway gags and flashback scenes are enough to show that this one is very clearly in continuity with Suicide Squad, but not in any consequential way. For all relevant intents and purposes, this movie is very much its own thing. And it’s awesome.

Notably flawed, but awesome.

The premise starts… well, by Harley’s own admission, the plot to this is all over the map, but I’ll do my best to sort it all into sequential order. Let’s start with the Bertinelli crime family of Gotham, all of whom were slaughtered in a vicious coup. However, the keys to their domain — bank account numbers, codes and passwords, contact info to crime lords all over the world, etc. — were engraved in microscopic detail onto a lost diamond.

Yes, the MacGuffin for this female-centric action movie is a diamond. This is not lost on Harley Quinn, who jokes about it more than a few times. We even get a brief yet thoroughly useless and out-of-place Marilyn Monroe parody about the concept. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, it’s a couple of decades later and the diamond has been recovered by Ronan “Black Mask” Sionis (Ewan McGregor), the disgraced psychotic scion of yet another wealthy Gotham family. He plans on using the diamond to take over the lost Bertinelli fortune and consolidate his own criminal enterprise. Long story short (Too late!), the diamond is intercepted by a teenage delinquent pickpocket played by newcomer Ella Jay Basco. Young Cassandra Cain (Oh, you can be damn sure we’ll come back to that later.) then swallows the diamond to keep it secure, and thus she becomes the film’s MacGuffin.

Elsewhere, Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) has been building up a case against Sionis for the past several months. Trouble is, he’s too well-connected and her entire precinct at the GCPD is staffed with chauvinistic knuckle-draggers who keep taking all the credit for her hard work. Damn shame, too — Montoya may have a nasty habit of talking in hard-boiled cop cliches, but she’s good at what she does.

(Side note: Yes, Montoya is a lesbian in this portrayal, and it’s handled in a very direct yet tasteful way. It’s also unobtrusive enough to be censored out for the Chinese homophobes who won’t let us have Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy on the screen together. FUCK.)

Then we have Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer at Sionis’ nightclub and also his personal driver. In a neat adaptation of the comics’ multigenerational Black Canary, Dinah’s mother was also a metahuman who helped the police catch bad guys. Until she got killed and the cops weren’t there to help. Thus Dinah has gone through life without trusting anyone (especially cops), sticking her neck out for nobody. Yet Dinah is still clearly a woman of conscience and she simply can’t stop herself from helping people in whatever subtle way she can. Additionally, while she’s a badass martial artist, she never uses her metahuman abilities until the last possible moment.

Don’t worry, the Canary Cry is awesome when it finally happens.

Next up is Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the self-styled moniker of the sole surviving Bertinelli daughter. After the past couple of decades training with the finest assassins in Italy, she’s returned to claim her vengeance on those who killed her family. The character is a brooding super-dark loner that nobody takes seriously because she’s so melodramatic all the time and her weapon of choice is a goddamn crossbow. It’s a comic sensibility that plays perfectly into Winstead’s wheelhouse and of course she plays the badass superbly.

But what about Harley Quinn?

Well, the movie opens with Harley getting dumped by the Joker (who never actually appears onscreen, even in the Suicide Squad flashbacks). The thing of it is, neither she nor Joker ever bothered to tell anyone else about the breakup. On the one hand, this means that Harley can do whatever she wants and everyone is too afraid to cross the Joker by seeking retribution against his girl. On the other hand, this also means that everybody still thinks Harley is a needy little bitch, hopelessly dependent on an abusive relationship with the Big Bad Joker, incapable of making her own choices or doing anything on her own.

Finally, in a drunken self-righteous rage, Harley blows up the Ace Chemical factory. Thus the entire city gets the message that Harley and Joker are no longer an item. So now it’s open season on Harley Quinn, and everyone she and Mister J ever pissed off is out to kill her.

Naturally, this means Sionis. So, to save her own skin, Harley agrees to help Sionis track down his missing diamond. And we’re off to the races.

Without exaggeration, every frame of this movie is seen through Harley’s perspective. She’s our narrator, protagonist, and ringleader throughout. So perhaps not surprisingly, the film is littered with onscreen graphics, meta humor that breaks the fourth wall, smartass voiceovers, irreverent jokes built on raunchy humor and ultraviolence…. It’s Deadpool. The trailers should have made this immediately obvious, but this was very clearly intended as DC/WB’s answer to Deadpool.

Then again, this actually makes a kind of sense. After all, Deadpool’s irreverent and chaotic brand of violent comedy really isn’t too far removed from that of the Joker — the primary difference is that Joker is an outright villain while Deadpool is more of an anti-hero. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn is a character built to fit with the Joker’s MO, and this movie is all about pivoting her toward an anti-hero position, so it surprisingly fits really well.

It also helps that given the character’s opposite gender, her lack of invincibility, and the greater movie’s ensemble focus, there’s enough in here for the filmmakers to put their own distinctive spin on the Deadpool flavor without coming off as too derivative. Even better, I’m relieved and overjoyed to report that the filmmakers bothered to remember that Harley is a freaking doctor! She got her Ph.D, she was a trained and licensed psychiatrist! She’s smarter than everyone gives her credit for, though she mostly uses that to be an even bigger smartass, pulling rank to psychoanalyze herself and everyone around her in a snarky way that not even Deadpool could effectively pull off. Outstanding work.

Perhaps more importantly, the Deadpool movies (most especially that second one) are all about the title character learning how to redefine himself and build new emotional connections after a hugely traumatic event. Compare that to this movie, in which Harley has to learn how to stand up for herself, find her own moral code, and build new friendships outside the overbearing shadow of Mister J. It’s a neat twist on female empowerment that fits with the character, getting the point across without any of the preachiness and with all the fist-pumping fun.

Margot Robbie deserves no shortage of credit for carrying the film so brilliantly, and all the ladies of the cast turn in fine work. The filmmakers make a lot of smart choices in adapting these characters to the screen, and I was impressed by most of the choices made. Which only makes the failures so much more disappointing.

Victor Zsasz comes immediately to mind, here played by Chris Messina. At one point late in the movie, Zsasz shows off all his scars, saying that he’s got one for each soul he set free from this miserable world. He then tells the intended victim that he’s got a special place for the mark of his latest victim. THAT is the Victor Zsasz I know. And it’s nothing like the character’s portrayal in the rest of the film up to that point. He should be a deranged psycho serial killer with a Messiah complex, but instead he’s an obedient lapdog serving as a generic mob enforcer. Pathetic.

Which brings us to Black Mask himself. Alas, the character is a third-tier Batman villain, little more than a glorified mob boss with a fancy mask and a penchant for torture. There’s not much to be done with this, the villainous psychopath role is quite far removed from Ewan McGregor’s comfort zone, and the character doesn’t even really get his own hands dirty all that much. Hell, he barely ever wears the mask. Even in the climax, the character is effectively useless without his army of hired goons.

Something had to be done to compensate for all of this, and the answer was apparently for McGregor to chew scenery and mug for the camera. Yes, it’s entertaining to watch, and McGregor is clearly having a blast, but it doesn’t exactly make for a compelling villain.

But then we have Cassandra Cain. Dear sweet God in heaven, Cassandra, what did they do to you?

For those who aren’t up on your DC Comics, Cassandra Cain is the daughter of David Cain and Lady Shiva, two of the foremost assassins of the DCU. Cass was brought up in a deeply abusive childhood, trained in total silence to be a top-notch killer. As a direct result, she’s mute and illiterate, with a crippling inability to connect with others. Yet she’s one of the greatest martial artists in the DCU, so perfectly adept at reading body language that she can predict someone else’s moves with uncanny accuracy. All of which made her a valued part of the Bat-Family, learning how to connect with others while bearing the mantle of Batgirl.

(Side note: For everything you could ever want or need to know about Cassandra Cain, check out this exhaustive six-part retrospective about the character, courtesy of Lewis “Linkara” Lovhaug.)

In the movie? Cass is perfectly literate and she speaks fluently. She has no martial arts training or weaponry skills whatsoever. She’s an orphan living with crappy foster parents. And right up until her last masterstroke against Sionis, she has virtually no agency in the plot. This is Cassandra Cain in name only, such a fascinating character replaced with a pitiful downgrade. Nothing against Ella Jay Basco, she did a solid job with what she had, but the character is a profound disappointment.

All of that said, the real star here is Cathy Yan, who directs this movie with style in abundance. The speed-ramping is beautifully utilized, the stunts and choreography are incredible, and the set pieces are all beautifully inventive. In particular, whomever thought of staging an action scene in a police evidence lock-up had better get a raise. The slower and more personal moments are heartfelt without ever entirely losing the demented Harley Quinn edge, the exposition is all conveyed in dynamic and inventive ways, and the action is a great big barrel of fun throughout.

(Side note: There’s a cheap joke in the post-credits, but it’s nothing I’d recommend waiting around for.)

Ultimately, Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is worthy of a solid recommendation. The humor is irreverent but never grating, the feminist empowering themes are cleverly presented, the action is tremendously satisfying, and even the weakest performances are still a treat to watch. The lamest jokes are here and gone without too much damage done, and my biggest complaints probably won’t matter much to anyone who doesn’t care about the comics.

It’s colorful, it’s energetic, it’s nonstop fun. Definitely go see it.