In 2020, the film landscape can be disheartening for those without a particular interest in stories told by men, for men. Already this year, we’ve had to sit through another Oscars ceremony where female directors were completely shut out, and only one Best Picture nominee told a story with a woman at its heart. The box office was no less discouraging; of the top 20 financial performers of 2019, three were female-led (two, if you don’t count “Frozen II”).
With all of this in mind, “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is everything the film industry needed to give hope to a cause that can tend to seem hopeless. We needed a quartet of women steamrolling through hordes of men with ease set to “Barracuda,” and god damnit, we were given just that!
When we catch up with Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) at the start of the film, we learn that she has been broken up with (for good this time!) by the Joker. Following a sadness-fueled bender, Harley’s tasked with a life-on-the-line mission — get a stolen diamond to Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). While it seems simple, it becomes quickly evident that a lot of people have a lot of problems with Harley, and they’ve all simultaneously decided to seek vengeance on her now that she’s not covered by the Joker.
“Birds of Prey” spends a lot of time exploring this idea of dependency, specifically when it comes to Harley. She seems aware, at times, of her lack of independence, like when she explains the harlequins role — to serve a master (“a harlequin’s nothing without a master”). By the end, whether or not Harley is a better person is debatable, but her newfound autonomy is undeniable… only amplified by the fact that Kesha’s “Woman” is blasting over the final scene.
In “Birds of Prey,” Robbie’s Harley Quinn is emancipated in more ways than one. She’s freed from the Joker, who exists only through word of mouth in this story, but also from Jared Leto’s overbearing “Suicide Squad” take on the character, which tended to suffocate Robbie’s Quinn to the point of being unable to flourish.
She’s also freed from the male gaze, as director Cathy Yan’s take on the character seems vastly different from the last time we saw her. Yan provides a space for Robbie to fully commit to the role, and have fun doing so. She fills the film with the over-the-top moments we’ve come to expect from the character — like driving a stolen truck straight into a nuclear plant to make a statement — but is also granted the ability to toy with more nuanced humor. With less focus on her body, we’re blessed with moments like Harley pulling an old napkin out of her pocket as a makeshift white flag calling for “parley?,” a line delivery that has stuck with me for days.
The storyline jumps around a bit, but thanks to a narration by Harley Quinn, it’s not hard to follow. The choppiness of the plot works, though, because it matches the (frankly) chaotic energy of its characters. Despite the Birds of Prey getting top billing in the title (before it was renamed “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey following a lackluster opening) the backstories of the three characters in the group — Black Canary, Huntress, Renee Montoya — are glanced over in favor of catch-up with Harley, and though the three women are certainly interesting characters, I can’t say I minded this decision.
While the film is filled with fun performances — Ewan McGregor feels at home portraying the cartoonish Roman Sionis/Black Mask — it’s Robbie who is the indisputable star. Rare moments where she’s not on screen act mostly as moments where you’ll be wishing she was. It’s sad, because as quick as we were to hand Joaquin Phoenix every single award for his portrayal of Joker, people are even quicker to dismiss Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn. This is an actress who was able to nail the complexities of a figure like Tonya Harding, tackle an emotionally charged role in “Bombshell” and still, at the end of the day, become Harley Quinn.
It’s a shame that “Birds of Prey” has been struggling at the box office. Not only is it a breezy hour and fifty minutes of fun, but the lack of financial passion from the public sends a dangerous message to studios that people don’t want to see films of its likeness. The fact that the hyper-sexualized Harley Quinn of “Suicide Squad” would perform better in our culture is not necessarily a shock, but still a shame. Finances aside, though, “Birds of Prey” sends an even louder message: one of female empowerment, friendship and an overwhelmingly good time.