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

This review has some spoilers. So here’s your warning.

birds-of-prey

I did a lot of directionless ranting and waffling in this post. Without even any pictures to break it up. But here’s one.

A few days ago, I overheard Mrs. Hatboy reading a bedtime story to Wump and Toop. It was a rather cool book that is basically a long list of incredible women, intended to encourage and inspire. It’s a great book.

After a couple of entries in a row (first woman in space, first woman to win Nobel Prize, something like that), I heard Wump say, “why is it always first woman? Why isn’t it just first person to do something?”

Now, it’s always tempting to read too much into these Wise Things Kids Say, and this can be interpreted in a lot of different ways depending on your agenda. I had a bit of a chat with Wump about it later, and it seemed as though the issue was that “first woman” automatically implies “not the first person to ever do it, the first person was a man”. And that’s understandably frustrating because it lessens the achievement.

Simply put, the fact is that there are “first woman to X” categories because men already did all of the things, because there was a time when they got to do the things and women generally didn’t.

We’re getting better, but that still leaves a lot of things that men got the chance to do first. Moreover, a lot of these lists of achievements are tilted towards discoveries, conquests, records that, historically speaking, men had the aggression and competitive drive (and the socio-cultural leeway) to go for. I mean, I will never for the life of me understand climbing a mountain. Climbing things stopped being fun at the age of about 12 for me, essentially the age at which I could no longer walk off a sprained ankle. I admire the feat of endurance and strength, whether it’s a man or a woman who did it. I simply could not do it, and basically have no idea why anyone would want to.

But I digress.

Yes, in the future I hope there will be many more firsts in store, and they’ll be firsts that all humans can strive for together, thus unlocking the “first person to X” achievement. I hope there are things on that list that none of us have even thought about yet. First person to travel transdimensionally? First person to upload their consciousness? First person to marry their past selves? Who knows. I hope, at that point, we move past the need to have gender categories. But my hopes aren’t high. I’m reminded of the men’s football team that won a championship for their country a while back, and everyone was excited about it, but the women’s football team from the same country had done it years ago. Sometimes not even doing it first is good enough.

The alternative, in the meantime, is having “first woman to X” be a thing, and try to explain why to a nine-year-old with a keen sense of how a sane world should work.

What am I talking about? Isn’t this supposed to be a movie review?

Right.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), hereinafter Birds of Prey, was a fun movie that suffered from a bad case of Only It’s Women This Time. I’m not even saying whether that’s good or bad, needed or not. If we don’t need a movie that focuses on something like this, then it’s sad that so many people seem to think we still do. If we do need it, that’s fucking depressing.

It’s a fact, superhero demographics – in fact movie hero demographics in general … no, general cultural demographics as a whole – are hideously male-heavy considering the reality of our actual population. Again, that’s mostly because guys got to do shit like be vigilantes and make movies. I’m all for correcting that. Maybe we need more movies that are just that. Sad, if true. And I’m not the right person to be deciding. But I would have been happier if this movie could have been about something else. Not something else entirely. I would have settled for something else as well.

I wasn’t bothered by the fact that this was the central and basically sole issue of the movie. I was bothered by the apparent necessity, and how blatant it had to be. I didn’t want this review to be focussed on the gender thing, but they made it the main thing of the movie so what can I do?

It is, to my mind, super cool that Harley Quinn finally gets to separate from the Joker and be her own thing. It’s long overdue and well earned, from the comic books right through the animated series and up to Suicide Squad. And I think in a way, it had to be done in the way it was done in this movie. No problem with that.

Ever since Suicide Squad, I’ve wanted Harley to have her own movie. This definitely met my expectations. I enjoyed it a lot. There were laughs, there was entertaining violence, there were great fight scenes and spectacular set-building. The music was brilliant. The script was also there.

And okay, I’m speaking from a place of bias when I say that the fourth-wall-breaking and “all caught up” back-and-fill storytelling was done first, and done better, in Deadpool and Deadpool 2, but that’s an unavoidable problem when you make a comic book movie. This was still nicely done.

I just … I don’t know. Maybe I was expecting something else. Maybe that was unrealistic of me. I loved Captain Marvel despite its arguable focus on Only It’s Women This Time. I enjoyed the Ghostbusters reboot despite that same focus[1]. I’ve uncritically enjoyed DC movies like Wonder Woman and Aquaman and even Justice League, with no focus on gender whatsoever. I can absolutely do the same here. It was a lot of fun, and worth watching. It definitely didn’t deserve to tank the way it has. And I’m looking forward to the Black Widow movie because I think it will finally, straight-up, be a movie about a superhero who happens to be a woman.

[1] Although let’s keep it real, it wasn’t a focus in that movie. The characters all just happened to be women, which is exactly what I want and exactly why I liked it so much. Yes, they were all females and the original team was all males, so it definitely counts as an Only It’s Women This Time movie. But that was inevitable, given the fan base. And they were the ones who were responsible for the reception of this movie. The movie itself was fine and didn’t make anywhere near as big a deal of gender as, say, Captain Marvel did. It was blown up by a bunch of crybabies.

But for a movie that was meant to be all about the cool characters, Birds of Prey sure was all about the cool woman characters but also all about the man characters who they weren’t. The Joker was practically a co-lead despite the fact that he wasn’t even in the movie. Every characteristic and motivation the characters had[2] was actually a shadow-puppet and the light source was a man. And I get it, that was the point and I guess that’s still a wall we need to break down … but it was still discouraging. Ugh, I feel like a woke bro trying too hard to start a crusade here. That’s really not what I’m about, so by all means talk me down from this.

[2] Aside from Cassandra Cain, whose prime motivation was surviving to adulthood in Gotham motherfucking City, which automatically made her the best character in the damn movie, fight me.

Ewan McGregor did an amazing job as Black Mask – best DC villain since Tim Burton stopped making Batman movies, there I said it – but it felt like he was robbed. His character, which McGregor did his playing-opposite-Anakin-Skywalker best to make feral and charismatic and scary like a true Gotham crime lord, was reduced to random acts of female degradation and then getting no-coming-back perma-killed.

And I’m not even sad about that, because … meh. He was a good footnote, but he was a footnote. For better or worse. And the whole premise of this movie makes me feel like I’m crying “what about the poor men?” by even talking about him. Which strikes me as unfair.

You want to balance it? What about the poor everyone else but Harley Quinn, and even to a certain degree what about poor Harley Quinn? Hardly anyone got a fair shake in this movie, which was forced to share its focus (again) across an ensemble-cast-level set of stories and characters when only one of them had received any setup whatsoever. And it was Harley’s setup, which let’s face it, wasn’t great. The Birds of Prey got practically nothing, a fact which I believe was lampshaded with the “I really like the way you can kick so high with such tight pants on” line. Yeah, that’s – thanks, that’d be more funny if it wasn’t true. That was Black Canary, she got a better story in Arrow but this is DC, so you can’t port the story across and grant the benefit of any sort of character depth or background. And they can’t seem to get their story straight so you can forget about a decade-long lead-up to a meaningful ensemble. You’ll get this instead.

And considering that this is what DC can do, this was done well. Really well.

One thing I found really interesting, in a meta way, was how this movie and the recent Joker movie mirror one another, culturally. Even the groups who loved the Joker movie for all the wrong reasons seemed to be represented in the Purge-mask-clad all-male horde at the end. Harley’s separation from Joker, Black Canary’s separation from Sionis, Huntress’ separation from her family’s murderers, even Montoya’s separation from Captain Erikson and the police, they were all microcosms of a fascinating cultural story we are telling ourselves.

Maybe that story needs to be told a few more times. Maybe if we tell it enough times we’ll get it right and be able to move on to other stories. Maybe it was unnecessary and jarring because my expectations were broken. But it brings us full circle to “why is it always first woman? Why isn’t it just first person to do something?”

Maybe soon, we’ll be able to tell stories about the first superhero, or antihero, doing something, without their gender having to be a thing. But until we get there, let’s keep telling the stories we apparently need to. This one was a lot of fun.

Can’t really argue with Pitch Meetings about this one, although the assortment of plot conveniences and contrivances didn’t really bother me.

I give Birds of Prey a Heath Ledger, a Joaquin Phoenix, half a Cameron Monaghan, a Cesar Romero, nine Jared Leti and 6% of a Mark Hamill out of a possible Jack Nicholson. Or one-and-a-half Margot Robbies, eight Mary Elizabeth Winsteads, four Jurnee Smollett-Bells and three Rosie Perezes out of a possible Michelle Pfeiffer.

They’re the same score, Only It’s Women This Time.

This entry was posted in Hatboy's Movie Extravaganza, Hatboy's Nuggets of Crispy-Fried Wisdom and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (a review)

  1. stchucky says:

    To further reiterate my liking of this movie since I made a lot of rambling grumbles in this review, I should add that I agree with basically all the praise you can see in this review on Toisto:

    https://www.toisto.net/2020/02/birds-of-prey

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