‘Birds of Prey’ showcases the independence of Harley Quinn

“Birds of Prey,” is a far cry from “Suicide Squad,” and Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn is a drastic change from her character in the same film:
Margot Robbie stars in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. | Photo courtesy of IMDb.

Four years ago, during a late summer night in early August, I walked out of Forum 8 theater, disappointed. “Suicide Squad” had been one of the most hyped-up films in the DC Extended Universe after (the also disappointing) “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and I was not impressed. Jared Leto was nothing like Heath Ledger, Ben Affleck was no Christian Bale, Will Smith was random and the soundtrack was probably the best thing about the whole film.

I get it — it was a new image of the DC Universe I had in my head, from the “Dark Knight Trilogy.” One of the characters that made the movie worthwhile was the casting of Australian actress Margot Robbie as Harleen Quinzel. Quinzel is more widely known as her alter ego, Harley Quinn — a former Arkham Asylum psychiatrist that fell in love with one of her patients, the Joker. “Suicide Squad” portrayed a toxic, addictive and incredibly dysfunctional relationship, Quinn was dependent on her beau. Quinn’s character was nothing without the Joker and was defined by their relationship. “Suicide Squad” essentially said there is no Harley Quinn without the Joker … but seriously … what is Harley Quinn without Mista J?

One week ago, moments after scurrying out of Forum 8 theater on a busy Valentine’s Friday night, my girlfriends and I turned to each other and agreed on a few things — we felt ridiculously empowered, Margot Robbie was amazing, and “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” was one of the best movies we had seen for a while. With well-coordinated fight scenes and a martial arts backstory reminiscent of “Kill Bill,” “Birds of Prey” did not disappoint in any way, especially in female representation. In the DC and Marvel Universe combined, there have been only two other superhero movies with a female lead — “Wonder Woman” in 2017, “Captain Marvel” in 2019 and “Birds of Prey” in 2020.

While Quinn’s relevance in “Suicide Squad” came from being intertwined with the Joker, “Birds of Prey” focuses on Quinn’s story after the Joker — a free woman who at first loathes her new lifestyle, but eventually appreciates her emancipation. It shows Quinn’s tough side — a glittery, badass antihero who’s made a few enemies in Gotham, trying to hold her own without Joker’s protection — just as much as her emotional one. She’s as smart and sweet as she is wicked, with this new angle on Quinn’s character possible for an emotional connection, more so than the action-packed “Suicide Squad,” which had more visual effects than meaningful dialogue, the characters lacking development and personality.

In “Birds of Prey”, we get to know Quinn personally, by learning what she likes for breakfast, or who she voted for in the 2016 election (spoiler: it was Bernie). We get to know her away from Joker, or from the association of being a side character — Jared Leto’s Joker doesn’t even make a single appearance in the film. We get to know Quinn — and not her previous identity, synonymous with a male lead.

Throughout the film, we are introduced to a plethora of female characters - Renee Montoya, Black Canary, Huntress and Cassandra Cain being the main ones, played by Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollet-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ella Jay Basco, respectively. Each of these characters had their own distinct personalities and roles relevant to the main storyline. The main antagonists, Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) and his sidekick Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) played their parts immaculately, as perfect villains. Even the soundtrack radiated unrepressed femininity, comprised of female artists, with Doja Cat, Halsey and Megan Thee Stallion among some of the featured.

I really liked the portrayal of this version of Gotham — it wasn’t icky and infested like the Gotham in “Joker” (shot in Newark, New Jersey, Staten Island and Brooklyn, New York), and it wasn’t a cynical and helpless mecca for organized crime like in “The Dark Knight” (shot in Chicago, New York, Hong Kong). Gotham in “Birds of Prey” felt more bright and optimistic, kind of like a Los Angeles afternoon. Turns out the whole movie was shot in either downtown LA or on sets (also in LA). There was a lot of range in the settings — the dark, night scenes kinda felt like “The Dark Knight” scenes, and I loved seeing Amusement Mile come to life, a place I had only seen in video games like “Batman: Arkham City.”

Overall, “Birds of Prey” is a superhero movie capable of emotion and personality, something audiences rarely see today. The acting and casting were amazing and the soundtrack is something I’d listen to outside of the film. A great watch that I’d recommend to all, whether you’re a comic book buff or a social justice warrior.

Edited by George Frey | gfrey@themaneater.com

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