This is a Man’s World…But it would be nothing without The Birds of Prey!
Cathy Yan, director
Christina Hodson, script writer
Review contributed by Charlie Flickinger
This review contains spoilers! Stop now if you don’t want to be spoiled!
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn) felt like a very ‘out of left field’ follow up for 2016’s financially successful, but critical failure ‘Suicide Squad’. Despite the abysmal reviews (as of February 15th 2020 the Rotten Tomato score is 27%) there was one thing that (almost) every reviewer could agree on: Margot Robbie was born to play Harley Quinn and she stole the show in a movie stuffed full of A-list actors. So when the trailer for Birds of Prey dropped in mid 2019 absolutely no one was surprised to see Robbie’s Harley front and center. For some this was blasphemous! For me it was a slight cringe, but I was still going to see the movie no matter what.
A little bit of background for my love of all things BOP. Gail Simone’s legendary run on the title in the early 2000’s got me through a ton of shit when I started collecting trade paperbacks years later, so anything that had ‘Birds of Prey’ in the title and had Black Canary in it was getting watched. Simone’s run on Birds of Prey and Will Pfiefer’s run on Catwoman made me want to be a comic book writer, so anything the two of them write is instantly gold to me.
The movie is indeed fantabulous. The set pieces, the action scenes, There’s a fight scene in a prison lock up under broken sprinklers that I honestly think will go down as one of the best choreographed and best shot fight scenes in comic book cinematic history, and the acting is all top notch. Margot Robbie is in the same boat as Ryan Reynolds to me in that it’s going to be really hard for me to ever watch someone else play HQ, the same way I’ll struggle to watch someone else play Deadpool. Robbie brings a touch of something special to the role. Her Harley is outrageous (there a several points in the movie where Harley breaks people’s knees, feeds a guy to a hyena and pumps a kid full of Ex-Lax.) but also relatable (a scene where Harley talks about the role of a Harlequin with Canary at the bar is so raw and powerful it’s stuck with me since the first time I saw the film) and this time around instead of just being crazy Harley is allowed to show off her fancy PhD. Several times in the movie she ‘shrinks’ several of the other characters and I died laughing each and every time.
I know I know, I’ve been talking about Harley Quinn a lot, but that’s because this movie, despite being originally titled ‘Birds of Prey’ is a Harley Quinn movie. The birds are all secondary characters but, unlike most action movies, their parts could not have been cut out without destroying the movie. Black Canary, Renee Montoya, Huntress and Cassandra Cain are all flawed characters, but they’re characters that feel real. I know these women in my personal life. I work with these women. I have held these women while they deal with all of the sexist, misogynistic bullshit this world throws at them. So seeing them be brought to life on screen by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ella Jay Basco al bring to life these larger than life personalities.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Dinah Lance comes the closest to stealing the movie from Robbie. Every single time Bell is on screen she is mesmerizing. An early scene in the movie has her covering ‘This is a Man’s World’ and I felt like everyone in the movie did. I was hooked. I was stunned. I was in. 100%. Dinah is tough, but she’s broken. We find out later in the movie that her mother died working for the GCPD and she’s still dealing with all of that. Dinah is working for Black Mask as his personal driver, after his last driver got his knees broken by a very drunk Harley. However, as the movie goes on she becomes more and more uncomfortable with Black Mask’s sadistic ways and eventually starts reporting to Perez’s ‘good cop’ Renee Montoya. Montoya starts the movie investigating Black Mask, because Surprisingly (That was sarcasm) none of the rest of the GCPD will. She originally thinks ‘The Crossbow Killer’ is working with Black Mask to thin out some of Gotham’s crime families, but is later proven wrong when Winstead’s Huntress reveals herself to be the thought to be dead Helena Bertinelli. Winstead get’s the smallest amount of material to work with, but oh my gods does she work with it. Winstead’s Huntress is socially awkward, and it works because in canon the character should be awkward. She watched her family get gunned down, she was sent to Italy and trained to be a cold blooded assassin and then returns to Gotham to avenge said family murder, by taking out said heads of Gotham’s crime families. The scene where she reveals her name is Huntress, and not ‘The Crossbow Killer’ had me laughing out loud in the theatre. ‘My Name is…(super long awkward silence)…The Huntress’. I. DIED. And last, but not least is the character that finally brings everyone together against Black Mask: Cassandra Cain. Out of all of the characters adapted Cassandra is the only one that doesn’t feel like she was lifted straight out of the comic book. This Cain is a snarky, street smart, pick pocket, not the mute assassin. The role itself is a lot of fun and the character gets some really fun things to do, however she does’t feel like Cassandra Cain in the slightest.
Now what’s a good cast of heroes without their villains? Evan McGregor plays big bad Roman Sionis, and he eats up his scenes. He plays Sionis as almost bipolar. One second he’s talking about a thousand year old shrunken head on his wall and the next he’s ordering Canary and Victor Zsasz to go get a diamond “by whatever means necessary”. He cries when he finds out Canary has betrayed him, and then puts on the Black Mask and goes hunting for her. Sionis’ right hand man, and most loyal assassin is Victor Szasz, played by Chris Messina, who is scar covered and seems to worship the ground Sionis walks upon unfortunately doesn’t get a whole lot to do. Zsasz talks a big talk, but gets taken out later in the movie very, very easily. The pair of actors play their characters like gay lovers,which caused quite a stir and call of ‘queer baiting’ however the script doesn’t really imply that at all. It’s all in the performances. The actors could have played everything stone faced and it would have only slightly changed the dynamic of the pair of baddies on screen.
Ultimately this movie mostly feels like its script, written by Christina Hodson, was lifted from Simone’s run thrown into a blender with Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti with some smoke bombs and a shit ton of glitter and pressed ‘purée’. Despite the movie being about Harley Quinn, who is a chapter I’ve never really cared for, I absolutely loved this movie. I loved it so much that I will go on record right now stating that I think I’m ranking it #2 in my list of Super Hero movies, below ‘Wonder Woman’ at #1 and now above ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’
So let’s break it down.
Robbie’s Harley Quinn is going to be a career defining role that I hope she plays for years to come.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell, while looking nothing like the comics, is probably one of the most comic accurate characters put to screen. Bell is Dinah Lance, the Black damn Canary! From her mannerisms to her fighting Bell brings Canary to life in a way no other adaptation ever has, and I do mean none.
Winstead, Perez and McGregor take bit parts and spin it into gold. I can’t wait to see Huntress and Montoya grow in the hopeful follow up!
The action scenes are shot brilliantly.
The script has some actual gut busting moments written into it, and also has these very authentic, human emotions attached as well, which outside of ‘Wonder Woman’ always seem to get lost in super hero movies.
Montoya and Quinn are both on screen confirmed to be queer. Harley shows a montage of trying to date post grad school and it includes a woman and Montoya’s ex works for the DA.
The Feminist subtext isn’t sub textual at all. The women are all feminist in their own ways and it’s so refreshing to have more than just ‘the strong woman’ on screen. Each character has different shades of sexism to deal with. Renee has all of her accomplishments in the GCPD taken credit by men. Canary deals with her clingy boss and the uncomfortable eyes of his body guard Zsasz. Harley is almost sexually assaulted by a a bar patron. And Huntress’ entire family was gunned down by another Don in a power grab.
The Not So Good:
For all his talk throughout the movie Victor Zsasz gets defeated rather easily, and it’s very underwhelming. I really wanted to see Canary and Huntress get a big fight scene against him, and it sadly never happened.
Cassandra Cain should have been named any other character. She just isn’t the Orphan comic books fans know. She feels more like Sin, Black Canary’s adopted daughter, to me than she feels like Cassandra, but at the same time the role is snarky and works really well.
The movie should have been named ‘Harley Quinn’ from the beginning. It’s not really a Birds of Prey movie until the last 20 minutes of the film.
No one outside of Harley gets any big fight scenes. Canary gets a nicely shot little alley brawl, but everyone else is basically regulated to the group fight, which was also a lot of fun, at the end of the movie.
Killing Black Mask was also a huge mistake to me. Black Mask could have easily been the ‘big bad’ for the proposed BOP/Harley Quinn/Gotham City Sirens trilogy. Also his death should have been given to the eventual onscreen Catwoman. Catwoman’s murder of Black Mask is such an important character moment for her and I’m sad we’re not gong to get that in the DCEU.
Overall I loved this movie. There’s so much about it that works, and the things that don’t are not heart breakers to me. This is an adapted work of film. It’s not going to be the comics, and that’s completely ok. Upon my second viewing I appreciated some things a bit more, but still came away thinking it just should have been named ‘Harley Quinn’ and that could have led to an actual Birds of Prey movie. If you have the time to, go see the movie.
What did you guys think of the movie? Leave a comment below!
Charlie Flickinger lives just outside of Cleveland, Ohio with their husband of 3.5 years. Gender Queer. Pop Punk at heart. Disaster Bi. They inspire to write queer comics and love pro wrestling (Please give them Sasha Banks vs Becky Lynch for the rest of forever), super hero comics (Catwoman is the best part of the Batman universe) and music (P!nk is their Queen and they will fight you about her).