Review: ‘Birds of Prey’ celebrates womanhood in an honest way

by Paulina Marinkovic | 2/18/20 2:06am

After taking center-stage in the 2016 film “Suicide Squad” as the charming ex-psychiatrist-turned-supervillain, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) returns fiercer than ever as she introduces a new version of herself — one separate from the diminutive label of “the Joker’s girlfriend.”  

“Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” directed by Cathy Yan and and written by Christina Hodson, is at its core a fun, humorous and action-packed comic book film which simultaneoulsy manages to explore present-day feminist issues (subtly tackling issues such as rape culture and toxic relationships) and dismantle the patriarchy with perfectly choreographed battle moves and lots of glitter grenades.

Voiced by Harley herself in her distinctive, singsongy “New York” accent, “Birds of Prey” commences with a cartoon animated version of the film that narrates Harley’s past to the audience. While this sets the colorful and lively tone present throughout the movie, the prologue also provides insight to the protagonist’s complex origins and enables the audience to further understand Harley’s character development through the events of the storyline. 

After her abusive, on-again off-again relationship with the Joker comes to an end, Harley is left all alone. Drowned in her sorrows, Harley is first portrayed mourning her relationship through typical post-break-up behavior: eating an alarming amount of spray cheese, giving herself a new haircut and finally, blowing up a chemical plant to publicly update her relationship status. However, she soon learns that a lot of people roaming the streets of Gotham City want her dead. And once Harley accepts that the Joker is all gone, along with the immunity that came with being his faithful sidekick, she realizes that it is time to move on from her past and form her own identity. 

It is clear from the very beginning that Yan’s vision is to delve deeper into Harley’s complexities and depart from her somewhat one-sided portrayal as the obsessive and seductive girlfriend in “Suicide Squad.” The film unfolds Harley’s story in a way that allows the audience to see her through an entirely different lens. By having the Joker out of the picture, Yan fosters a space that allows many facets of Harley’s personality to shine. She reshapes this already previously iconic character into one that challenges the male gaze in media by proving her to be more than “Daddy’s Lil’ Monster”— while still owning one of her deadliest weapons: her “sex appeal.” We not only get to see Harley Quinn as vulnerable with herself — vacillating between sad and awe-inspiring as she deals with heartbreak — but also with the other female characters in the film as she navigates these newly-formed friendships. 

“Birds of Prey” isn’t just about Harley’s breakup with the Joker — it’s also about her journey to “emancipation” as she fights against the long list of enemies that have grievances against her — one of them being the new sadistic villain Black Mask (Ewan MacGregor). The film’s premise revolves around Harley helping Black Mask get access to a legendary family heirloom: a diamond that holds the secret to the Bertinelli family fortune. However, when young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) gets her hands on it first, Harley is forced to cross paths with the other players in this treasure hunt: detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Dinah “Black Canary” Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Helena “Huntress” Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Aside from the amazing performances of the actors and the usual chaotic energy found in superhero/supervillain movies, this intersection of differing storylines and the film’s nonlinear way of telling the story is what makes this movie entertaining to watch.

With its predominantly female cast (and the characters’ random compliments on how well they fight in high heels and tight pants), “Birds of Prey” is an anthem all about girl power. While all these strong women start their journeys on their own (showcasing their powerful and deadly combination of brains and combat skills), they find even more strength when they are obliged to join forces to save their own lives and that of Cassandra Cain. Yan and Hodson’s message about not needing a knight in shining armour to save the day is very clear. With their array of talents, each character portrays a unique version of femininity and her own idea of what it means to be a woman in this world. Yan offers an unseen take on superhero films by placing complex women of all ages in the forefront of her story. She succeeds in unraveling Harley from her toxic past and from this creating an empowering narrative that unapologetically celebrates womanhood and women’s ability to help each other rise in power.

This celebration of womanhood is not only seen through the characters on screen, but also in the “Birds of Prey” movie soundtrack. Harley’s world is brought to life by a female-led soundtrack, featuring tracks from artists such as Halsey, Doja Cat, Normani, Lauren Jauregui and Charlotte Lawrence. 

After the release of “Wonder Woman” in 2017, the DC universe left its audiences hungry for more female superhero representations in the media. “Birds of Prey” takes advantage of the lack of female superheroes in this testosterone-driven world and exploits it, but in a nuanced manner rather than making it overly exaggerated. While Yan and Hodson could have taken the female empowerment storyline for granted and failed to portray Harley with all her imperfections, they are able to give her agency of her own story and prove that her abilities extend far beyond the titles given to her by association with the Joker. Their portrayal of the one and only Harleen Quinzel allows us to see her at her most liberated — after all it is called “the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.” “Birds of Prey” portrays Harley Quinn and all the women in the film in a way that feels real, painting this twisted character from the DC Comics as a relatable character and her girl gang as somewhat of a feminist movement.