Break ups devastate those who experience them. Whether it’s a mutual separation or a hard contentious split, parting from a former loved one hurts. For the duration of a relationship, our identities are, at least in part, defined by our boy friends or girl friends. We identify with being a team or someone’s other half, and when that person is severed from our lives, the emotional toll can hit us hard.
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is one such case. In the newly released DCEU movie Birds Of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn, Harley is down on her luck after dumping her beau: the Joker. Despite how she initiated the break up, Harley is distraught. In the opening scene, she gets sloshed at a club run by a criminal dubbed Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) and announces her break up to all of Gotham City by stealing a truck and ramming it into an Ace Chemicals building, one of Harley’s and Joker’s former meetup spots. It’s a terrific scene and sets the movie’s stylistic tone, preparing the audience for the mayhem ahead.
Harley’s actions, however, have repercussions. By making her break up with the Joker into a public spectacle, everyone in Gotham that views her unfavorably (and let’s be clear: there are A LOT of people she has wronged) has declared open season on Harley. Being with the Joker gave Harley immunity (no one wants to mess with the Joker after all), but now, many bad people with a score to settle are after her. The various villains and gangsters pursuing Harley with a vengeance don’t take her seriously. Her identity as a villainess had been entwined with the Joker, but now that Harley is a solo clown princess of crime, they see her as vulnerable, nothing without the man she once stood behind.
This is an ingenious story angle that only a woman could create. Cathy Yan, Birds Of Prey’s director, created a wonderful female empowerment film with comic book flair. As a character, Harley Quinn is defined by her relationship to the Joker. When created for the great Batman: The Animated Series, Harley is a doting and dutiful girl friend even though the Joker berates her, emotionally and sometimes physically abusing her. Whether in comics or in the cartoons, Joker’s and Harley’s courtship represents a love story gone horribly wrong, and even though Suicide Squad, Harley’s live-action debut, neglected this core part of her character, Birds Of Prey swoops in to correct this cinematic miscue. If you’re a longtime fan of her character, it’s everything you could ever want.
Harley’s quest for independence is propped up by Birds Of Prey’s banger of a story. After her split from the Joker, Harley cuts a deal with the crime boss Black Mask. In return for finding a jewel held by the young pick-pocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), Harley will be given Black Mask’s personal protection. Harley’s mission, however, becomes complicated because many dangerous parties are trying to find Cassandra and the jewel as well. Most notable among these jewel seekers are the cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Black Mask’s bodyguard Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett – Bell), and the vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and for Harley, it’s a race against these women, other gangsters, and time.
The story complements Harley’s journey to self-respect. Through vibrant on screen action, thematic feminist under-pinnings, and Robbie’s nuanced frenetic performance, the drama and character development hinges on whether Harley can grow into being her own woman. Separate from both Joker and Black Mask, can she become independent and capable in her own right? Or will she crumble under the pressure like everyone expects her to? It’s a really nifty character dilemma that hooked me from start to finish.
The Birds Of Prey in the Birds Of Prey aren’t slouches either. The characters of Renee, Black Canary, Huntress, and Cassandra further enhance the film’s girl power themes. Whether it’s the men in the precinct taking credit for Renee’s stellar detective work, Cassandra’s lack of role models, Huntress’ pursuit of vengeance after her family was slaughtered by a rival gang, or Black Canary being stuck in a toxic workplace environment, Birds Of Prey is a comic book vehicle for female empowerment. Concealed behind the stylized R-rated action and comedic banter, Birds Of Prey contains a golden heart, and despite the outlandish scenarios that these characters find themselves in, their attempts to uppercut a male dominated world are completely relatable.
Black Mask acts as a great foil for our anti-heroines. McGregor plays this misogynistic baddie with a childlike menace. While Black Mask often presents himself as a cool mob boss, he regularly goes on violent tantrums when events don’t go his way, and seeing as he is a man in power, that makes him incredibly dangerous. Black Mask views the people who work for him (women especially) as human adornments to his collection of wealth, and when a deranged psychopath has no restraint barring them from their worse impulses, innocent people suffer. In this regard, Black Mask is one of the DCEUs best villains yet and gives Harley and the Birds Of Prey a terrifically terrible antagonist to overcome.
By the end, Birds Of Prey marks a highpoint for modern DC comic book movie adaptations. Beyond displaying colorful action and fun character beats, Birds Of Prey tells a feminist fable about how women like Harley Quinn, Renee Montoya, Black Canary, Huntress, and Cassandra Cain must adapt and defeat a patriarchal world that consistently forces the fairer sex to play second fiddle. The intense fight choreography and playful action set pieces are merely a delicious garnish. Birds Of Prey cinematically personifies a good female empowerment message that aims true.