Review: The Emancipation of Harley Quinn Is A Complete Success in ‘Birds of Prey’

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Image courtesy Warner Brothers.

While everyone likes to pretend the events, movie, and performances of Suicide Squad never happened, that movie did bring something into our lives that we didn’t know we needed: Margot Robbie’s interpretation of the hugely popular character named Harley Quinn. Robbie’s performance is one of the few things that saved Suicide Squad, and the fact that she got her solo movie proves that.

When Birds of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn was first announced, I was skeptical for the obvious reasons, but also excited because it seemed like fans and creators were getting the chance for a “do-over” and ultimately, to prove that the DC Cinematic Universe can follow up on great female-led (and directed) movies like Wonder Woman. Furthermore, the subtitle of Birds of Prey is “The Emancipation of Harley Quinn”, which adds to the idea that this movie will show this character emerging from the wrongs that were done to her. Written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan, Birds of Prey not only stars Margot Robbie in the title role, but she is also credited as a producer, making this a female-led project.

Margot Robbie (Harley) in ‘Birds of Prey’. Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

When the first promotional posters and teasers started appearing, this movie promised to be everything fans love about Harley Quinn; it looked loud, vibrant, fun and destructive. I sat down with these expectations in the cinema, but the movie still managed to surprise me. Birds of Prey is a complete and utter joy to watch for multiple reasons, but mainly because I (as a woman) walked out of the cinema feeling empowered and reassured, something which so rarely happens because of the lack of powerful female stories being told. And yet, this is not only a movie about female empowerment. It also shows that these characters exist outside of the narrative of being a “sidekick” or a minor character to a much more important male counterpart.

From here on there will be SPOILERS!

Plot-wise, Birds of Prey picks up where Suicide Squad left off – more or less. The opening is what immediately assured me that I was going to like this movie. We see Harley broken-hearted about her break-up from Joker, not only because of the romantic attachment but also because she had enjoyed certain privileges and protection during their relationship, which she has now lost. In a narrative reminiscent of a Tarantino movie (with fewer close-ups of feet, thankfully), Harley tells the audience about who will be after her and why, jumping between timelines and events in a light, amusing way, always with vibrant, neon colors.

The pivotal scene at the beginning of the movie, however, is Harley making a statement about her ended relationship. She not only rips the necklace with a “J” from her neck to throw it away, but she also drives a truck into the ACE Chemical plant she once dived into to prove her love and devotion to the Joker, leaving her with perfectly bleached hair and pale skin. She blows the plant up, and as she’s walking away from it there are colorful fireworks and explosions in the background, clearly marking not only the end of one era but more importantly the beginning of a new one.

Margot Robbie (Harley) and Ewan McGregor (Sionis) in ‘Birds of Prey’. Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

Of course, this movie can’t live without a big bad guy. Played fabulously by Ewan McGregor, Roman Sionis (also known as Black Mask) is Gotham’s newest big crime boss. His whiny, nasal voice on the one hand and absolute brutality on the other make him much more terrifying than Jared Leto’s Joker in Suicide Squad.

Ella Jay Basco (Cassandra) and Margot Robbie (Harley) in ‘Birds of Prey’. Image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

While I already mentioned the “Emancipation” subtitle of the movie, this process doesn’t only apply to Harley Quinn, it applies to all the female characters in the movie. It applies to Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) also known as Black Canary, a pretty bird in a cage (in this case in Sioinis’ club) who turns into a superhero fighting her oppressor. There’s officer Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who at the beginning of the movie is a frustrated cop, left behind by male colleagues who snagged career opportunities from her and ridicule her daily. She is not taken seriously by her peers, and turns her badge in to fight crime more effectively, overcoming all her doubts to fight the good fight. Then there’s Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) also known as Huntress, who is the lone survivor of a family massacre whose only purpose was revenge, who find a new family to join and to continue fighting for. And finally, there’s Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), just another lost foster kid turned pickpocket who by the end of the movie has found a family (or at least a big sister). So “Emancipation” transcends the level of just showing Harley’s character growth. It tells the same story in different ways, with one message: you will eventually go where you belong, and you will grow and overcome obstacles (and kick some butt while you’re doing it).

The plot of Birds of Prey revolves around Sionis’ hunt for a very expensive diamond, which for various and not-so-mysterious reasons is deeply connected to Cassandra. Now, Harley Quinn faces the first obstacle in her journey to become a new woman: she has to choose between her newfound empathy and her old survival instinct. Sionis offers protection (like she enjoyed from the Joker) in exchange for the diamond, making it very clear that he doesn’t intend to keep the girl alive. Of course, Sionis wouldn’t be a big bad if he still didn’t try to screw Harley Quinn over by sending all the thugs in Gotham on the same mission. So Harley has to fight off an entire army of gangsters while figuring out if she wants to protect the girl or give her up for her own safety. And here comes the first moment of character growth: Harley ultimately decides to save the girl, but she isn’t alone. She is joined by Montoya, who wants to bring down Sionis, by Black Canary who wants to protect Cassandra and betray her boss, and Huntress, who has her personal agenda to bring down Sionis and his “close personal friend”, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). In the end, the newfound team brings down Black Mask and his minions, and while they might not be celebrating with Margaritas, the movie closes with Harley driving away from a new woman, a new mix between villain and hero, something fresh.

Overall, watching this movie was simply a great time. The mixed and non-chronological narrative kept the audience on its toes, and while reminiscent of Tarantino, it wasn’t a blatant copy, but more an original and remixed take on it. Harley served as a narrator as well as the main character and the R-rating have sparked many Deadpool comparisons, but I would like to disagree with putting them on the same level. Yes, Birds of Prey is an R-rated superhero movie; yes, Harley has the same wit and humor we might know from a certain Marvel character. But for me, the movie had a completely different vibe. Deadpool was a tongue-in-cheek version of a superhero movie, throwing shade and with almost satirical elements. Birds of Prey just seemed like it was told from Harley’s perspective, coming from her head which moves at many-miles-a-minute and is vibrantly colorful.

Rosie Perez (Montoya), Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Huntress), Margot Robbie (Harley), Ella Jay Basco (Cassandra), and Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Black Canary) in ‘Birds of Prey’. Image courtesy Warner Brothers.

Next to Robbie’s Harley, her female peers didn’t fade; they enriched each other’s performances. I especially enjoyed the humorous way in which the characters were portrayed. They never seemed to take themselves too seriously, and when they did, it was immediately followed by comedic relief, like Huntress being called “Crossbow Killer” by everyone she meets and her being socially awkward in front of the other women.

McGregor’s Black Mask is marvelous (no pun intended). He’s sleek, almost slick. He’s terrifying and never warm, no matter how sweet his honey-like voice sounds. The banter with Victor is sub-textually homoerotic, adding to the eccentricity of his character. Chris Messina himself is brilliant in his way, portraying a cold-blooded killer with a psychotic smile, who doesn’t need green hair or facial tattoos to appear frightening. Both men are a great counterpart to our team of “heroes” and although they meet their destined fate, they were still a great asset to this cast and story.

All in all, Birds of Prey completely meets and exceeds my expectations. After Wonder Woman and Shazam!, it is the first DC film that I thoroughly enjoyed, without any complaints. Margot Robbie managed to do a character she adores justice and alongside doing something even greater: proving that women are not only able to lead superhero movies, they’re also able to write, direct and produce them.

This movie perfectly realized in its entirety, a great combination of a good script, a great director and ensemble as well as a rocking original soundtrack (“Woman” by Kesha playing during the credits was a revelation) end up creating a movie everyone should see with their girl, guy or non-binary gang of friends.

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By Conny
Conny joined her first fandom at the tender age of three and somehow never stopped finding new things to obsess about and love. Her current love is everything Marvel, especially two characters who tend to be frozen at one point or the other. From Drag Race to Harry Potter or musical theatre, as long as it makes her smile (or cry), it’s probably her thing.
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