As one of the most notorious female characters in the world of DC Comics, Harley Quinn is often seen as the right-hand woman of the Joker. The newest film in the DC Extended Universe Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) challenges this notion as it gives Harley a sense of independence through her journey of redemption and self-discovery. Released Friday Feb. 1, the film was directed by Cathy Yan and features a diverse cast, constant excitement and excellent acting.
Australian actress Margot Robbie first portrayed Harley Quinn in the 2016 film Suicide Squad. The film detailed Harley’s origin story and how she came to be involved with the Joker. Though the film got relatively mediocre reviews, Robbie’s acting was generally praised.
“Since [the release of Suicide Squad’s] first trailer, Robbie’s portrayal has stood out as an interesting female force in a world of supermen,” Internet Archive Reporter Frank Pallotta said in the 2016 article “Harley Quinn steps up to plate in ‘Suicide Squad.’”
Viewers can expect the same energy in the spin-off film Birds of Prey, which shows Harley’s life after the Joker breaks up with her. The film begins with a cheeky narration from Harley in which she details her final days with the Joker and tells of publically updating her relationship status by blowing up the chemical processing plant that was their ‘spot.’ This one action sets the whole of Gotham City after her since the Joker is no longer her protector. She is left to join forces with a child pickpocket, an ex-cop and heroines Huntress and Black Canary to take down Black Mask, portrayed by Ewan McGregor, who is after a special diamond that just happens to be inside the young pickpocket’s stomach.
Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn is highly enjoyable as she never fails to lighten the mood with a snarky one-liner or entice the audience with allusions to the comics and previous DC films. She distinguishes herself entirely from the Joker and proves herself capable of finding success without the help of a powerful man along the way.
Director Cathy Yan spoke fondly of Robbie’s dedication to the role of Harley Quinn and praised her capability as a producer of the film in a recent interview with Picturehouse. Yan stated that she and Robbie both wanted to create a film that featured mainly women, but did not give off the air of a chick flick.
“There’s no reason that a movie with predominantly women characters shouldn’t be enjoyed by men,” Yan said. “These are just cool, interesting, strong characters whether they happen to be male or female.”
The female characters of Birds of Prey are interestingly all ‘good guys,’ while the male characters are predominantly the ‘bad guys.’ The characters from either side interact and are involved in each others affairs, but there is a distinct divide between right and wrong in the film, despite its moral ambiguity.
“I think people really relate to the flawed characters and it’s important not to smooth over that and try and make them perfect, especially when they need to be a ‘hero,’” Robbie said in a 2016 interview with Rotten Tomatoes.
Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of the sadistic Roman Sionis (also known as Black Mask) was riveting. In one of his first scenes, Sionis’ henchman, with whom he has continuous sexual tension throughout the film, cuts off the face of a rival gangster, establishing Sionis’ obsession with heads, faces and masks. The various interactions between the two men veered into the territory of queer-baiting at times, but it was nice to see LGBTQ+ representation, even if it was subtle. It would have been nicer, however, if the one outwardly and consistantly queer character was not the vilain hellbent on gutting a kid for a diamond.
Furthermore, Sionis’ colonial characterization was interesting to see, as he fought to ‘own’ all of Gotham City and adorned his penthouse with stolen relics from African and South American tribes that all kept in with the head and mask theme. Establishing Sionis as a colonizer of sorts brings the modern political discourse surrounding both cultural appropriation and gentrification in America’s major cities to the forefront of the film’s message.
The film’s soundtrack fell flat in a few scenes, but was a fun accompaniment to the film and featured primarily female anthems. There were times when the songs seemed a little trite, such as when Harley took down six mobsters to the tune of “Black Betty” by Spiderbait, but triteness aside, it worked. Pop singer Ke$ha’s feminist anthem “Woman” played over tha last scene and the end credits, sending the audience off to the words of triumph and independence.
Overall, the film was exhilarating and never featured a dull moment. The story was complex, incorporating humor regularly into the plot without stifling the more serious scenes. DC fans will not be disappointed.