Birds of Prey Is More Than A Feminist Superhero Film
April 29, 2020 | By Brigitte Gong
Most superhero movies fall into one of two camps: the fun, lighthearted romps that Marvel is famous for or the darker, grittier tone DC has favored since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Granted, there have been a few exceptions along the way, but few movies have been able to balance the two well. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) successfully walks this fine line of being fun while taking itself just seriously enough to deliver a cohesive — and even heartfelt — storyline with captivating characters.
Photos Courtesy of DC Entertainment
Margot Robbie reprises her role as a heartbroken Harley Quinn, fresh out of a breakup with the Joker. Playing a role that could easily have leaned into the “hysterical ex-girlfriend” trope, Robbie, however, balances Harley’s emotional instability with a sensitivity that gives her character dimension and allows for growth as the movie progresses. Though the other characters have smaller roles and less screen time, they are all people we root for and end up caring about. Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary, a singer who’s unwillingly dragged into the action, and Elle Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain, a young pickpocket, are clear standouts while Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina give unnerving and captivating performances.
McGregor plays Roman Sionis, Gotham’s crime boss who was recently kicked out of his family’s business, while Messina is Roman’s greasy and sadistic henchman Victor Zsasz. Perhaps what makes McGregor’s Roman such a fascinating villain is the fact that he’s a terrifying example of what an ignorant teenage boy could turn into if given excessive money and power: he expects to get everything he wants and lashes out when he can’t. This is best illustrated in a scene where Roman, upset that his plans are going awry, hears a patron at his club laughing loudly and immediately assumes she’s laughing at him. Instead of committing a physical act of violence (of which he is more than capable), Roman decides to publicly humiliate her instead, forcing her to dance on a table and take off her clothes. The moment is more horrifying than most of the film’s violent fight scenes because the misogyny portrayed in it is so familiar.
And this is Birds of Prey’s biggest strength, that it steers clear of any on-the-nose, surface-level feminist moments for a much more attentive depiction of what a woman’s lived experience is actually like. No one makes any quips about “fighting like a girl” or proclaims “girl power” before taking down a bad guy; even overtly sexist comments are minimal. Instead, the movie focuses on experiences most women are familiar with: the struggle to be taken seriously, someone less qualified getting credit for your work, and trying to make the moral choice in tough situations. Though each woman starts with her own goals and they team up out of necessity, the movie ultimately makes a compelling argument for empathy. Whether it’s how Harley Quinn gives Black Canary a hair tie during the final fight scene or how Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) gives Cassandra a toy car to hold onto to help her feel safe, each woman is looking out for each other — even if they don’t personally like each other — simply because they know the dangers that exist for women. These quieter moments of character work are balanced well with sleekly choreographed fight sequences that show us the emotional and physical strength of these characters without beating us over the head with it.
Photos Courtesy of DC Entertainment
Despite this, the movie had a mediocre box-office performance. Some have chalked it up to its R-rating and because it opened alongside other R-rated action flicks; others believe audiences were turned away because of its association with Suicide Squad. It’s likely a combination of all three, and while it didn’t deserve its disappointing box-office numbers, Birds of Prey also doesn’t deserve its undue responsibility to portend the future of women-led superhero movies. It is undoubtedly one of DC’s stronger entries into its Extended Universe and is more memorable than most of Marvel’s recent productions, but Birds of Prey isn’t given the same ability to just exist as it is. And for what it is, it’s pretty damn good.