Katarina grabbed a bucket of popcorn and settled in for the emotionally intelligent vindication of Birds Of Prey
There’s a scene in Suicide Squad that I think about all the time. In it, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) puts on her iconic “Daddy’s Little Monster” shirt. We track up her wiggling, scantily-clad body as she rolls the shirt down over a red bra. When she finishes, she looks around and notices all activity has stopped around her. All eyes are on her. “What?” she says, seemingly clueless of the effect her half-naked body has on the men around her. The bustling around her resumes.
When I’m asked if I liked Suicide Squad, I think of this scene. When I’m asked if I saw any blockbuster action movie that lacked women on the creative team, I think of this scene. For three or so years after Suicide Squad, when I was asked if I liked Harley Quinn, I thought of this scene. When I attended comic conventions and saw little girls dressed as Harley, I thought of this scene. I agreed with many others that Harley was the dumb, objectified blonde of the DC movie universe.
My view on Harley changed after I read Mariko Tamaki’s amazing comic ‘Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass’. An alternate origin story for Harley, Breaking Glass shows her growing up parented by a group of drag queens in a neighborhood fighting gentrification. Harley meets both Poison Ivy and the Joker in high school; one a passionate community activist, the other a violent anarchist. Harley must choose where on the spectrum between these approaches she falls.
Breaking Glass humanized Harley in a way that Suicide Squad didn’t for me. In all honesty, I felt that Suicide Squad‘s Harley wasn’t really meant for me, as a woman. She definitely resonated with some women, but I couldn’t connect with her. So when Birds of Prey was announced with a female writer (Christina Hodson) AND director (Cathy Yan), I was immediately excited. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) | Warner Bros. Pictures
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is just as much as the title suggests. Harley was untouchable as the Joker’s girlfriend. She could do whatever she wanted with no repercussions. But Birds of Prey begins with their break up, leaving Harley in a totally new situation. Not only is she now free game for all the criminal denizens of Gotham City, but the Joker was more or less the trigger for her descent into madness and crime. So who is she without him? A bad*ss b*tch, Birds of Prey says.
The actual plot of Birds of Prey centers around an enormous diamond. Local crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) wants it. He enlists his driver, Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to pick it up, but it ends up in the belly of a young pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). The police or, rather, one policewoman named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is on the trail as well. After Cassandra is arrested, Harley is hired to get her back.
There are many “best things” about Birds of Prey (glitter-filled shotgun canisters? Spooky circus-themed haunted house fight scene? “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”-inspired sequence?) but one of the best things about it is that it reminds us that Harley has both a heart and a brain. Before she was Harley Quinn, she was Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist at the Arkham Asylum. That’s right, Harley Quinn has an advanced degree! She may be a violent criminal, but she fell head over heels in love with a hyena whom she takes home like a dog. When Bruce (named after that “hunky Wayne guy”) goes missing, Harley is distraught. She also becomes attached to Cassandra, though her feelings for other people are harder for her to admit. Harley is a strong, independent woman but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t feel things.
Viewers are regularly reminded of Harley’s psychological expertise by her psychoanalysis of many characters and situations. This and Huntress’ storyline make the film the trauma-informed, emotionally intelligent action blockbuster you’ve always wanted. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) watched her whole family get murdered as a child and became a super-skilled mercenary to get revenge. As you might imagine, she lives with the repercussions of that trauma. She uses a small race car to ground her in times of stress. She gives this toy to Cassandra during the final battle she is forced to witness. This is called a “Grounding Object” and is used to help survivors of trauma.
The main theme of the movie is whether Harley can build a life for herself apart from the Joker. The answer is yes, of course, but Harley isn’t necessarily that confident all the time. Even her namesake is tied to a man. “What is a harlequin without a master?” she asks. Despite her doubts, she gets her own apartment, she makes a business card, she keeps herself from getting murdered by everyone who is now coming after her. She wavers, which is familiar to so many women out there. Are we skilled enough? Are we good enough? Are we just enough?
One thing Harley never wavers about, though, is her much-ness. She is impossibly extra in every situation. She never ceases to enact a level of drama equaled only by Roman Sionis. Her makeup, her clothes, her manner of speaking are always dialed to 11. Myself and so many women I know struggle with the fear of being “too much.” Are we being too dramatic? Are we being too needy? Are we being too confident? Are we being too much to be loved, respected, accepted? We make ourselves smaller to assuage this fear. But Harley never does. She flaunts her much-ness and deals with the consequences.
The movie wasn’t perfect. It’s messy, just like Harley. The Birds of Prey team-up isn’t quite earned. The villain (Roman) sits a little awkwardly on the spectrum between queer coded and actually queer. Huntress, Cassandra, and Renee deserved a little more character development. But despite these missteps, the film is exactly what I needed it to be. It centers Harley as a human, more than an object of desire. It has the moxie and quirkiness Harley deserves. It brings in other wonderful female characters. And it lets these women beat up murderers, rapists, and other criminals. I’m an incredibly soft, non-violent person who values compassion above all else. But for this hour and forty-nine minutes, I felt vindicated. I felt liberated.
Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) is playing in multiplexes NOW.
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Katarina Schultz is the Features Editor for Future of the Force. She is a passionate Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who and Marvel fan. All of her writing can be found at katarinaschultz.com. Follow her on Twitter @asuperhumanlife where she uses the force frequently!
Writer & nerd. Lover of science fiction franchises. Cries daily about awesome women, representation in media, and the power of film.