I See Your Giant Mallet and Raise You One Pet Hyena
by Jeff Bowles
As it turns out, a super-scary international virus lockdown isn’t all bad. Sure, you’ve got to muscle retirees out of the way at the grocery store to get a cheap four pack of toilet paper and some frozen peas, but on the up side, Hollywood has released some of its biggest Spring movies to enjoy from the safety and comfort of your own home.
New films like The Invisible Man, Onward, Sonic the Hedgehog, Bad Boys for Life, and Bloodshot are all available On Demand for early rental or purchase, but allow me to recommend a movie that released in theaters in February and immediately flopped. Like big time.
It’s no secret I love comics and comic book movies, but truly, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a cut above DC and Warner Bros. typically average-to-poor superhero romps. The title is totally silly and useless, and if they thought it’d fit on any movie marquee in the world they were crazier than The Joker himself, but Birds of Prey turns out to be a smart, funny, aggressive comic flick with a unique quality: it was almost exclusively produced by women.
Not to put too fine a point on the matter, but this arena is and always has been a boys’ club. We may never know why Birds of Prey did such dismal business at the box office. Rest assured, it’s got nothing to do with the quality of the film. Is this a matter of nerdy male resentment? Or do the story and characters simply stray too far from the mythos surrounding these dangerous leading ladies of Gotham City? Maybe the title’s too long. Ehem, DC and Warner Bros., I said MAYBE THE TITLE’S TOO LONG.
Regardless, Birds of Prey is certainly worthy of your attention if you’re into superhero stuff. Heck, it’s worthy of your attention even if you’re not and you simply have too much free time on your hands. You’re not super busy right now, are you? Yeah, thought not.
Harley Quinn as a character goes back to the early 90s. If you’re not familiar with her, she was created for Batman: The Animated Series as a kind of foil or sidekick for The Joker. She was pretty one-dimensional back then, and in the decades since, she’s more often than not been portrayed as a psychotic sex object Batman has to knock out every once in a while. A good precedent for gender equality in comic books? Not especially, but Margot Robbie, who is a legit Oscar-caliber actor, no joke about that, imbues Ms. Quinn with joy and a surprising amount of complexity.
Harley has had a nasty breakup with her beloved Mr. J. While The Joker never appears in this movie in any substantial fashion, his presence is felt in that same way you stick a picture of your ex on the wall and throw knives at it until the sun comes up. What? You’ve never had that experience? Well Harley has, and the aggressive humor and violence with which she picks apart the legacy of her former paramour is sheer genius. In truth, this is more of a Harley Quinn vehicle than an honest story about the Birds of Prey, a DC Comics staple since the mid-1990s. See, in the comics, Harley isn’t even really part of this team, which means characters like Black Canary and Huntress tend to get sidelined. Fans may have had a legitimate reason in this regard for not showing up when they had the chance.
But they really should have, because Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (do I really have to keep typing the whole thing?) is a lot of fun. Ewen McGregor plays the obligatory supervillain, Roman Sionis, the Black Mask. He’s slick, dangerous, neurotic, and that silver spoon in his mouth seems to have calcified his brain. He fills his apartment with brutal oddities from around the world and says “Eww” before he orders one of his goons to slit your throat.
And Harley, God bless her, is an almost perfectly realized, straight-from-the-comics avatar of mayhem. She prefers giant mallets and baseball bats in a fight, dresses stuffed beavers in pink tutus and names them because she’s bored, and owns an actual pet Hyena called Bruce (you know, like that hunky billionaire Wayne guy from TV). Robbie lends Harley a certain emotional fragility in scenes concerning her big breakup, and though this is an R-rated hijinks movie chock full of color and jokes, you get the sense there’s a beating heart under all that clown makeup.
As for the rest of the team, Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Huntress, a self-trained crossbow assassin with a slight case of social disfunction, Rosie Perez is rebellious and jaded Gotham City PD detective Renee Montoya, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell plays Dinah Lance, the Black Canary, who’s singing voice is just a skoch more powerful than your average lounge lizard’s. Writer Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yann do their best to flesh out the actual Birds of Prey, but listen, this is Harley’s movie, so no unnecessary character development allowed. Insanity comes in lots of different forms, and for about an hour and forty-five minutes you’ll find yourself in a version of Gotham City that A). exists almost completely in daylight, and B). is more Loony Tunes than Dark Knight.
This is a distinctly feminine superhero movie, and it doesn’t mind making all the bad guys men. I’m sure Warner Bros. and DC questioned whether it’d be lucrative. Turns out, it wasn’t. Still, it’s a much needed shot in the arm to the preexisting DC film universe, which for the most part has grown stale. Birds of Prey doesn’t really break the mold as such. It’s still about solving problems with fists and hamming it up real 1960s Batman TV show style, but Harley Quinn stands on her own two feet and kicks ass. Fans who appreciated the morose and overly serious Joker standalone movie last year might find Birds of Prey silly and quaint, but if you’re like me and Joker rubbed you the wrong way, you could do worse than wasting a couple hours on your sofa, streaming one of the most underrated comic book movies of the last several years.
Coronavirus quarantine kinda sucks, but it doesn’t mean we can’t still have a laugh or three. Dr. Harleen Quinzel is most definitely all about the laughs. It’s just too bad the other leading ladies of Birds of Prey have to take up her sidelined, sidekick, side-character mantel.
Jeff’s Movie Reviews gives Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (one last time. Phew.) a cocaine-snorting, beanbag-gun-toting 8 out of 10.
Being the Clown Prince of Gotham is all well and good, but Joker had better watch his back. Unless of course male comic nerds are threatened by strong leading women. That’s not a thing, is it? Surely not. Preparing sarcasm protocols in three, two, one … engage!
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