REVIEW: When it comes to women in superhero films, ‘Birds of Prey’ remains a tough team to beat

Margot Robbie stars as the troubled anti-hero Harley Quinn in ‘Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.’ Promotional artwork courtesy of Warner Brothers.

Women’s History Month – A celebration of all women, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, or religion. Even regardless of their level of sanity. So, this March, it’s time to give some overdue credit to the all-too-overlooked DC antihero: Harley Quinn. Prepare to dive into her world of delusions and danger as we take a look at Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), a film that offers far more than it would seem as it delves into complex societal issues while keeping all the finesse and flair you would expect from such a flamboyant character.

Starting with her separation from the Joker, the movie covers Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) journey of self-identity and independence. Unprotected and alone, Harley finds herself facing a multitude of enemies, the worst of which being Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his sidekick Victor Szasz (Chris Messina). Caught amidst a sea of police, thugs, and supervillains, the infamous right-hand woman is forced to kidnap young thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) in an attempt to escape Roman’s wrath. But through her struggles for safety and survival, Harley finds unexpected allies in three of the smartest, deadliest, and strongest women in Gotham: Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett), and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).

The movie starts off strong, opening with an animated monologue sequence about Harley’s life that covers everything from her unfortunate childhood to her recent heartbreak. This monologue captures the essence of our beloved jokester in both the fun cartoon style and the quirky dialogue placed over it. This energy continues throughout the movie in everything from the breaking of the fourth wall to the consistent eccentric narration from Harley. 

The film’s odd and exciting energy that is so prominent in its titular character best reveals itself in Harley’s fight sequences, one of which is filled with confetti bombs and cotton-candy colored smoke, and another of which is set in a carnival attraction filled with bizarre features and trippy diversions. Still, even though the movie walks the line between a parodic comedy and a superhero drama, it most definitely cleverly manages to keep one foot on either side, never finding itself pushing the boundaries of eccentricity or idiosyncrasy too far.

Not only does the movie encapsulate Harley’s personality overall, but it also excels at building the often sexualized and monotone character into a much more complex and exposited one. We are shown a new side of Harley, a vulnerable and loving side, as the movie digs deep into her need to find herself and her independence, while at the same time making some of the first true friends she has ever had. The movie also portrays Harley in all the glory she deserves, reminding the audience that she has a PhD, is an incredible fighter, and is far, far more than a sexy body (which is a big improvement from Suicide Squad’s tight-shirt-booty-shorts broad). The film even allows Harley to develop on her own, without a lover and without even showing the Joker’s face a single time throughout the film. 

Within the rare genre that is female-based superhero movies, the presence of an independent woman is even rarer, films giving all of the oversexualized leads a boyfriend to run to; the Wonder Woman franchise even brought back the love interest after he died, though wouldn’t it have been nice to see her be strong and incredible all on her own? Well, that’s what this movie offers: a powerful, strong minded, and bold superheroine who doesn’t need any man. From an early scene that shows her cutting hair while crying to the ending scene where she has finally built herself into a self-made woman, the movie develops Harley into one of the most honest and interesting anti-heroes ever to grace the big screen.

The presence of strong women doesn’t end there, though. Not even close. The film offers a respite from the monotonous routine of runway-ready, sexy, white, and young actresses that seem to play the majority of women in all superhero movies, giving us a diverse and realistic looking female cast. In fact, the lead actresses in the film have incredibly diverse ethnicities and race, including Filipino, Korean, Puerto Rican, African American, Jewish, Chinese, and Vietnamese. The cast also ranges in age quite a bit, Basco at 13 and Perez at 56 at the time of filming, with the rest of the cast clocking in at somewhere around 35. Additionally, the actresses fit the supermodel physique and flawless face at varying levels, few getting near the incredibly high standard set by other superheroines, most of the others even being actual models.

This diversity isn’t just an interesting addition to the movie, it proves to be the backbone that holds up the women empowerment message of the film by allowing all girls to relate to it. The film shows all women, from young girls who never get to see kids like them be the hero to old ladies who have grown up being told that they can’t be as powerful or important as men, that they can be heroes. That they can be just as clever as Batman and just as forceful as Superman, regardless of the chromosomes that they have. 

However, even though the casting supports the film outstandingly, the writing is another story. Written by Christina Hodson, a relatively new player in the game with only four published credits as of now, the movie’s script is the most lack-luster aspect of the film. While the dialogue itself is rather good, Harley’s sassy and clever comments most definitely aren’t the only lines that pack punches during the movie. The character development of the villain Roman and the ideas behind some scenes leave you wanting more. 

When it comes to Roman, the character has solid roots: a spoiled and childlike man with huge anger issues. That can be worked with. But it wasn’t. Roman was left as a half-baked character — committing heinous and grotesque acts that feel more awkward and out of place than scary and suspenseful, having no clear and developed motivation for his actions, and giving no explanation for his revealed alter ego. What should’ve been an intriguing and insane foe worthy of facing Harley Quinn turned into an erratic villain that seems to switch personalities from scene to scene.

Outside of creating a well-developed villain, the script’s other failures present themselves quite clearly in the plot of some scenes. The most memorable example of this appears a little over halfway through the film, when Roman decides to make a woman take her dress off in what is by far the most uncomfortable scene in the movie. The discomfort isn’t the problem, though. The problem is how strange and out of left field it was — a side of Roman that wasn’t shown before appearing out of nowhere to seemingly commit a random, creepy act that plays no real part in the movie. The scene seems to exist as a remnant of a more developed Roman, a character that has motivation and explanations — but without a coherent villain, the scene feels more like a last-minute edgy inclusion than a genuine part of the film. There is only one other scene in the movie that does this: an unexpected and unexplained musical number. However, the two scenes’ combined 10 or so minutes of screen time definitely detracts from the rest of the film.

The film shows all women, from young girls who never get to see kids like them be the hero to old ladies who have grown up being told that they can’t be as powerful or important as men, that they be heroes.

What the movie lacks in writing, though, it by far makes up for in acting, as the excellent cast brings every bit of heaviness and humor out of the characters and their interactions. Rosie Perez excels in her role as a detective, very much so playing into the stereotypical movie cop idea and giving her character all the satire and strength she deserves. Mary Winstead manages to make the Huntress shine in all her spitefulness and awkwardness, even in her low amount of talking time. And Jurnee Smollett … Well, she goes above and beyond in her role as Black Canary — not just in the character itself but in the amount of talent she brings as she performs a song in the film that is so good, it’s hard to believe she’s really the one singing.

Even though the whole cast has a lot to offer, the best acting most definitely comes from Roman and Harley. Both of them manage to take the idea of a character from comics and the script and encapsulate into authentic and emotional performances. As he plays Roman, Ewan McGregor expertly portrays the erratic and unhinged villain in such a way that salvages some of the damage done by the script. McGregor manages to make your skin crawl from the very moment he appears on the screen, pushing the boundaries of his character even with little to work with. 

The other main top-notch acting of the film comes from the protagonist herself: the great Harley Quinn. When it comes to Margot Robbie, her incredible performance makes sure to keep her character front and center for the entire film (her name is in the title after all). Just like in Suicide Squad, Robbie captures her character’s essence in a way few people are able to do, getting into character so much that it feels like she may actually be Harley. From her onpoint accent to her tear-jerking, well, tears, her comedic sandwich obsession to her crazy-eyed smile, Robbie manages to give you everything you could ever want from Harley Quinn and more.

Birds of Prey is an excellent watch and a must-see for those seeking respite from the monotony of typical superhero movies. The movie’s overall energy and tone make it a delightful watch, while the top notch acting and soundtrack bring out the depth of emotion and life from the film. Sure, there are a few hiccups, big hiccups even, but these missteps still pale in comparison to all the laughs and excitement that the film offers. So, grab some popcorn and enjoy the gem that is Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is rated R.

Rebecca Anderson is a staff writer for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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