Director Cathy Yan made her debut into big-budget filmmaking in a stunning way with “Birds of Prey,” the latest film in the DC Extended Universe. The film, which stars Margot Robbie as Batman villain Harley Quinn, rehabilitates the character into a fun and relatable foil who is able to be sexy without being sexualized in a captivating and colorful presentation.
Harley Quinn’s appearance in David Ayer’s 2016 film “Suicide Squad” was the peak the male fantasy: she is overly sexual, has tattoos all over her body that reference her “belonging” to her boyfriend, the Joker, and a literal collar with his nickname on it around her neck. “Suicide Squad”’s Harley is an inherently detrimental character, only important in the film so long as she is wearing high heels, booty shorts and a ripped t-shirt. She functions more as a glorified sidekick obsessed with her boyfriend and never offering anything particularly interesting outside of that relationship, a one-sided character that offers nothing more than sexual appeal to the film.
“Birds of Prey” flips this character on its head. We see Harley cut her hair, draw over her tattoos and distance herself from her pitiful excuse of a boyfriend. Robbie shines in this role with a vigor that “Suicide Squad” never quite captured. The movie is Harley’s fantasy world, and, for an hour and fifty minutes, the audience is just living in it.
Opening with a cartoon sequence in which Harley explains her past to the audience, the first of many fourth-wall breaks, the movie sets its playful tone immediately. “Birds of Prey” is irreverently funny, charming and colorful — colorful in language, colorful in acts of violence and visually bright. The film’s premise of saving a young girl from a crime lord is fairly simple and straightforward, but its presentation in a glittery pink and purple package is what makes it so wonderful. It is a departure from basic superhero films that provides a breath of fresh air into the genre which is quickly becoming stale.
In line with DCEU’s 2019 film, “Shazam!,” “Birds of Prey” is cheerful, witty and does not take itself too seriously. The film also has just enough of the realism that the DCEU tends to favor: the characters get knocked down and have trouble getting back up, and each bullet or arrow is counted and treated as actual ammunition, with infinite ammo never being a possibility. Even more interestingly, superpowers are barely mentioned in “Birds of Prey.” Instead, the power that these women have is their cunning and whatever fighting discipline they know.
Each of the female characters in the film is tough without needing superpowers, further reflecting the realism the film attempts to evoke. Their talents are not despite their femaleness, but because of it. Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) can fight because she works at a club and does not want to be taken advantage of, and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is a police officer who can box and fight because of her job. The only character who is skilled in multiple fighting skills is Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), which is explained due to her role as a trained assassin aiming to avenge the death of her family.
Each character’s presentation of femininity isn’t identical to one another, in a way that encourages their individuality and fitness. By celebrating womanhood through each of these characters and the bonds they forge over that womanhood, Cathy Yan achieves what every other superhero film cannot by offering a distinct viewpoint on women superheroes.
This celebration of strong women goes even further than what’s on the screen. The soundtrack to “Birds of Prey” displays this same sense of unapologetic femininity that the film does. Featuring tracks from the likes of Doja Cat, Normani, Megan Thee Stallion and Saweetie, the soundtrack blends rap, pop and R&B into a cohesive blend of songs that suits the film perfectly.
With all of these ideas coming together beautifully, “Birds of Prey”’ is a sparkling big-budget debut for Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson. The film functions as a welcome change of pace that offers more in the way of feminine power for the traditional superhero film format while also forming itself into a delightful film in its own right.