Story Pile: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

I guess up front there’s a sort of standard outlay of nerd stuff that I need to lay out here, because it’s never enough to just talk about a movie. On the one hand I find the task a little tiresome like there are some movies that get special disclaimers and clauses because heaven forfend I don’t show appropriate deference to a movie and be deemed as having, I don’t know, ‘wrong’ opinions? Because how can I say ‘I don’t want to watch Joker’ if I haven’t seen it?

Anyway, I suppose out of the box, some token criticism for this movie; there’s a line I think that didn’t quite land.


I mean I think that’s it?

Look, I think it’s reasonable for me to have had very little opinion of films in movie theatres in 2020. That year was one where Sonic The Hedgehog was going to be one of the top grossing movies of the year just because it was one of the last few ones to come out while there was a pandemic happening. Birds of Prey happened, there was some discourse around it, mostly in the way that it was framed by press, and then it vanished beneath the waves, forgotten. I had personally checked out on it – not any particular malice or dismissal, I just wasn’t very interested. I mean, I have come to the base assumption that any given live-action DC movie is going to be pretty bad, and that’s a pattern that’s borne out across two of the worst films with Batman in them ever made and two of the worst Superman films ever made.

This isn’t to say that the MCU has been in any way a perfect arrangement. I after all, never watched Endgame, and probably won’t until I get really bored, and when pushed to think about what’s ‘in’ the MCU that I care about, it comes down to Thor Ragnarok, the Ant-Man movies, Captain Marvel and Black Panther, which maybe could be defined as ‘the bits of the MCU that Tony Stark didn’t rub his balls on,’ which wasn’t actually intentional, but hey, fuck billionaires.

Anyway, I didn’t go into this movie with any expectation at all, and was pleasantly surprised.

Rather than run through the plot, per se, I’m just going to talk about some stuff in the movie that I liked. As a byproduct, this is going to kind of follow the plot beats of the movie, because we arrange information in a temporal fashion.

So like, this is a movie representation of a batch of characters with names I recognise, and you use those names to say ‘hey, this character is going to anchor in that space, and they’re going to be like this thing that you already know.’ Right? When they showed me Spider-Man in Civil War, I didn’t need a DNA proof that this wasn’t really actually some Ben Reilly stuff – the movie uses the names to represent template points and give me a structure to hope for, but still presents their own versions of them.

With that in mind, there’s a handful of names that this movie brought up: Renee Montoya, Huntress, Cassandra Cain, Harley Quinn and Zsasz were the big highlights for me.

Harley Quinn kind of deserves a treatment I can’t give her. Look, Margot Robbie is an actress extremely good at being Glamorously Hot. I’ve seen her in movies like The Big Short and The Wolf Of Wall Street. I’ve also seen her in Suicide Squad, where her Harley had, let’s say, a look.

I am long of the opinion that Harley Quinn serves as a sort of litmus test. You can tell, based on Harley Quinn fandom, the gateway form of juggalo, who amongst you is Down To Clown. That is, it feels overwhelmingly, to me, that Harley Quinn has, for an enormous part of her history, been a fetish object and not a person. Now oh, you may hear me say that and think ‘Whaaat? But Bruce Timm has such a sensible relationship to women in media,’ and I say, yes, yes, I know, but something about her has always felt like the overlap of ‘dollfucker’ and ‘clownfucker’ for me, and her being fleshed out more and developed, while great, never really got away from the way the character felt like she was being written to justify having the horny clown around.

I didn’t get that vibe here.

Oh, I’m not saying ‘those are fetishising experiences and this one is a good one,’ because I haven’t seen all the Harley Quinn media that exists, and it’s also, that’s really reductivist. Of the Harley Quinn media I have seen, though, this is the first time where I feel like she has something of an inner life of her own, and that is interesting.

And she’s trash.

It’s great! And part of what makes it great is the way she makes all these aesthetic and functional choices that express opinions about how things should be. She shows up to a cop store with a big sparkly gun that fires knockout charges full of glitter, because that’s the way she would do it. She’s great.

Cassandra Cain is like, I kind of feel like I shouldn’t like her? But I do? To me, my favourite Cassandra Cain is the ballbearing in a washing machine, the focused, unvoiced, overwhelming threat of violence in bat-suit form that we had for a while there. I get why she evolved away from that – you do want a character to have dialogue and exchanges with people, though I think she should have gone with sign language you cowards. This Cassandra Cain is pretty much the exact polar opposite of this, but the thing is, what do we lose in that? Are there stories about the violence elemental we can’t have with this Cain? Some, yeah – like we can’t have that moment where Batman point-blank admits ‘no, I am not going to let her down, because she would beat my ass.’ But there’s a lot of other stuff she does, and this Cassandra can grow into interesting roles without that traumatic beginning.

Look, the actress for Cassandra Cain here is fourteen. If this movie becomes part of The Project, there may be one or two movies’ time – or less, really – in which she can come back and be the acidic, biting, threatening part of a relationship tangle with a Robin or a Nightwing, and that, coming from ‘street girl who came at things through Harley Quinn rather than Batman’ is extremely interesting to me. This actress isn’t going to be the puckish rogue for much longer, so whatever comes next is going to be different – I hope, assuming this movie gets followups.

Huntress’ entire affect is both extremely funny, and extremely in keeping with the way a literal murder badass like her looks standing side by side with Harley Quinn. She’s a fundamentally ridiculous, energetic joke of a character, and rather than go with the costume look that contrasts her with Batman, this Huntress is instead extremely serious to contrast her with Harley. That seriousness then gets to be a source of comedy, and then they show her having care and attention for people around her. That’s great.

Zsasz is one of Batman’s rogues’ gallery that seems to piss off fanboys when he’s ‘done wrong,’ which is interesting to me – you do get that he’s Edgy Riddler, right? He’s a criminal who is, thanks to his gimmick, slightly easier to catch. For me, the ideal Zsasz is, whether legitimately threatening or just a tutorial mission character, the guy who sucks, and oh boy does this Zsasz suck. He thinks he’s central to a much more dangerous, much more serious movie, a movie like Kick-Ass where the costumed fools die in the opening for being too silly. I also love the way they handle his exit from the movie, where the movie very clearly says ‘no, we aren’t going to use this character again.’

Renee Montoya is great. She’s this older character – and like, what is she, fifty? So she’s thirty years younger than Batman Beyond’s Ebenezer Scrooge Wayne? One thing I love is how her pain tolerance is treated as higher because she’s slightly soused the whole time, too. But yeah, this character has this great vibe on her path to (I hope) becoming the Question – bitter, surly, and old school cop speakin’? She also serves as part of the joinery that holds the movie together – by pursuing Black Mask, the other characters become part of her goals, then they become instumental to her survival, then they become her compatriots.

I love how well this movie handles cops? Like, the cops in this movie are largely, corrupt, feckless, stupid assholes, working a kind of theatric job position where they’re always caught flat-footed, always late, and easily flummoxed by a confrontation with power. That is, they work exactly how you’d expect an immensely corrupt precinct of cops on the take to  behave when they encounter resistance. There’s bookkeeping and checking in, but broadly speaking, Harley Quinn can raid a cop shop entirely based around the fact that these cops have no idea how to fight. They’re slow reacting, slow witted, and their collection of ‘crooks’ in the cells are lone, individual goons in a city with a massive organised crime problem.

Lots of great stuff  to enjoy in this movie. A real splashy plot, a sort of caper-collapse, lots of fun, a villain you want to see lose, great jokes and a satisfying conclusion.

And yet I saw lots of people who want to temper their praise for this movie with a sort of ‘well, it’s great, but.’ Or ‘It’s fun, but.’ Or ‘I wouldn’t say it’s a good movie, but,’

And I don’t want to say all these complaints are misogynistic, though make no mistake, the fact that this movie gets held to a strangely higher standard than, say, the foot thick aestheticathon fash power fantasy of plot holes called Dark Knight that we legitimately said deserved an oscar back in the day, that sure has a root in misogyny. The thing is, though, when people complain about it being not a ‘good’ movie, or the like, what they’re tacitly doing is saying that in their minds, they have an idea of what a good movie is, and can somehow feel that this movie doesn’t quite match up to that enough.

And that’s strange.

What, exactly, should this movie look like?

What, exactly, do you think this movie should be like, considering how completely alien in form it is to everything else? Do you think the movie has the weird structure it does, with the timing and continuity jokes, the jumping around to backwards revelations, the weird costume changes and the poop jokes, because they didn’t choose to do things this way? Do you think they ran out of movie bits, and had to cobble together what they had? Don’t get me wrong, the way that social media has made everyone into a Film Industry Insider means that we do think of movies as being made this way, but we don’t actually know that, and we certainly don’t know that about this movie…

And furthermore, who cares?

In the end, the complaints I’ve heard about specific ‘problems’ in this movie are often demanding we get to see more proof that characters are capable of doing the things we see them do. Why can Renee Montoya get beaten up and climb her way up supporting her own weight? How does Harley change into roller skates? How did she know how to find Cassandra Cain? How is Cassandra Cain such a good pickpocket? All these questions people use to justify criticising this movie when the movie shows you how. They show you by the characters doing these things.

In a lot of masc-coded media, men don’t have their abilities justified; they have them revealed. Strangely, though, when you look at media in the other direction, with primarily feminine protagonists, the alternative becomes the problem. How do you justify those abilities?

Hey, remember that bit in Dark Knight, when Bruce jumps out of his own dinner party and just leaves Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy in his room with the Joker? No?

Of course you fuckin’ don’t!

Because it didn’t fuckin’ matter!