Behold ladyrage given full candy-colored, sparkle-sprinkled voice. With a side of hangover-killing egg-bacon-and-cheese sandwich. Mmmm, so good and greasy and glittery is Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. So delicious. (But yeah, no: that title is as unwieldy as stiletto heels, and must die.)
I mean, for real, as bone-deep satisfying as it is to see a wronged woman blow up some urban infrastructure as a response to being dumped by the official Worst Boyfriend Ever (that would be The Joker, Batman’s nemesis, for the comic-book uninitiated) and to fuck up some random asshole dudes in bone-crunching ways for misunderestimating her, it is equally gratifying to behold a woman onscreen reveling in the glory that is junk food. Okay, sure, Margot Robbie’s (Mary Queen of Scots , Slaughterhouse Rulez) Harley Quinn may be unreasonably slender, given her diet of fried sandwiches and sugary breakfast cereals and alcohol and spray-can cheese, and will hence never be subjected to shaming for her poor food choices like we mere-mortal, realistically chubby junk-food-gobbling women frequently are. But this is a fantasy, is it not?
Ah, and there’s the rub. There’s the thing that distinguishes Birds of Prey from, say last year’s Joker. This movie could not be more fantastical, what with its depiction of not one, not two, not three, but four women who resort to outrageously violent sprees the likes of which we never actually see in the real world from women in response to the accumulated and very real slights the world heaps upon us. Because we wouldn’t do that — that would be wrong. (Women hurting most often turn on ourselves. Which is bad, but at least we don’t have a body count.) So Birds of Prey makes women lashing out in big loud aggressive ways an ironically comical spectacle: Haha, isn’t this delightfully absurd? Unlike Joker, which attempts to make us feel sympathetic toward a man committing very realistic crimes the likes of which men commit all the time in response to dissing no more and no less humiliating than the ones women swallow on a regular basis while also somehow managing to refrain from homicidal rampages.
Why, it’s almost as if the gleeful psychedelic anarchic nonsense of Birds of Prey, celebrating with exuberant visual merriness women who are OFFICIALLY DONE WITH MEN’S BULLSHIT, were a satirical sendup of gloomy male-centered pomposity in ways beyond the one that has to do with superhero movies.
Director Cathy Yan comes kinda outta nowhere with this bonbon of feminist fury. Bird of Prey is only her second feature, which is difficult to believe; she juggles a lot of disparate and contradictory elements not just successfully but with an easy self-assurance, marrying playfulness and violence — hello, glitter bullets! — and snark with underlying seriousness. This is kidding-not-kidding on celluloid. (Yan’s first film, dramedy Dead Pigs, got only a tiny release in China in 2018, and I demand now to see it immediately.) The script is by Christina Hodson, who wrote the unexpectedly charming Transformers movie Bumblebee. Let women tell women’s stories! It’s not difficult, Hollywood, and it leads to Margot Robbie being allowed to indulge her wonderful screwball sensibilities while whacking male jerks who desperately deserve it. Anyone who loves these kinds of movies but says they don’t need to see this particular one is lying, or a misogynist pig who is admitting that he is unable to empathize with women’s power fantasies even after all these decades of women being expected to empathize with men’s power fantasies… and actually mostly managing to do just that. Birds of Prey is asking for nothing except that men try to do what women have been doing all along. It’s really not that difficult.
The story here? The actual plot? As much beside the point as that of many male-centered comic-book stories. In a Gotham that is a cross between New York and Los Angeles, everyone is chasing a macguffin in the form of a diamond that no one except the bad guy, Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor [Doctor Sleep, Beauty and the Beast], fully vamping it up), really cares about. (That’s another swipe at the things that our culture tells us women are supposed to care about, and mostly we don’t.) There is the never-not-badass Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Gemini Man, All About Nina) as The Huntress, who is out for vengeance for entirely other reasons. And the never-not-badass Rosie Perez (Pitch Perfect 2, The Counsellor) as GPD cop Renee Montoya, who has had it Up To Here with being dismissed by her male colleagues. And the new-to-badassery (after a long TV career) Jurnee Smollett-Bell (The Great Debaters, Gridiron Gang) as Black Canary, who was going unappreciated working for Roman. (There’s also rising badass Ella Jay Basco as a teenage girl who needs their protection: she’s caught up with the macguffin to the point where she’s a bit of a macguffin herself.) You don’t need to be steeped in the DC Comics mythos to understand them or why they might eventually join up with Harley to express their rage at the patriarchy that barely even sees them, never mind being able to recognize their brains and their talents.
Every pathetic little manbaby who is going to dismiss this movie? I hope they understand how much it is to their benefit that it is fantasy.