Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), a recap (part 1 of 5)
It was perhaps inevitable that the 2020 female-centric superhero movie Birds of Prey: Harley Quinn’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day would become the subject of several rich and pungent threads of Film Discourse. A lot of this discourse took on sociopolitical import, because one of the side effects of neoliberal cultural atomization is the reduction of personal politics into a body of pop culture fandoms. To avoid ruffling any political feathers so early on in the recap, I’m going to do some good old South Park-style “both sides are dumb and should shut up”, a strategy which never fails.
The most enduring discourse centers on the movie’s box office performance. The movie came out on February 7th and got a good month in before the coronavirus outbreak, climbing to $204 million at the worldwide box office, making a mere two and a half times its budget back. (Harley’s silver-screen debut, the execrable Suicide Squad, made nearly four times that amount.) The movie’s perceived underperformance revived a trend I began noticing late last year after the latest Little Women adaptation failed to break any box office records. A flurry of thinkpieces and Twitter threads from culture pundits placed blame for its “failure” (Little Women grossed $200 million, got nominated for six Oscars, and won one) on shitty sexist men who were actively sabotaging it by… not buying a ticket? As a man who couldn’t really spare $13.50 and was waiting to catch the movie on Redbox, I was surprised to learn I was opening myself up to cancellation for doing so.
The “Little Women” problem with men is very real. I don’t say that lightly and am very alarmed.
In the past day have been told by 3 male friends who usually trust me that they either refuse to see it or probably won’t have time. Despite my saying it’s tied for #1 of 2019.
— Janet Maslin (@JanetMaslin) December 21, 2019
Pretty much the same sort of fetish developed around the box office take of Birds of Prey: The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel. The sorts of dudes who still tweet at Zoe Quinn in 2020 were all a-gloat, saying the reason that the movie flopped was consumers rejecting the movie’s hyper-woke Ess Jay Double Yew activism. The way they talked, you’d think the whole movie was just Margot Robbie catfishing lonely men and bothering poor white families during church. The other side usually shot back by making fun of those men for thinking every single movie had to be about (and for) them in order to matter—a sound and true argument, but a sort of weird one to make in this context, since why would you be upset that the movie’s not doing fantastic at the box office if you concede that it was made to appeal to one gender in particular?
As was the case with Little Women, both of these are mildly insane arguments to make about a movie that was, by any objective measure, a hit, but at least in this case we can concede that by the standards of a DCEU movie, Birds of Prey: Harley Harley Bo Barley Banana Fana Fo Farley did underperform somewhat. Is it a stretch to say that sexism is part of the reason why? Well, no, it’s not a stretch at all. We know this for sure, in fact, because we have a a control group: Deadpool.
Harley Quinn, at least in her filmic incarnation, is Deadpool with a vagina who works for DC. Deadpool’s movie, like Harley’s, debuted in February, a traditionally dead month at the box office, and was rated R, also like Harley’s, which at the time no superhero movie ever had been. And what’s Deadpool’s most identifiable characteristic? He’s annoying. Really annoying. He’ll tell you so himself. I know a lot of dudes who aren’t going to want to hear this, but you know that screwdriver-to-the-temple feeling you got during the trailer for Birds of Prey: The Jubjub Tree and the Frumious Bandersnatch when Harley let loose with her interminable voiceover reading a bunch of girlboss memes in a phony Noo Yawk bray? That’s how your girlfriend quite likely feels when Ryan Reynolds narrows his blank CGI eyes impishly and says something like “Clap these cheeks, doodlemuffin.”
And Harley’s annoying in pretty much exactly the same way Deadpool is. Both characters are just a costume thrown over a glob of cartoony slapstick, swears, metahumor, and Hot-Topic-T-shirt-level zingers. Why, then, did Deadpool make all of the money, but Birds of Prey: Hornswogglers and Snozzwanglers and Whangdoodles made only some? Timing, for one thing, but mostly the fact that women characters are held to a much lower standard of obnoxiousness. Deadpool’s obnoxiousness comes off as an irreverent breath of fresh air in a glutted genre, whereas Harley’s is evidence of that glut. Everyone’s going to find his shtick entertaining for a lot longer than hers, and no one’s ever going to complain that Deadpool’s an impossibly shallow character heavy on attitude who “wants nothing”, as Mick LaSalle did to Harley in a scathing review. Credibility, it seems, is stored in the balls.
But I think it would be a mistake to lay the whole blame on sexism when we’re well into our second decade of Superhero Glut and the most that Birds of Prey: Wow I’m Really Committing to This Bit Aren’t I is offering is “a DCEU movie, except somewhat entertaining”. Another way Deadpool is similar to Birds of Prey: The Bar-ba-loot Suits Eating Truffula Fruits is in the way both movies promised a fresh, different take on the stale superhero genre, and then proceeded to tell one of those exact same stories, except with butt and drug jokes. If you’re looking for a truly subversive superhero movie, there’s James Gunn’s excellent Super. There’s the flawed and emotionally sterile but ambitious Watchmen. Even the balder, less self-conscious form of tastelessness on display in Venom is, to me, a more compelling counter-vision to the prevailing idea of the superhero blockbuster than Birds of Prey: Wubba Lubba Dub Dub can provide.
To be fair, the action setpieces in this movie are gorgeous, it’s bursting with style, and it’s the first DCEU movie to give me one of those, whaddayacallem, feelings. To be fairer, a superhero movie that merely doesn’t suck isn’t worthy of the kind of fervent stanning where you blame a massive woman-hating conspiracy for the movie only being moderately successful. It would be like if, say, we had a candidate for president, one who was basically the living embodiment of the big-money political establishment that everybody was getting sick of, one who didn’t really offer much that was new, but this candidate was a woman, and you campaigned hard on her status as a historic first, and you got so wrapped up in that idea that when she narrowly failed, you didn’t try to figure out why, but just scolded the voters for their backwardness and ascribed sexism to anyone who questioned the power of “representation” as a cure-all for deep systemic flaws. Did I maybe stray into ruffled-feather territory there? Whatever. This intro’s a thousand words and counting. Let’s get on with the damn thing.
The movie’s intro is animated in the style of a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, and it has a lot of grating voiceover from Robbie up front to desensitize your ears to the grating voiceover you’ll be hearing later. Harley, born Harleen Quinzel, is talking about how she grew up in a strict Catholic orphanage after her drunken father abandoned her.
Despite her deep-seated rage and her problems with authority figures, she excels academically and gets a PhD in Brainiology, becoming a psychiatrist (a profession which requires an MD, not a PhD). A slot machine spits out pictures of all the people who broke Harley’s heart before she met the Joker, including one woman, because all mentally unstable women are bisexual, you see.
The animated Harley gets into her popular outfit and dances a jiggly little jig for our amusement, talking about how she was the brains behind some of Joker’s best schemes, but never got any credit. So they broke up. The movie doesn’t go far into why exactly Joker and Harley broke up, which is an excellent judgment call.
Cut to the live-action footage, where thanks to the fresh female perspective of screenwriter Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yan, the movie can depict the realistic consequences of a woman in an abusive relationship being dropped to the curb with no visible means of support, such as
having her character defamed going back to her abusive family jumping into another abusive relationship having to stay at a shelter getting blackballed from jobs getting involved in dangerous sex work attempting suicide renting a room above a Taiwanese restaurant, gorging Cheez Whiz, and giving herself a bunch of stick’n’poke tattoos about her “Pudding Cup”.
Despite having no money, Harley gets involved in roller derby, a sport with a rather steep initial investment. She also gets a hyena, and it’s implied she blew a guy to get it, but still, feeding a hyena must cost a fair bit. “I had to find myself a new identity, a new me,” she says in voiceover while cutting her hair in a mirror, propping up my pet theory that 90% of all movie voiceover is bad and unnecessary.
As part of her new-girl-about-town montage, Harley gets wasted at a nightclub owned by the ambiguously gay crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). She dances on a table and throws her drink in the air, sprinkling a man seated close by. Sharp-eyed dorks will recognize this man as Daniel Bernhardt, Swiss martial artist and star of Future War, one of the most popular Mystery Science Theater 3000 movies of the Sci-Fi Channel era. He calls Harley a dumb slut. Harley responds in kind by jumping on his legs and breaking them.
Sionis drops by to inform Harley that that man was his personal chauffeur, but since nobody knows Joker and Harley are broken up yet, Harley doesn’t get shot through the eye for this. This is in fact how Harley usually avoids getting shot for all the criminal mischief she does to dangerous people. As I said, nobody knows they’re broken up, except for Harley’s roller derby teammates, whom she told, despite the danger, solely so she can have a scene where she comes back from fetching drinks to overhear her friends gossiping about how she’ll run back to Joker the first chance she gets.
Needing a way to prove to the world she’s done with Joker for good, Harley hijacks a gas truck and drives it into the chemical plant where she got clown-spooged in Suicide Squad, throwing her bejeweled “J” necklace out the window. For some reason, this chemical plant is full of fireworks, and Harley walks away from the explosion (in a way that evokes Heath Ledger’s Joker walking away from the exploding hospital in The Dark Knight) as pink and green and blue smoke bombs pop and bottle rockets whiz.
“But I wasn’t the only dame in Gotham looking for emancipation,” she says. “This is our story. But I’m telling it, so I’ll start where I fuckin’ want.” So she does.
Next week on Birds of Prey: The Cool and Good Title of Entirely Appropriate Length That Won’t Ever Get Changed After the Movie’s Already Out: We meet the other Birds (only one of whom is named after a bird) and watch the plot kick into gear, then stop, then back up, then go again.