Ever since Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, there has been an over-used phrase when talking about heroes, superheroes and pop culture in general. The phrase being “ It not the [blank] we need, but the one we deserve.” This phrase has been chewed over for so long and taken so far out of context, that it has come to mean nothing. However, in regards to Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn, Director Cathy Yan, writer Cristina Hodson and Producer/Star Margot Robbie break the boundaries of the (recently) conventional superpowered team up films to bring us an LSD flavored enthusiastically energetic empowerment (wo)manifesto. It is a film which rides the established line between Schumacher’s campy Neon filtered Gotham and the bone breakingly dower gritty realism of the Nolan films. At the same time, the film marks a shift for both DC franchise filmmaking and acts as the opening volley for the continuation of increased female participation behind the scenes in this genre. This is the film we need, but it’s so good, I am not sure it is one we deserve.
After breaking up with The Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) watches the immunity she had from the criminal underworld and police evaporate as everyone on both sides look to settle scores with her. To protect herself, she strikes a deal with Roman Sionis (Ewan McGreggor) to find Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) a young pickpocket who just stole a diamond from him. Meanwhile, Det. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is building a criminal case against Sionis and has planted Dinah Lance (Jurnee-Smolett Bell) in his employ to find evidence of the stolen diamond. Tensions are raised when Sionis’ men start to end up dead due to a masked Vigilante (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Dinah Lance’s cover is blown exposing Montoya’s operation. The only solution is for all parties to band together against Sionis and his army in order to survive.
In order to truly appreciate this film (including its badass title), we need to understand the journey of its characters both for Harley Quinn (not traditionally a part of the Birds of Prey) and the Birds of Prey themselves. Additionally, by looking at the character development (or lack thereof), the fraught production history and depiction of these characters in the comics over the years we can come to appreciate the perfect gem of a film this is, and how we (may not) get it again.
Created by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini for the seminal Batman The Animated Series Harleen Frances Quinzel was introduced as a Joker side-kick in the early 1990’s. Originally intended as a side character with minimal dialogue, her creation was inspired by a dream sequence on the show “Days of our Lives” in which the original Harley voice actress (Arleen Sorkin) appeared in a jester costume.
After appearing in a handful of episodes Harley Quinn’s backstory was finally fleshed out in the 1994 graphic Novel The Batman Adventures: Mad Love . This is where we learn that Harley Quinn was once Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum who is manipulated and abused by the Joker until she has a psychotic break and develops a toxic, codependent, and violent relationship with The Joker. For a while, wherever the Joker was in the comics or in the animated series, Harley would be there too. Joker and Harley seemed like an inseparable pair. However, as the series began to run in syndication Harley’s popularity continued to grow.
That popularity eventually culminated in the character of Harley jumping over to the comics. A feat that is rarely achieved especially for a character with the longevity of Quinn. Since her debut in DC comics in 2000, it could be argued that Harley Quinn’s popularity has exceeded her paramour ‘Puddin’. She has had a monthly comic since 2001 and she is regularly featured in several other “team” books namely The Suicide Squad, The Secret Six, Gotham City Sirens and Birds of Prey. According to Abraham Reisman (2016) Harley Quinn’s regular monthly title is only outsold by two characters: Batman and Superman Comics artist legend Jim lee is quoted in saying that Harley Quinn is the fourth Pillar of the DC Comics Industry behind Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Unfortunately, this popularity is not without its drawbacks.
Since the comics has been an artform, female characters in comics have been unnecessarily sexualized and objectified. Starting with the smokingly sultry “feme fatale” of the 1930’s detective fiction, to the disproportional and scantily clad images of females that we see in a lot of mainstream comics today; women in the comics medium have been used as props, and reader bait. Often times these images pose women’s bodies in positions that are not humanly possible often referred to as “The Broke Back Pose”
For Harley Quinn, the minute she crossed over into the comics she was hyper sexualized. That sexualization was either more intense or abated depending on who was writing and drawing her. Some male comics authors even feel compelled to bring the Joker and Harley back together in order to play out some misogynistic fantasies (more on this later). The problematic depictions of Harley culminated in "Break into comics with Harley Quinn! A DC comics fan contest to draw Harley Quinn in four scenarios of suicide; one of which was to depict her naked in the bathtub about to electrocute herself. At the time, it was close to the National Suicide Prevention week and thus drew the ire from many fans and news outlets. The art in question was never released for publication.
The Birds of Prey team has been in existence since 1996. Originally created by Chuck Dixon but brought into fame, fortune and fandom by comic Goddess Gail Simone The Birds of Prey originally consisted of a Post “Killing Joke” Barbara Gordan who was depicted as a paraplegic genius tech guru calling herself Oracle, Dinah Lance (Black Canary) and Helena Bertinelli (Huntress). Oracle would be the overseer and mission lead, while both Black Canary and Huntress were field agents. The personalities and motivations of each of these characters created a balance on the team. This was one of the first comics in DC to show dynamic female personalities together without a main male character. Unfortunately, once Simone was off the book, the title was eventually cancelled in 2009. However, over the many reboots and comic event relaunches (New 52, Rebirth) The Birds of Prey have always come back. While they may never reach the heights of popularity under Simone, the Birds of Prey is always a well on which to draw.
On the set of David Ayer’s abysmal Suicide Squad (2016) Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn) had the idea for an all-female superhero team as a follow up. She pitched the idea to Warner Brothers (WB) in 2015 (while Suicide Squad was in post-production) as a “R-rated girl-gang film”. What followed was a four-year up hill battle against the studio due to antiquated thinking, common industry sexism and profit driven decision making.
Robbie taking on the added role of producer was only involved in one of the many products in which the WB wanted to insert Harley Quinn. For three years Robbie would continually pitch her ideas of a majority female cast and crew to the studio with little or no traction moving forward until 2018. With the securing of both Cathy Yan as director and Cristina Hodson as a writer solidified the project. Additionally, because of this the film had the most number of women behind the camera of any in the DC Universe. Thus, because this is a story about women told by women, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn does not fall into a lot of the sexist troupes and traps that many other male centered films (both in front of and behind the camera) fall into. The film’s female representation, intersectional understanding, diversity and subversion makes it a proverbial “diamond” in the rough of cinematic misogyny.
Theme 1 Representation and Intersectional diversity
There is a lot of sociological evidence that points to a correlation between representation behind the camera and authentic representation in front of the camera. Because the production was helmed by women in almost every department. The representation of women in front of the camera is nuanced and has a level of complexity and refreshing organic diversity that one has ever seen within the superhero genre.
In 2016’s Suicide Squad Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was a shell of a character. This Harley was still in the cycle of abuse with her domestic perpetrator “Mr. J”. Additionally, since the film written and directed by David Ayer, someone who is not known for his sensitivity to women, this Harley is a pig tailed hot mess of a cisgendered heterosexual male fantasy. Even Robbie’s considerable talent is snuffed out with this limited interpretation. However, as Robbie gained more creative control behind the camera, Harley and all of the female characters in the next film, were no longer seen through the male gaze. Instead, we got a Harley that was more respectful to her character in the comics and animated series, as well as the simple respect for her as a woman.
“You call me dumb, I got a PhD Motherfucker!”- Harley Quinn
The separation of The Joker and Harley in Birds of Prey (BoP) is more than just a simple plot device. It allows Harley to no longer be defined by the violent toxicity of her former relationship. With that comes an independence which transforms Harley to her core. From her speech patterns, decisions, and clothing to actions, behaviors and character motivations, she is no longer looking for the approval or adulation of men. In almost every scene she is wearing pants that are functional, and hair styles that are practical. These accessories are an extension of her character and signify to the audience that this is a Harley who is standing on her own two feet.
“I am here to report a terrible crime.”- Harley Quinn
I absolutely loved Robbie’s performance and portrayal of Harley in this film. She pulls a lot of stuff from the recent comics (Rebirth and New 52) as well as honoring the costume and portrayal of the animated series. Robbie gives Harley a personality that rides the edge between Deadpool (using fourth wall breaking looks to camera with voice over) and Bugs Bunny (a lot of her antics are manic, zany and colorful). BoP’s Harley is the punk rock rainbow gender unicorn I crushed on in high school. She is someone with so much intensity and charisma you wonder how she could ever be overshadowed…until you do some basic research into domestic violence. It is sad that in the marketing for this film the subtitle of “Emancipation” has been dropped since that is what this film is for Harley. The film is a celebration of her independence, a coming out on her own terms to show the world who she is. And she’s “Harley ‘Fuckin’ Quinn!”
The Birds of Prey
While not the traditional line-up of the Birds of Prey roster, BoP’s “birds” really complement the story Yan and Hodson wanted to tell. Both Huntress and Black Canary are on the roster in the famed Gail Simone era; while the inclusion of Renee Montoya gives us the other side of the coin, showing the roadblocks police officers face in trying to do their job and how that could lead to vigilantism. The character with the greatest departure from the comics is Cassandra Cain who is decidedly not a streetwise pickpocket in the comics, but she acts as the central focus for the film’s climax; and at the film’s conclusion, you can imagine she might just transform into the ninja Batgirl we know and love.
With the inclusion of Cassandra Cain, most of the principle female characters (3/5) are women of color. If we add to this the confirmed Queerness of both Rene Montoya and Harley Quinn and the gay coding of Roman Sionis and Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), this is the most eclectically intersectional and diverse cast I have ever seen in the superhero genre. With any luck this will be the first in a long line of such films allowing for an increase in inclusivity that reflects the world around us. Then, perhaps we can finally retire the White Savior Trope for good; allowing women, people of color and all other marginalized groups to save themselves and be heroes in their own right.
Theme 2: Subverting The Rape Culture
The Rape Culture is a complex set of beliefs and practices that promotes sexual violence especially (but not exclusively) against women into our social norms, cultural practices, interactions and institutional processes. This has the problematic consequence of normalizing misogyny. The superhero comic book industry has always been a medium that is rife with examples of this perniciousness.
If we were to narrow this to a discussion of Harley Quinn and the Joker specifically, one could argue that any current storyline that has The Joker and Harley back together, is acting as an apologist for these forms of physical, psychological and symbolic forms of violence he often inflicts on her. Furthermore, we need to question the writer/company’s motivation for this regression. Why cause Harley to backslide after giving her such independence? One answer could be the way in which many male author’s use characters like the Joker: as a cathartic wish fulfillment fantasy. They can work out their deepest darkest depraved fictions by living vicariously through characters like the Joker so that they can indulge their Jungian “shadow self” without consequence. This is the internalized misogyny that is dangerous, because it is often invisible to the perpetrator. To them, they are just writing The Joker who is “evil”. However, these (usually male) writers never question just how often they interpret that evilness exclusively through the subjugation, violation and annihilation of women and their bodies.
To that end, Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a subversion of the rape culture in both direct and subtle ways. Directly, the main villain in Roman Sionis and his second in command Victor Zsasz, have all of the trappings of common misogynists. They are vain and egoistic, they get joy out of bringing pain to others, and see themselves as above other people; especially women. In the film, on more than one occasion, they incapacitate and threaten defenseless women. Yet, because this film is directed by a woman of color, the film never loses focus away from the female perspective. Therefore, we never see these actions as anything but monstrous. It isn’t until all of the female protagonists are unified and embrace the power of what Adrianne Rich calls “The Lesbian Existence” that these men are dispatched in a gloriously violent display of feminist karmic retribution that is very satisfying to watch.
When we look at the film more specifically, we see the ways in which a diverse group of women support each other. At several points in the film, the female characters show genuine support and admiration for each other. Whether that is when Black Canary saves Harley from a rape van full of goons, or Harley praising Huntress’s fighting prowess with a “You are so Cool!” These women affirm the personhood of each other, especially during the final act. This is illustrated brilliantly the way that each character has a moment with Cassandra, checking in with her and making sure that she is safe. After which the audience is treated to the very heartwarming scene of the group going out for tacos and complementing each other while drinking margaritas. It is divine.
As of this writing, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is not a big box office smash. There are several reasons that have been cited for this outcome; two of which are its R-Rating which for comic book films makes it difficult to make its money back (especially if the budget and the marketing costs are high); and the low international ticket sales due to the shutting down of theaters in China because of the Coronavirus. This is a shame on account of how the film industry may ultimately react. The institutionalized sexism in the movie industry has allowed many films helmed and staring diverse male characters to get a “second chance” infinitum. Meanwhile, stories that are written by and staring women and people of color, often need to be a huge success from the start in order to “justify the risk” of another film. However, it is nice to see that DC does not seem to be backing away from this film. They recently created the hashtag #ReasonsToSupportBoP That, coupled with the positive critic reviews , will hopefully allow this film to soar all the way to a proposed Gotham City Sirens sequel.
 Her most popular episodes being Harley and Ivy, Harley’s Holiday and Harlequinade
 This is a comic that is always in rotation with new writers and artists and is a part of every line up after every soft or hard relaunch
 And one of the only bright spots in that grungy twisted mess of a film.
 This means that the perception and focus of the camera is not always coming from the masculine perspective
 I was particularly excited that she was able to get the voice right
 I Squealed at the cartoon image of Poison Ivy 😊