“Never call a woman a chick. I'll accept broad, lady, woman and on occasion bitch”– Harleen Quinzel
It feels like a long time since I’ve seen a DC film at the cinema, the last one was Shazam, last spring. It seems longer. Come to think of it, it seems far longer than six months or so since Marvel's Spider-Man Far from Home was released. So, I welcome the suspiciously early release of Birds of Prey because I need my superher fix.
Why suspicious? Well, early February has for years been right in the middle of a barren release period for big blockbuster popcorn flicks. We had our big Christmas release then nothing much until the middle of spring. In recent years, this has changed, but it’s still surprising to see legitimate a potential summer blockbuster like Bad Boys for Life released in the middle of a bleak winter, along with the run of movies that the studios don’t seem to have much faith in. But hey, it gets me out of hibernation.
Birds of Prey kicks off this year’s superhero movie extravaganza – okay, not strictly superhero because other than Black Canary, none of them have super powers, and they’re not exactly heroes, more anti-heroes. I’m not sure if I can say super heroines without offending someone or other, but hell, it’s my site, I ‘m going to go for it. This is the year of the Super Heroine. Birds of Prey, the all-female team leads the charge in a release pattern that this year will see the male comic book heroes take a it easy for a while. Black Widow will follow from Marvel, then DC will release its frustratingly delayed Wonder Woman sequel that we originally should’ve seen last year.
Back to the point – Birds of Prey, back on the screen for the first time since 2002, when the combo was a short-lived TV series. Far too short, to tell the truth. That should’ve had a decent run.
The selling point of Birds of Prey from the trailers and the posters is Margot Robbie returning as Harley Quinn, the Joker’s girlfriend. Let’s do a quick bit of background. Quinn is a unique character in the DC canon because she was first introduced in the 1992 Batman Animated Series and was conceived as a throwaway walk-on character in an episode called Joker’s favour. The character became a fan favourite, quickly outgrowing her disposable status, and gaining a fab base and notoriety all her own. In the animated series, she ditched the Joker and embarked on a Thelma and Louise style crime spree with Poison Ivy. She made her debut in the comic books and was instantly embraced by the fans to the point she has her own title.
Quinn was played to absolute perfection by Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad (2016) alternating a child-like quality with a homicidal psychosis. In many ways, Harley is far more dangerous than the Joker. An intern psychiatrist assigned to Arkham Asylum; she was assigned The Joker who manipulated her to becoming his accomplice. She’s pretty much the worst case of Stockholm Syndrome. He literally drove her crazy. If ANY other actress could’ve ever played Harley to the perfection of Robbie – I’d have to point to Sheri Moon Zombie. Watch her in House of 1000 Corpses and tell me I’m wrong. (Actually, just imagine, twenty years ago a Joker/Harley movie directed by Rob Zombie, with Bill Mosley and Sherri Moon Zombie in the roles.)
As Birds of Prey begins, we learn why it has the incredibly long full title of Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn. She ditches the Joker and goes out on her own. (With the Oscar success of Joaquin Phoenix, we’ve seen the last of Jared Leto in the role, particularly as Leto is starring in the upcoming Morbius as Marvel’s “Living Vampire”. Shame, though – I enjoyed what he brought to the Joker and would’ve liked to have seen him explore it further.)
Harley soon finds out that her relationship with Joker brought her total immunity from Gotham’s underworld. Nobody would dare go near her. Now she’s alone, that immunity has gone and just about every criminal in Gotham has a bullseye on her back. Including gang boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor)
Again, I woefully underestimated McGregor. His Christopher Robin performance made me forget he was ever Obi Wan Kenobi, and his Sionis, played with an effeminate relish, made me forget he was ever Christopher Robin. Sionis, in the comics becomes Black Mask, with a (predictably) black mask permanently stuck to his face. But he never came across as effeminate in the comics. I guess it’d be a hard quality to convey in a comic book – but McGregor’s performance is absolutely perfect, and that quality absolutely rounds Sionis off. It’s like a missing piece in a bland villain who was just another gangster, albeit with a mask gimmick.
We’re also introduced to Black Canary/Diana Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer in Sionis’s nightclub who becomes his driver. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) a hardened disillusioned Gotham City cop – I wasn’t really convinced with the casting here. I couldn’t shake the impression that Perez seemed older than Montoya is to be in the comics. She appears to be at least twenty years older than the rest of the team.
The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) an expert with a crossbow, out to avenge her murdered gangster father after she survived a gang hit on her family as a child.
All of these lethal ladies are on Sionis’s hitlist, and they are ruthlessly pursued by him and his hitman/enforcer Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) who’s body is scarred by self-inflicted cuts. He awards himself one for everyone he kills. And he has killed a LOT of people.
The film follows on from Suicide Squad, only a little later. We’re still in that same universe, this isn’t a reboot or a prequel, though we do get a brief history of Harley, told by Harley itself. The scrambled state of her mind is effectively shown to us by the haphazard, back and forth way she tells her story, skipping from one thing to the next in a non linear way as she’s forgotten a detail and needs to go back, or gets side-tracked and distracted.
At its heart, this is an ultra-violent gangster story. Truth told, the Birds of Prey are basically peripheral characters, it’s Harley Quinn’s movie all the way. It might as well be called Harley Makes New Friends and that’s not a bad thing. Margot Robbie is the person we all want to see, and this is the perfect vehicle to showcase the adorably loveable kook with a homicidal streak that Robbie does SO well. Every bit as definitive a Harley Quinn as Robert Downey Jr is an Iron Man.
It’s not a film for kids, though. The language and the violence have earned this film its 15 certificate, which it wears proudly. It’s certainly the most violent superhero film I’ve seen and that includes Punisher: War Zone and Dredd.
I’ll go as far as to say if Quentin Tarantino had directed a DC movie, this is what it’d look like.
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