Birds of Prey is a superhero movie masterpiece
Birds of Prey works because it isn’t about Harley Quinn saving the world. It’s about Harley Quinn saving herself.
(This post contains light Birds of Prey spoilers)
Eggs. Bacon. A buttery roll. A touch of hot sauce. Something about hairy arms I can’t quite remember. And six-month-old American cheese (that part I couldn’t forget) — you know, like the orange Kraft Singles. According to Harley Quinn, those are the ingredients of the best breakfast sandwich in Gotham City.
A not insignificant portion of Birds of Prey’s plot revolves around a breakfast sandwich. Harley is hungover, still recovering from a brutal breakup with the Joker, and spends what she claims to be her only remaining dollars on a breakfast sandwich, but doesn’t realize a cop is tracking her down and will foil her pursuit of early morning nirvana. From there, the story writes itself.
Anyone who’s been through a devastating breakup knows that a phenomenal meal can be the difference between death and survival.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) — that’ll be the last time I use the full title, as much as I dig any title that could’ve fit seamlessly on Deja Entendu’s tracklist — isn’t a comic book movie. I mean, it is by definition a comic book movie. But it isn’t. Not really. What it really is, is a breakup movie trojan horse’d into a comic book movie. It took me a while to understand why it’s brilliant, but I finally did understand why after I saw it for a second time in a span of 36 hours. It’s not a comic book movie as much as it is a breakup movie.
I don’t see many comic book movies. The ones I do see are usually directed or written by someone whose other work I admire, star an actor I stan, or are set in a period that I find appealing. I saw (and liked) Black Panther because of Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan. I saw (and didn’t particularly like anything after the first half of) Wonder Woman because I think WWI is a compelling battlefield. I saw (and didn’t like) Aquaman because I think the ocean is as cool as outer space. I saw (and mostly liked) Captain Marvel because of Brie Larson and the ‘90s. I don’t dislike comic book movies the way Martin Scorsese discredits them. I’m not bothered by how many are churned out. They’re just not what I seek out — like Kraft Singles.
On Friday, I saw Birds of Prey. I honestly had no idea it’d come out until I checked movie times. I watched the trailer once when it appeared online and mostly forgot about it. I never bothered to see Suicide Squad after reading the almost unanimous negative reviews. But I wanted to see a movie, Birds of Prey was out, I like Margot Robbie and Ewan McGregor, it got good reviews, and I have AMC’s version of MoviePass (RIP). So I saw it.
I fucking loved it.
Robbie, as Harley, is engrossing and inescapable. Try taking your eyes off her whenever she’s onscreen. You can’t. I had absolutely no connection to the Harley character until seeing this movie. I didn’t know if I’d like her or find her aloofness annoying. I was enraptured. McGregor, along with his sidekick (and possible lover?) played by Chris Messina, is so deliciously weird as The Big Bad. The entire thing is utter chaos. There’s an air of unpredictability hanging in every single second. You just don’t know what each character is going to do at any given moment. It’s weird. The story jumps back and forth through time, stopping and starting, rewinding and fast-forwarding over and over again. With Harley, the narrator, as our guide, it’s a clear attempt to mirror her anarchic personality. It works. The movie is a riot. It feels more like an action movie than a comic book movie. The fight sequences are better than anything I’ve ever seen in a comic book movie (the John Wick director was involved) because the camerawork allows you to actually see what is happening amidst the chaos while maintaining an aura of fantasy; they’re not at all realistic and that’s okay, because they’re clear and actually easy to follow. There’s a sequence in a police station involving a colorful bean bag shotgun that blew my mind to Mars. The glittering colors of Harley pitted against the harsh gray walls of a police station makes for more than a few captivating shots. The entire bit about the breakfast sandwich is somehow actually emotionally effective. This is a movie that is trying to have a blast without taking itself too seriously, succeeds in doing so, and somehow manages to more effectively convey a more worthwhile message than the self-serious Joker that wanted so badly to pretend like it had something to say about something serious but in the end was too cowardly to actually say anything and wound up being disturbing for the sake of being disturbing — but I digress.
Joker doesn’t appear in Birds of Prey. Neither does Batman. About twenty minutes into the movie, I stopped wondering if they would. The movie was so much fun and the cast of characters was so intriguing on its own that I forgot about them entirely until I went on the /r/movies thread afterwards and saw someone whinging that Batman never showed up to stop the destruction that Harley inspires over the course of the movie.
That’s a good thing. It’s emblematic of the reason why Birds of Prey is so good.
On Saturday night, I went to see it again.
I spent the drive home from the theater on Friday trying to figure out why I loved this comic book movie more than any other comic book movie since The Dark Knight. I didn’t think the answer was as simple as Margot Robbie, even though her performance alone is worth the price of admission.
I realized it had everything to do with the scope of the movie. The characters are big to the point of ridiculousness — not in a pejorative sense — but the story is small. The plot isn’t “save the world.” The plot is “survive” — a bad breakup and everyone who wants to kill her. The details of that plot are far more convoluted, involving a diamond that is the key to a bank account, laxatives, and prune juice, but the details aren’t important. Survive. That’s pretty much it. That’s the plot of the movie. And that’s why Batman doesn’t appear. Harley isn’t trying to destroy or save the world. Over the course of the movie, there isn’t actually that much collateral damage, at least compared to most comic book or action movies. It’s a small story, limited to Harley, the friends she makes along the way, and The Big Bad. I’m assuming Batman had bigger threats to disrupt.
The small scale means we, the audience, are only asked to care about Harley (and her team, to a lesser degree) as opposed to humanity at large. If Harley dies, the sun will still come up tomorrow for the rest of us. We’ll go about our days, eat our breakfast sandwiches (sorry Harley), go to sleep, and do the whole thing again. In other comic book movies (I won’t pretend to speak for all of them since I haven’t seen all of them) with far bigger stakes (the Wikipedia plot summary for Suicide Squad involves the phrase: “eradicate humankind with a mystical weapon”), the protagonist is being asked to ensure we will still be alive to see the sun rise in the morning. The problem is, “save the world” stakes are almost always hollow. We don’t know how he/she/they will win. But we know they will. More problematic is that we don’t know or care about the people the protagonist is trying to save, because most movies like this don’t ground themselves with everyday people like us sitting in the audience. If they do, they don’t do so effectively.
Birds of Prey is rooted in reality, even if the action is far from realistic. The setting is Gotham, but the filmmakers wisely set Gotham in our world. At one point, it’s revealed that Harley voted for Bernie (her explanation is inaudible, unfortunately). You can argue the joke was played for cheap laughs. A friend of mine pointed out that the reference will quickly become dated. I admittedly laughed in the theater — “Harley Quinn: Bernie Bro” is now DC canon, folks — and didn’t think much of it until later, when I realized that the Bernie line works, regardless of the intentions of screenwriter Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yan, because it situates Gotham in our world. And if the story takes place in the world we’re living in, the stakes feel more real, as do the characters, like Harley.
I won’t pretend that I watched Birds of Prey thinking Harley might die. She’s the one telling the story (as she makes abundantly clear), and to tell the story, she needs to be alive at the end — plus, you know, potential sequels. But what the smaller scale of the plot allowed for is Harley to be the biggest part of the movie. She supersedes the plot, because the plot doesn’t really matter. The plot is just a vehicle for her character to complete a journey.
Birds of Prey works because it isn’t about Harley saving the world. It’s about Harley saving herself.
You don’t have to care about the diamond and the money it can unlock. I didn’t. We’re led to believe the diamond leads to money and money leads to control over Gotham. There’s no doubting McGregor’s character’s evilness — true story: he kills someone over a snot bubble — but why should we care if he does or doesn’t control Gotham? If he fails, someone equally evil will step into his place and try the same thing. If he succeeds, will he really be that much worse than the next villain in line? I haven’t seen every comic book movie, but I have seen enough movies to know that there’s always a bigger fish. All you have to care about is Harley’s journey — her eventual emancipation.
In that way, it reminded me so much of why I love Game of Thrones and Rogue One. I never really gave a shit about who sat on the Iron Throne from the perspective of the common people of Westeros, the ones who would actually be impacted by their new ruler and the rules they make and enforce. I only cared about the characters of the show. So even though the immediately infamous dragon pit scene was rushed, mishandled, and inconceivable, it didn’t affect the way I viewed the ending of the show, because I didn’t really care about the outcome of that meeting. Arya and Sansa got the endings their characters deserved, Tyrion as the Hand of the King always felt right, and so on, and since that was the real reason I watched the show, I was happy — despite Westeros still being very much fucked. The plot of Rogue One is big, but because the outcome of the plot has been spoiled since 1977, the focus is on the characters. Like Birds of Prey, it’s convoluted. They hop planets like bars on a Friday night. It doesn’t matter. We already know they’ll succeed in their mission. What we don’t know is how Jyn goes from uncaring and disillusioned to caring and inspiring. That’s the interesting part of the movie. Jyn’s journey. Both stories had big plots, but the big plots only felt like they mattered because of how the outcome would affect the characters.
The plot is a vehicle for the character. It’s a welcomed change. Far too often, the plot is the most important part of big movies. It overshadows the characters. Too often, you could replace the characters with new ones, like cars on a freeway, and the movie would still work. Not often enough do the characters take precedence over the plot. And far too often, characters — women, especially — are vehicles for the plot or the men trying to save the world.
“We're just vessels," Yennefer says at one point during season one of The Witcher. "And even when we're told we're special ... we're still just vessels, for them to take and take until we're empty and alone.”
But in Birds of Prey, the plot and the men of the story are vessels for Harley. The troubles Harley encounters and beats along the way do more than service the story. It services her character’s arc. Replace the diamond with any other small object and the movie doesn’t change. Replace Harley with another one of Joker’s exes — someone more normal — and the movie fails.
The movie begins with Harley heartbroken over her breakup with Joker. Her friends are skeptical, claiming she’ll be back with him (or some other guy) in no time, because Harley Quinn doesn’t know how to be alone. She’s incapable of being on her own. She’s constantly reminded that without the Joker, she doesn’t matter anymore, even though she was really the mastermind behind some of their shenanigans. Without his protection, she’s disposable. At the end of the movie, during her final showdown with The Big Bad (yes, it’s still a comic book movie), she’s told that she needs him, because she can’t survive on her own. Swap out the Joker with this guy. It’s not much of a spoiler to say it doesn’t work out too well for him.
“Do you know what a harlequin is?” she says early on. “A harlequin's role is to serve. It's nothing without a master. No one gives two shits who we are beyond that.”
By the end, we do give two shits who she is beyond the Joker’s ex. Along the way, she does a bunch of plot stuff, but none of that really matters — well, except for the fact that she finally gets to eat a breakfast sandwich.
What matters is that her character is full. What matters is that she’s able to stand on her own. By the end, she’s more than just the Joker’s ex. She’s Harley Fucking Quinn.
That’s the purpose of the movie. That’s why it works.
Harley Fucking Quinn.
Birds of Prey closes with a shot of Harley driving away — away from tacos, morning margaritas, an opportunity to join a team of vigilantes, and a better, gooder life. She’s independent, free, a slightly better but still not a good person, and eating a breakfast sandwich. She smiles, takes a bite, and winks. The movie ends.
The car is carrying her forward, speeding through Gotham toward whatever lies beyond, but Harley is the one driving it.