Two Cents Soars with the BIRDS OF PREY

Two Cents is an original column akin to a book club for films. The Cinapse team thoughts on each film using a maximum of 200 words each. Guest writers and fan comments are encouraged, as are suggestions for future entries to the column. Join us as we share our two cents on films we love, films we are curious about, and films we believe merit some discussion.

The Pick:

Every movie star needs their own franchise these days, and after being cast as the cultishly adored Harley Quinn for the DCEU entry Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie wasted no time in taking the steering wheel for her character.

Rather than waiting for the studio to decide how and when Harley Quinn would be deployed, Robbie partnered up with screenwriter Christina “I wrote Bumblebee, the one good Transformers movie” Hodson and developed her own vehicle, digging into the rich history of badass women throughout the long-running DC Comics universe.

The final piece of the puzzle was director Cathy Yan, recruited by Robbie after viewing Yan’s debut film Dead Pigs (which is finally going to be widely available in the US in February, via Mubi). Together, they concocted a superhero(?) film that married a gonzo pop art aesthetic with bone-breaking, R-rated action, introducing audiences to a new lineup of heroines previously untouched by the live-action film world.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) opens with Robbie’s Harley Quinn being well and truly dumped by her lover/tormentor, the Joker (played by Jared Leto in Squad but mercifully kept off-screen throughout BoP). Determined to make a new life for herself out from under the auspices of her demented ex, Harley inadvertently declares open season on herself and invites everyone who ever bore a grudge against her to come looking for payback.

As it turns out, many, many, many people have a grudge against Harley Quinn.

Harley’s quest for ‘emancipation’ leads her to crisscross paths with a variety of ‘dames’ dealing with their own worlds of woe. There’s determined cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), reckless young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), disenfranchised singer Dinah “Black Canary” Lance (Jurnee Smollet), and a mysterious, cross-bow toting assassin calling herself Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

And before too long, every one of them has fallen into the crosshairs of psychotic gangster Roman “Black Mask” Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his sadistic henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina).

With its candy-and-blood color scheme and exuberant ensemble, Birds of Prey was a hit with critics but was unfortunately something of a box office disappointment. Blame the bad taste left in people’s mouths by the atrocious Squad, blame sexist dingbats who objected to the film’s fierce feminine voice and viewpoint, or blame Covid for shuttering theaters around the time BoP might have been benefiting from a word-of-mouth resurgence.

Even with the disappointing box office, BoP quickly earned a devoted following, delighted by its blazing message of female empowerment and the wildly idiosyncratic style that is completely out of step with any other recent comic book films.

Robbie is set to return as Harley in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, but we can only hope that someday soon she and her team will soar once more. — Brendan Foley

Next week’s pick:

Despite their 19th century setting, the works of Jane Austen remain lively and beloved among readers and filmgoers alike, with a new adaptation or two predictably coming along every few years, whether left in their original period or updated for contemporary times. Like Birds of Prey, last year’s Emma had its release on the cusp of the pandemic, being one of the few films of the year to have a theatrical run. It’s now available on HBO GO or NOW or MAX or whatever the hell they’re calling it these days, giving those of us who missed out a chance to catch up — and whether it’s the first time or a rewatch, we want to you to join us! — Austin Vashaw

Would you like to be a guest in next week’s Two Cents column? Simply watch and send your under-200-word review to twocents(at) anytime before midnight on Thursday!

Our Guests:

Austin Wilden:

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) was the last movie I managed to see in theaters twice before they all shut down due to the frustratingly on-going pandemic. I was so eager to get that second big screen viewing in that when the projector broke at the first theater I went to that night, I immediately checked my phone to see the closest showtime at a theater on the other side of town and darted my way over there. Seeing this glittery majesty light up the silver screen one more time was absolutely worth a potential speeding ticket.

Watching it again for the first time since then, I appreciate this movie’s existence even more. It’s the total package of clever character writing, fun fights, and visual flair coming together for what, even in a normal release year, would’ve been stiff competition for any other major superhero movie to beat. Which makes it even more baffling that BOP became some sort of designated punching bag for certain portions of Film Twitter/YouTube. I won’t dignify any of the people I’m talking about by naming them but seeing high-profile movie channels on YouTube, some of whose content I’d usually enjoy, treat the mere mention of this movie as a punchline got on my nerves.

That’s all the space in this I’ll give to the less worthwhile criticisms of this movie. But I’d feel wrong not mentioning a problem I do have with BoP as an adaptation of the comics and that can be boiled down to two words: Cassandra Cain. That problem involves absolutely zero criticism of Ella Jay Basco’s performance and fantastic sisterly chemistry with Margot Robbie as Harley. The moment where the pair shares cereal while watching cartoons on the couch serving as Harley’s first instance of contentment since the movie started alone speaks well to both Basco and that dynamic. However, for every compliment I can pay to the character Basco is playing and how she fits into the story BoP wants to tell…

She isn’t Cassandra “Best Batgirl” Cain in anything but name.

Cass in the comics, even making allowances for the movie not keeping her whole backstory, has major language processing issues due to her abusive upbringing. Which extends to illiteracy and being near mute. There’s the briefest nod to that when movie-Cass first shows up and needs to clear her throat before sassing Renee. Otherwise, her character represents a blatant example of disability erasure in how she’s brought to the big screen. I get that movie-Cass is a smart mouth to show how she can keep up with Harley in their scenes together, but it’s not like the Gotham City of the comics is exactly lacking in other street urchins they could’ve taken a character name from if that was all they were going to take. The disability erasure stands out more because BoP is impressively intersectional in its representation otherwise, especially compared to how lacking most superhero movies are in that area.

If I do pretend the character has a different name, none of that adaptational stuff breaks this movie in the slightest. That stuff can’t not bug me, at least a little, as someone who knows the comics. But as someone who loves kickass movies, I still really love this kickass movie despite that quibble. Most action movies would give anything to have a single fight scene as good as the ones here. Though Cathy Yan and company weren’t nearly satisfied to stop at just one. Between Harley busting through the police station, the evidence lockup brawl, and the confrontation at the Booby Trap, you’d have to be actively trying way too hard to not let this movie’s vibrant energy rub off on you. Especially when it features a cast giving 110% while being backed by Daniel Pemberton’s score that’s second only to his work on the Spider-Verse soundtrack for the title of “career best.”

In the recent trend of superhero related films/television leaning into an R-rating, Birds of Prey FANTABULOUSLY stands tall with only the likes of the similarly underrated Doom Patrol HBO Max series able to stand next to it. (@WC_WIT)

Trey Lawson:

This is a confession, but not an apology: I am generally a fan of DC superhero movies. I’ve found something to like almost in all of them. Yes, even that one. AND that one. No, not Joker. That said, the franchise made a huge leap forward in quality once filmmakers other than Zack Snyder were allowed to play in the sandbox. Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is one of the best so far. It is exactly as loud and colorful and over-the-top as a film set in Gotham’s underworld should be. It’s just a BIFF-BAM-POW and a “Holy ___, Batman!” pun away from being a hard R version of Batman ’66, and that is 100% my jam. The fight choreography, cinematography, and editing are fantastic, as is the soundtrack. Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina are utterly vile, entitled, misogynist sleazeballs, and the way they chew the scenery (especially McGregor) is just captivating.

But what really makes Birds of Prey stand out is its ensemble of badass women. Harley, Helena, Dinah, Renee, and Cassandra are all characters who have suffered trauma. They have been objectified, exploited by the patriarchy, and tricked by the system into treating each other as enemies rather than allies. And yet they are funny and persistent and cool, even when denied the barest minimum of enjoyment or acknowledgment. I only wish we got more of the Birds of Prey as a fully-formed team — the tease we get of them in costume at the end is great, but I want more movies in this world with this cast. (@T_Lawson)

The Team

elizabeth stoddard:

Director Cathy Yan and her crew show us the colorful backstreets of Gotham City, as Quinn races on foot through a street market or impatiently awaits her dream breakfast sandwich in a bodega. Dark and dim moments are rare in Birds of Prey; glitter bombs are used in a police station sequence, and a jailhouse fight sequence turns into something out of Singin’ in the Rain.

The fight choreography in this film is what first won my heart. When the humor in the movement is such that it brings to mind Jackie Chan and Gene Kelly, you have created something magical. There’s a vibrant chaos to Birds of Prey, and it is something to revel in. (@elizs)

Read more of Elizabeth’s thoughts on BoP HERE.

Brendan Foley:

I know there are people with beef with this movie and I’d like to be charitable and assume that it’s not ‘entirely’ down to sexist jagoffs being surly about women having a blast making an action movie that isn’t interested in catering to dudes in any real way…and yet every time I watch BoP I am so completely delighted by every choice in it that it’s hard not to assume bad faith in the people (dudes) who react with such vehemence.

Yan has built a Gotham City that feels only a step or two removed aesthetically from the one that existed in the Adam West Batman show, then cross-pollinated that proudly ersatz world with the unchecked acrobatic mayhem you expect from a Hong Kong programmer. It freaking rules, is what I’m saying.

Every actor seems tuned to the right frequency, whether you are talking Perez and Bell playing things as close to reality as can be allowed, or about McGregor and Messina who are both clearly having the time of their lives pushing their villains to previously-unseen heights of berserk freak show. Robbie toggles between the madcap and the human in a way that’s very impressive and keeps the whole enterprise afloat, while Mary Elizabeth Winstead walks off with the movie in her relatively short screen time as Huntress. The choice to make Huntress an unbelievable badass who is completely lost in social situations is the kind of out-of-nowhere idea that could have been trimmed without necessarily losing anything from the story, but adds so much humor and flavor and character that it makes the entire film more interesting.

Anyway, BoP is a blast and has rapidly entered my regular rotation as a movie to throw on and just vibe to. Regardless of how it did or didn’t connect with audiences, I can’t wait to see what everyone involved gets up to next. (@TheTrueBrendanF)

Austin Vashaw:

Suicide Squad is easily my least favorite film of the current DC movie universe, so I can see why people might give Birds of Prey — which could be seen as a spin-off — with a bit of side-eye. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was arguably the best element of that mess of a film, but even so the thought of a solo adventure sounds… exhausting.

Which really is the stroke of brilliance in the way they handled this tale, not only distancing Harley from cinema’s worst Joker and that terrible Suicide Squad movie, but by giving her a new all-girl squad. And even though she’s secondary (parenthesized, even) in the title, she’s the star of this show.

Harley has always been a character interestingly riding the line between right and wrong — while typically a villain, the tendency of the last few years has been to make her more of an anti-hero and even occasional ally to the good guys. It’s an interesting evolution and somehow this film finds the right balance in showing this push and pull.

I also really enjoyed the other ladies who make up this ensemble, especially Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress. I kind of wish these other characters had a little bit more meat to their arcs, but the story structure and outsider perspective from Harley, an unusual choice for an audience surrogate, makes perfect sense and sets them up for a more focused sequel (please).

I’ve long used up my 200 words but barely even touched on all the reasons to enjoy this wild film — anarchic style, wildly colorful aesthetic, awesome villains, hilarious writing, and a delightfully glittery slipcover on my 4K Blu-ray. I dig it. (@VforVashaw)

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