Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) finds Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) teaming up with some of DC Comics‘ most badass ladies – Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) – to kick the butts of Gotham crime boss, Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) and his henchman, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), in order to save the precious orphan and pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
In lieu of a traditional movie review, Sarah and Matt also teamed up for a Hangout to discuss the film. You’ll find their thoughts on Birds of Prey, below. Warning – Spoilers Ahead!
Sarah: Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) – did you love it, hate it, or fall somewhere in between?
Matt: Loved it.
Sarah: Great! I did, too. I can recognize some complaints folks are having, but they didn’t stop me from enjoying every moment. I really enjoyed the film’s approach and structure. I know many have found that confusing, or that it hurts pacing – which maybe it does just a touch – but it was perfect for a movie that Harley is narrating. Plus, it then made the moment all our characters are finally together feel all that more satisfying.
Matt: Yeah. I heard those complaints and I was like, “Harley is telling the story… and you’re surprised it’s confusing?” Harley’s the dictionary definition of an unreliable narrator.
Sarah: Also, I can understand those who wanted more of the Birds in Birds of Prey, but as Harley is the established character, it works so well for here to sort of dance through their lives and bring them together. And now she’ll move off to some other corner of the DCEU – James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, first, I guess – and introduce us to other zany characters who will then get their own movies.
Matt: And something a lot of people missed in this: Margot Robbie is the only reason this is a Birds of Prey movie. WB wanted a straight up Harley Quinn solo film but Robbie pushed to make it into a vehicle for other DC Comics’ heroines.
Sarah: Absolutely! All praise be to Margot Robbie. I cannot wait to see what she does next – in both the DCEU and beyond.
Matt: The thing that stunned me is how they do fit little nods to the characters from the comics in, even if the details aren’t exact. For instance, both Huntress and Canary get moments where they’re checking on Cassandra and making sure she’s OK, as a nod to them both loving kids in the comics. Yes, we don’t see Helena working as a teacher, but that same, “I don’t want you going through what I did,” spirit is there. Ditto the nod to Dinah’s background as a foster kid in the current comics with her trying to reassure Cassandra that life will get better.
Sarah: Huntress may have the least screen time but she feels the most like her comic book counterpart. I think they got her just right. Really, they nail each characters’ essence. And then they still give us those little nods, like Dinah’s mother or Renee being a lesbian. Things that the film isn’t about but fans of the characters will pick up on and be really happy about it. In fact, coming off of Star Wars and its utter failure in queer representation, Birds of Prey does it just fine. Makes me hopeful for whenever Robbie gets Poison Ivy in a movie.
Matt: We need a Poison Ivy movie. And given that we’re apparently now looking at Karen Gillan producing a movie with herself as Barbara Gordon/Batgirl… well, I can die happy if we get Ruby Roundhouse as Oracle in the sequels.
Sarah: I think she’d be great! I would very much like to see the movies give us Oracle, the Clocktower, all of that in a Birds of Prey sequel. But that may be a while if they want to establish her as Batgirl first. But even before that, I think Birds of Prey needs to make some bank before they green light more. Wonder Woman 1984 will be another test. Joker made them billions, so you know WB wants more.
Matt: They also touch on Rene’s alcoholism (which stunned me) but didn’t make a big deal about it, so you can see the Greg Rucka influence there. So even though she’s not The Question yet, she’s on that path.
Sarah: Yup! She’s truly a hard-hitting cop and detective. Rosie Perez is incredible in this role, too.
Matt: Jurnee Smollet-Bell as Black Canary, I loved this take on the character. It’s the first time Dinah as a singer has ever made sense background-wise.
Sarah: Smollet-Bell is just sublime as Canary. Her first fight scene in the alley when she’s saving drunk Harley – wow. I was just in awe and kind of starstruck. Thinking, “Holy hell. There she is. That’s Black Canary.” And her rendition of “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” is amazing. Played with real intention too, y’know? She sings it very pointedly at Black Mask/Roman – who we also need to talk about, because holy crap, Ewan.
Matt: That scene with drunk Harley is the essence of Dinah to me. Yes, Harley is a screw up who probably doesn’t deserve to be saved. But it’s all about what Dinah can stop and the fact that deserving has nothing to do with it.
Sarah: Smollet-Bell and Robbie give Canary and Harley this surprising friendship I don’t think we’ve seen in the comics. I really enjoyed their scene at the club, and then both their reactions in the scene where Dinah calls her an asshole. Harley’s heartbroken, Dinah feels like a jerk, it’s great character work from them. Then we get and the hair tie moment during the big fight. It’s better than I could have imagined, really.
Matt: We have seen that in the comics. Just not the Birds of Prey ones. It reminded me of how Tom Taylor writes Dinah and Harley together in the Injustice comics.
Sarah: Oh yeah, you’re right. It’s definitely similar to their relationship in Injustice. Which I do believe was researched for this film. At least in respect to Canary and her fighting.
Matt: They didn’t credit Tom Taylor in the credits, alas. But yes, Ewan. Not much like Black Mask in the comics apart from him always having a spoiled rich kid attitude behind the mask.
Sarah: Nothing at all like Black Mask in the comics and all the better for it! He’s both hilarious and chilling. So many moments had me busting out laughing – like the shrunken heads, ha! – but then there’s the scene where’s he’s forcing the women in the club to strip and it’s so awful and terrifying.
Matt: And on that note… male gaze in the movie. Non-existent. Most movies we’d get lingering shots of the woman getting the dress cut off her. Here she’s still clinging to the rags. I just mention this because I was stunned by the fight scene where the sprinklers break and how we avoided having the cliche wet girl fight shots.
Sarah: Shocking, isn’t it? A scene like that makes it feel as abusive as it should. Not tantalizing. And there’s a moment where I thought the sprinkler fight would make a ‘woman getting wet in a white t-shirt’ joke, but nothing! It’s refreshing. And then, I mean, that fight. Birds of Prey has some incredible fight choreography. It’s so well filmed, too. Few cuts, camera follows the action. You can really see how much they had the actors do themselves, too, which is impressive. I can’t wait for some behind the scenes footage that really shows the stunt work.
Matt: The fight sequences are amazing throughout and I read several stories about how Margot Robbie insisted on learning how to do as much of the stunt work, combat work, roller derby work and such on her own.
Sarah: I do believe quite a bit of Harley hanging onto the car is also her. It’s just wild. And so much fun to watch! I can agree with those who feel that the movie starts kind of slow, but I think it’s because the finale is just this great, big brawl.
Matt: The plot is unconventional, but this isn’t a conventional movie on many fronts.
Sarah: No, not really. Sadly, the most unconventional thing about it is that its cast is primarily women. And women of color.
Matt: We should probably mention Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress. My biggest beef with the movie is that she is barely a part of it.
Sarah: I can agree with that. She’s an original Bird and is perhaps the smallest main role. Hell, Zsasz is in it more.
Matt: She literally shows up and then is like “Well, I’m done. You go back to whatever it is you were doing.” Even though she is there the whole time in the background. And yet… I love the way they portray her here because it breaks away from the biggest problem Helena has a character – her backstory is too derivative of Batman’s. Rich family dies in front of you? Train for years to avenge them? Gee, that’s original.
Sarah: Here she’s like Anastasia but an assassin.
Matt: Yeah. They found a way to tell her story without it seeming like Greg Rucka writing Mario Puzo fan fiction.
Sarah: And her arrival is the moment I think the movie just soars. Once they’re all in the Booby Trap together, it just rocks from there to the very end. Even the very, very end which has a great callback the Harley Quinn cartoon currently airing DC Universe.
Matt: Which everyone should be watching if they aren’t already.
Sarah: Absolutely. Especially if they’re a little dissatisfied with the cussing and violence in Birds of Prey – of which there is a good amount – but the cartoon has even more. For all the Deadpool comparisons, I think the cartoon is actually more similar to the Deadpool movies than this movie. Here, Harley breaks the fourth wall a little, and it is violent, and it has a lot of F-bombs, but that’s about it. Stylistically, they’re both very much their own things.
Matt: And yet, I found myself laughing more at this movie than I did Deadpool 2. And that’s not an insult to Deadpool 2. I just was not expecting the laughs this movie delivered.
Sarah: There is so much that Robbie does as Harley here that had me constantly giggling. So many looks, responses, movements. When she’s stabbing Zsasz with the needle – I died. I’m honestly beginning to believe she’s reaching, like, Christopher Reeves levels of embodying a comic book character.
Matt: Oh, I think she nailed that back in Suicide Squad with the bit about, “That’s not what the voices really said.” With Harley, you should never be certain just how much of this is a smart woman pretending to be crazy or if she really is as nuts as she seems to be.
Sarah: That is true, so she’s just even better here. And it’s why she’s one of the only true survivors of Suicide Squad – her and Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang, who has a fun wanted poster cameo.
Matt: At her essence, Harley is unpredictable. And that’s where all the humor that really hits in this movie succeeds. It’s the stuff you don’t expect and Robbie’s understated reactions to the stuff that would make a normal person freak out. I would like to add in one note about one aspect of the movie that deserves attention. Roller Derby.
Sarah: You mentioned earlier that Tom Taylor doesn’t get a shout out in the credits, but I absolutely loved how many comic creators do. Obviously, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini right at the top, but honestly, it’s Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor’s run on Harley Quinn that has the strongest influence here. And Roller Derby is one way! They did introduce it to her character.
Matt: Absolutely. The Dallas Derby Devils had players in cosplay at the theater I was at last night and I promised I would mention that yes, people still do this. For all the writers they listed – including the highly underrated Julie and Shawna Benson – they hardly list any artists. And for the life of me I don’t know why Bob Kane and Bill Finger were in there other than they get a credit anytime Batman is mentioned.
Sarah: Oh yeah, I agree on that. I’m very happy Finger is there, but why they hell are they there at all? Their work was over long before most of these characters were introduced. But back to Palmiotti and Connor, what I love so much about their take on Harley is the family of new characters they gave her on Coney Island. And we kind of get that here, too, with Doc, the restaurant owner who Harley lives above. Even though he sells her out, that too is kind of in character for the sort of people Harley hangs around.
Matt: And we see him later at the Mexican place when everyone is getting burritos. At least, I think that’s him in the background.
Sarah: Oh we do? Good. It’d make sense, because Harley’s arc is realizing she is a bit of asshole and she needs to be more considerate of others. That’s also part of her emancipating from the Joker – it’s freeing herself from being so selfish
Matt: So, are we going to mention how this movie is a huge parody of John Wick?
Sarah: I must admit… I’ve only seen the first John Wick. I haven’t seen the others not because I didn’t like it! I just somehow, haven’t.
Matt: Well, I haven’t seen any of them. I just meant in the sense that they kill Harley’s hyena and that’s her,”Okay, this is serious,” moment.
Sarah: Oh, that’s great. I did really love Bruce in this movie. Would I love Bud and Lou? Of course. But CGI hyenas ain’t cheap. Hence, why he’s “killed” halfway through the movie.
Matt: That was CGI? I figured they went animatronic.
Sarah: I’m pretty sure it was digital, but I honestly don’t know for sure. Could be both. Are there any major points we haven’t touched on? It’s great. Fun, funny, great action, beautifully shot – for real, there are some stunning shots in this movie. Oh! Cassandra Cain! She is very much not Cassandra Cain and yet I love her anyway.
Matt: The most divergent character in terms of what was taken from the comics. The name, age and she’s of some vaguely Asian ethnicity.
Sarah: That’s basically all there is that’s similar. But she was a lot of fun. Her relationship with Harley was great. Her being a little punk brat was great. I’ll be curious to see if she is still with Harley in some sort of sidekick role whenever we see her again.
Matt: I loved the music. This movie has a great soundtrack and it makes use of it like no movie since the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.
Sarah: Definitely. I know that all too well.
Matt: How nobody ever tied “I Hate Myself For Loving You” to Harley before now stuns me.
Sarah: It is really obvious in hindsight and it works so well here. They also use the music so, so well with action scenes.
Matt: Yeah. It’s all the little details about this movie that make it. I want to see it a second time to see what I missed. Case in point, and it’s such a small thing? The bit where Black Mask is showing Canary his collection and Zasaz is in the background just banging the back of his head against the chair. He’s seen his boss do this to impress women before. He’s heard the speech. He’s bored to death by the speech. And he’s really not wanting to hear the speech when he’s trying to get his ADHD meal ticket to focus on the fact that we have Harley Freaking Quinn tied up downstairs and should probably do something now.
Sarah: That’s a perfect example of how this movie understands how to develop its characters. Just from that, we learn so much about Roman and Zsasz’s relationship.
Matt: But yes, all these weird little details. Like Harley saying Huntress’s named as Hell-a-nah instead of Hel-in-ah. The one weird detail that stuck out? Harley going to Catholic school. I mean, hasn’t she been pretty unambiguously Jewish from day one?
Sarah: That is strange, now that you mention it. I wonder if it’s more used as a shorthand for a strict upbringing.
Matt: I mean, she could be Jewish and still go to a Catholic school, I suppose. She also loves Christmas decorations, there’s all the specials with her arguing with Ivy about getting a tree. One thing I do have to credit the movie with – it actually makes the Black Canary name make sense in both respects. See, this is something that always got me about the character because the name had nothing to do with who she was as a martial artist saving Johnny Thunder. Canary was a slang term for a singer in the Big Band era. It was also a term for a snitch. In Birds of Prey, Dinah is a songbird and she sings to the cops.
Sarah: Oh, that’s a good connection.
Matt: I just thought about it when Zasaz kept calling her a rat and I thought, “He really should be calling her a canary…”
Sarah: All right, so then I think that about wraps this up. Birds of Prey is easily my favorite more of the year. Granted, it’s only February. But there’s just so much to love in this movie.
Matt: See it. Watch it. Love it.