“I should have known, you weren’t for real/
But my love for you kept on strong/
You better know you’re gonna miss my love/
Now you know that I’m not still holdin on”
– Janet Jackson, “This Time”, janet. (1993)
*[I saw Birds of Prey at an advanced screening on the 4th of February at the Metreon in San Francisco.]
There’s just no escaping it, is there? No matter how good a DC movie may accidentally be (because their track record so far has been… spotty), they’re gonna be compared to Marvel’s output. In the mid-2000s, it was Marvel trapped in DC’s cinematic shadow, with no apparent end in sight. Now, the house of the “True Believers” is crushing their “Distinguished Competition” at the box office at every turn. With the exception of Wonder Woman, it’s been a sad state of affairs to be a cinematic DC fan.
And the ill-advised Suicide Squad was no different, going for a grim-dark alternative to the MCU’s Guardians of the Galaxy – so much so that the Suicide sequel is being written and directed by Guardians’ writer/director James Gunn.
But Suicide star Margot Robbie didn’t give up hope. She had so much fun as fan-favorite Harley Quinn that she campaigned hard for a Birds of Prey spin-off (for which she’s listed as the film’s primary producer). To her credit, she delivers what may very well be the most enjoyable DC-based film of the new era. The only problem is that it’s a movie we’ve seen before. A Marvel movie we’ve seen before.
Harley and “Mistah J” are on the outs. This sends the newly-single psycho on a destructive drunken bender. Not knowing what else to do, she throws herself into the oh-so-violent work that is her calling. This runs her afoul of some very bad men and some colorful fellow mercs. Along the way, our hero speaks directly to us, teams up with a motley crew of misfits, and goes out of her way to save the life of a chubby ki—
Okay, do you see where I’m going with this?! This is Deadpool 2, step-for-goddamn-step! Wade Wilson was replaced with Harleen Quinzel, but it’s the same story, same plot line, and same over-the-top combo of cartoonish violence and endless profanity. Hell, even Robbie’s multi-year campaign to produce this film after Suicide Squad’s poor reception is reminiscent of Ryan Reynold’s near-decade-long campaign to produce the first Deadpool after X-Men Origins: Wolverine flopped. But with Disney’s purchase of Fox having put Reynolds’ franchise in jeopardy (though there have been some promising recent developments), I guess Robbie thought no one would notice if Deadpool’s second film had its story told for a second time (third if you count Once Upon a Deadpool).
And make no mistake: this film is a helluva lotta fun. If you’re gonna rip off a film as fun as Deadpool 2, you damn-well better make it just as enjoyable. And given the fact that Birds of Prey features a video game-style shootout in PD evidence vault – complete with Harley using cocaine as an impromptu power-up – it’s safe to say that it matches that tone just fine. There are just about as many puns as there are bullets; there are bones that twist and crack in ways seen only in action figures; and there are horrible men that get their comeuppance from start-to-finish.
Yes, all the bad guys are, well, guys. Whereas the inescapable flaw of Deadpool 2 was the way it “fridged” Wade’s fiancée Vanessa, Birds of Prey fancies itself a partriarchy-smasher in the utmost. Sadly, this film doesn’t kill off the Joker, but it does match that Deadpool 2 act of institutional sexism by sending Harley down an estrogen-fueled adventure with her fellow women-done-wrong. This includes mob club song bird Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett), who – like Zazie Beetz’s Domino – has a power not explained, but is super-convenient at the right time; veteran detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a fellow Dini/Timm creation who bumps her head against Gotham PD’s glass ceiling; Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a master assassin partial to using arrows; and our human MacGuffin, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Yes, that Cassandra Cain.
Standing against them all is privileged White boi cry-baby Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), whose Deadpool equivalent would probably be, I dunno, Ajax from the first flick? He’s your typical club owner/kingpin who likes to kill people by means of… um… look, this is not a kid’s film, okay? I’m serious, some folks brought their very small, grade school-age spawn with them to the screening and I was half-tempted to call Family Services. Anyway, Black Mask is after a diamond that pickpocket Cassandra stole… and swallowed. Because reasons – stop asking so many questions.
Birds of Prey isn’t some deep meditation on the state of the world, it’s a cartoonish backlash against cultural misogyny. There’s no room or need for subtlety when Black Canary is introduced singing a torch song rendition of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”, only to later save an inebriated Harley from being gang-raped in a van by two fuckbois. It features an increasingly-frustrated Black Mask throwing hissy fits about these “little girls” ruining his plans. It’s Kill Bill as made by actual women (not quite Dead Hooker in a Trunk). Considering that the last DC film I saw during an advanced IMAX screening was a piece of shit currently nominated for Best Picture, I welcome this distaff alternative.
And it’s all done pretty damn well. Margot Robbie clearly loves playing Harley and has found a way to make the character her own the same way Reynolds has with Deadpool. As long as Robbie doesn’t wear out her welcome (lookin’ at you wife-beater-Johnny-Depp-as-Jack-Sparrow), one can actually look forward to her next go ‘round in the Suicide sequel. In fact, it’s tough to single out any one member of the cast because they all bring just the right amount of depth and mania to their characters. Matthew Libatique – one of the best lensmen in the industry – gives the whole thing a gorgeous sheen, even in the more “grimey” scenes and settings.
I’m not all that familiar with the work of director Cathy Yan (hey, DC beat the MCU to the punch with an Asian director!), but she does fine work wrangling the madness of these proceedings. Screenwriter Christina Hodson (another Asian film-maker – good on ya, DC!) has written one shitty film I’ve seen (Unforgettable) and one really fun one (Bumblebee). Thankfully, she leans heavily on the fun of the latter, albeit much more profanely.
Listen, I know this review draws similarities between this film and Marvel’s “Merc with the Mouth” series (it’s almost as if DC saw the ItsJustSomeRandomGuy videos above, in which Deadpool and Harley later become franchise-crossing lovers). But what this flick lacks in originality it makes up for in unapologetic glee. It’s a profane exercise in Girl Power that’s capable of standing toe-to-toe with any of its uber-masculine counterparts. Anyone beside me remember The Girls on Film? Think of Birds of Prey as The Girls on Film redux of Deadpool 2: not just responding the sexism of the fridging scene, but proving that having women central to the story doesn’t take away from the good stuff at all. Hell, it may have improved it.