Birds of Prey could very well have bombed. As a spin-off to the mostly awful Suicide Squad, expectations certainly weren’t high. But, defying all expectations, Birds of Prey is great. It’s fun, over-the-top, colourful and extravagant. Join Gizmodo Australia as we discuss everything we liked, and didn’t like, about the film.
Leah: To kick off, I’d like to say how refreshing it is to see a movie where women are allowed to be women, even when facing off against powerful men. Harley, Renee, Cass, Dinah and Helena are all in their own weird little messes and they’re absolutely not perfect, and that’s great. I particularly enjoyed that they spent a lot of the movie beating up men, which might seem like a weird thing to point out — but so often in comic book movies, women are lumped together against female villains with the subtle implication that they’re not strong enough to fight against men. In Birds of Prey, the entire team fights men, and they do it so well.
Steph: They also manage to do it in heeled boots and tight pants too, which personally I’d like to see Batman try sometime. They made a defined choice in this movie to reduce the amount of ‘male gaze’ costuming (which I very much appreciated), so the aesthetic is fun without having to cater to the hyper-sexualised view of these characters we’ve seen in the past. These were costumes explicitly designed to be fun and practical enough that Dinah can throw down with full range of movement, and I’m about it.
Leah: I also appreciated that they didn’t go to great lengths to spell out how feminist the movie actually was. There’s a fine line between a genuinely empowering movie, and one that’s virtue signalling, and here I’d bring up the scene in Avengers: Endgame where all of Marvel’s leading women get together to face off against Thanos’ horde. That was a moment that felt cheesy and contrived, but when the titular Birds of Prey finally do get together, it’s a fantastic moment because each woman has been given her own agency and had her own story told in the lead-up.
I would’ve liked to see more of the Birds together, but what we got felt cathartic and earned.
Steph: I think this is pretty spot on — there are already people going into this film expecting it to be a feminist extravaganza purely because there are women in the leading roles as well as behind the scenes (the film was not only directed by Cathy Yan, but produced by Margot Robbie’s production company LuckyChap Entertainment). It doesn’t need to be explicitly spelled out for the audience because they’re going in expecting that anyway. What it does do though, is show that audience that in having that expectation, they’re reducing the characters to a stereotype — which they don’t actually emulate.
Take Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress for example. There was so much Twitter uproar going on because people didn’t think her character was ‘sexy enough’ and she was very much shunted aside in the lead up in favour of Harley. But what we get in context, is an extensive and understandable backstory that added depth to a character where the only thing people wanted to talk about was her look. Sure, she’s a more stoic foil to Harley’s energy, but she’s also funny and incredibly capable so who cares if she doesn’t smile as much as you’d like her to? I mean, she did have to watch her entire family get murdered. Cut her some slack, hey.
And I agree that it would’ve been nice to see them all together a bit more as the cohesive Birds of Prey but I’m also not mad that they did it this way because it really did set up well for further films (especially given that there’s word that they’ll be following up with Gotham City Sirens and then a clash between the two.
Leah: Absolutely, and the future of the Birds of Prey is looking bright after the tail end of the movie. I like that by the end of the film, we have such a deep understanding of all three characters (Dinah, Helena and Renee), and that they were so well-rounded. Each of them were deeply relatable in their own way, from Helena’s deep insecurity, to Renee’s frustrations as a cop largely living in a man’s world. Dinah felt like the most rounded character of the three, and I’m glad the movie spent so much time with her struggle to survive in spite of her morals and the abuses that she faces.
Birds of Prey absolutely didn’t shy away from the abuses that women face in the light of powerful men, and at times it was very uncomfortable. The scene where the woman in the silver dress is forced by Roman Sionis to strip down to her underwear and dance in front of the club was deeply, deeply uncomfortable, but I’d also argue that it was necessary to highlight what a genuinely awful person Sionis was in the film, and how traumatising the male gaze can be.
Steph: I think it was important because up until that point it seemed like his character had a more hands-off approach to villainy — letting his lackeys do the whole ‘peel someone’s face off’ schtick while he provided a kind of campy comic relief (and a little homage to Ewan McGregor’s Moulin Rouge roots) — but that scene definitely showed the cruelty of the character and made it clear that he was the person in charge.
The only other thing I’ll say about Black Mask in general is that within the context of the film it felt a bit outdated that he was queercoded. Ewan played Sionis in a flamboyant fashion which was fun out of context, but there’s a long history of queercoding villains that makes this choice feel less progressive than it could have been. There’s still positive LGBTQ+ representation in Renee, though even then that was more of a passing comment about her previous relationship, so it’ll be good to see how that develops in future films.
Leah: I definitely agree, it felt like the film was leaning a lot into queer stereotypes for Sionis’ portrayal, or potentially it was an active choice by Ewan — and while he absolutely kills it in the role (he’s a total scene stealer), it is disappointing to see such archaic ideas of queerness and queercoding in a modern film.
Beyond that, Sionis is a perfectly good foil for the Birds, and I genuinely wanted to see him die horribly, particularly after the scene with the lady in the silver dress, and the way he treats Dinah as expendable. The end, to me, was cathartic for that reason.
And speaking of the ending — the final set piece in Amusement Mile was absolutely fantastic. It’s a location that’s iconic in the Batman franchise, and despite a smidge of over-reliance on CGI to bring the carnival to life, I thought it looked absolutely gorgeous, and was one of the more original and unique setpieces I’ve seen in films.
Steph: I agree, and I think one of the reasons I appreciated that setting so much is because it was very clear how Harley felt at home there. She strode in and it was essentially a place of power for her, knowing that she knew it better than the waves of henchmen. I think given that the film started out with her being torn up about her breakup with the Joker, being able to go back to that place felt like a reclamation, thematically, especially after having lost her sanctuary earlier in the film.
Those set pieces also made for some really well choreographed fight sequences, which I really, really enjoyed because I’m so tired of people saying that fight choreography for women is less interesting. Not only was their athleticism and capability abundantly clear, but there was teamwork, a range of weaponry and skill, clever use of the environment, and ultimately a really impressive visual display. Plus, any fight scene that recognises how incredibly annoying it is to fight with your hair down is okay by me. It was those small touches that I liked most.
Leah: Definitely, the fight choreography is one of the things that shone most for me in the movie. Harley in particular had some great scenes, and I loved that they played up her athleticism and gymnastic abilities. It’s easy to make a boring fight scene between women (and as someone who watches WWE on a regular basis, I know how bad it can look), but the choreography throughout the movie was stunning, and it played to the strengths of the women in the movie. Dinah was vicious and grounded, Harley was flexible and fast, Renee relied on her firearm and strategy, while Helena was swift with her crossbow. Each of them had a particularly unique fighting style, which I enjoyed, and they all complemented each other.
While the film’s marketing focused largely on Harley, it was great to see every woman have her time in the spotlight. Birds of Prey is short, but it still found the time to focus on each woman and give her the spotlight. As far as girl gangs go, I think the movie did an excellent job of balancing Harley’s tale of emancipation with the stories of the other Birds. It was fun, over-the-top, ridiculous and deeply enjoyable. I don’t think that men will get the same catharsis out of it as women will, but it’s great to see a movie that feels like it’s genuinely made for, about and by women.
Steph: I agree. It had everything that you’d expect out of a Harley flick, from bright colours and cheeky comments, but it was rounded out by a really strong understanding of what makes a good team film. There were enough surprises to keep you on your toes (which an almost non-linear narrative structure definitely contributed to), a strong soundtrack of female 80s power tunes, and even a couple of fourth wall breaks that will satisfy the Deadpool-shaped hole in your viewing. It didn’t feel like a ‘superhero movie’, but it works.
I think ultimately you’re right that men might not appreciate the film for what it is quite as much, but I think the biggest barrier to that will be that they won’t give the film a chance. Once they’re in the cinema and watching it, that’s half the battle won. For me, Birds of Prey was fun and engaging without being performative, and honestly I really enjoyed it. It’s got me ready to see more badassery from Gotham’s women, so I say bring on the Sirens. I’m ready to see my gal Ivy.
Leah: Absolutely, bring on Gotham City Sirens! We’re ready.
Birds of Prey is out now in Australian cinemas.