Harley Quinn: The Birds of Prey
What is the true Superman? Golden Age? Pre-Crisis? Post Crisis? New 52? Post New 52? Who is real Hip-Hop? Is episodes 7, 8, and 9 of Star Wars for real? Should there be romance in Doctor Who? Every fandom has its own unwritten gate-keeping code forward slash rules. Are the Marvel movies film? I’m looking at you Martin Scorcese. Many times when a fan thinks something may be inauthentic, the culture has passed them by before they finish reading this blog post. Please finish reading this blog post.
DC/Warner Bros. has released another DC Comics film. The movie is entitled Birds of Prey: The Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. I kid you not. Sorry, the title was changed to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. Now as the writer of this piece, allow me to give you some background about myself. I started reading Birds of Prey back in 2003 during the Gail Simone run. Enjoyed the book immensely, claiming Helena Bertinelli, the Huntress, as my favorite character through the aughts and the teens, or whatever we are supposed to call 2011-2019. In 2016 I started a podcast called Feathers and Foes: A Birds of Prey Podcast, covering Chuck Dixon’s run all the way into the aforementioned Gail Simone run.
Before the movie, and now that the movie is released, many fans, not all, have been flipping over tables about the interpretation from the comic to the film isn’t as pure or as honest as could be, which is a totally fair critique. I mean, the source material must be worthy if Warner Bros. wants to spend loads of money on making it a movie, right? And to be fair, as fans of these characters, we have not only shelled out high amounts of money following these heroes over the years, but we also have become quite attached to Black Canary, Cassandra Cain, the Huntress, etc, which causes great concern when we feel like major studios aren’t handling these characters with the tender, love, and care we believe they deserve.
Prior to watching the movie, I was content with the film not being targeted towards me. Like most things in marketing, you are trying to engender life-long consumers. Moreover, the studio also would like to welcome new folks who are not just comic book readers. I know, there is nothing just about being a comic book reader. Now apparently many people my age and older are not learning the lessons of “everything doesn’t last forever”, for it’s mostly people of my generation and older who are complaining that things are not giving them the same feeling as when they were 11 years old. Well let me tell you something about when I was 11. Many of the video games were looking up to subpar. Now that wouldn’t be an issue if the game only cost 15.00 dollars, but I was asking my parents to spend $49.99 on games that turned out to be duds a lot of the time...with horrible graphics and game play to boot. Video games now look better than real life.
Also, if you want to complain that Huntress is not the same version from what we read in the comic, try watching the first Ninja Turtles movie where Splinter was a rat learning martial arts skills in a bird cage. No shots at the movie. It was charming as all get out, but I’m trying to make the point that folks my age and older should be wowed that geek culture actually became mainstream, with amazing story telling and special effects. I bought a Captain Marvel T-Shirt at a Wal-Mart, which would not have been possible in 2008. I’m forever grateful to live during these times.
Now I know that I am being a bad fan, only expecting incremental change, but I just remember a time when all of this geekdom stuff wasn’t everywhere. But enough of me living in the past! OK, here we are in 2020, and the movie is here!
All Praises Due to Margot Robbie
I mean this subheading most sincerely. World around the campfire is we were supposed to get a Gotham City Sirens movie. Margot Robbie met with the execs at Warner Bros. and came out reporting that a Birds of Prey movie would be created instead of the aforementioned one. Hearing the news made me excited, for finally, characters that I loved would finally be uttered aloud to the masses. Personally, I didn’t even care if the movie was spectacular or not. I just want when someone asks me who my favorite character is, and I respond, “Huntress,”, I don’t want them to think I’m being flippant with them. They will know, win, lose, or draw, who the Huntress is after all of this. Thank you, Margot Robbie.
Cathy Yan and Christina Hodson
Another thank you to Cathy Yan and Christina Hodson, both pulling off narrative feats while the studio is trying to figure out which direction they want to take the DCEU. What I mean by that is over at MCU, the stories felt connected, even when they stood alone. At the point at which I’m writing this, the DCEU doesn’t have a clear cut plan for the future, so I have to commend the writer, Christina Hodson, and the director, Cathy Yan, for operating a project with a limited budget and perhaps constraints as far as scope. However, this is what I’ve always loved about the Birds of Prey, which is, they operate within their own pocket universe, sort of speak. Back in the day, I could read a Birds of Prey comic and not need to know what was going on in the overall DC Universe, which I found rather attractive. I didn’t want to be bogged down with history, mythos, and continuity. Sure, Birds of Prey had characters with rich histories, and guest stars that went deep into DC’s rolodex, but I didn’t have to do research; the stories written before me were appealing enough.
Christina Hodson delivers a script, which I believe captured the spirit of our main characters, the essence of a particular part of town in East Gotham, and the realism that has an absence of fantasy, which I believe was quite gutsy. In the SuperHero genre, most of these movie characters are flying around, portals are opened, and Wizards are wonderfully wallowing across the silver screen. In this we get a cop who has been wronged by the system, a multi-talented character who is down on her luck as a lounge singer for the main “Bad Guy” and the daughter of a Mafia Don who wants to deliver vengeance to those who murdered her family in front of her.
Full disclosure, I was a bit nervous about going into this movie. I didn’t want them to “mess it up.” Allow me to explain when my nerves began to settle. The scene where Renee Montoya, played by Rosa Perez, was explaining the murder scene while walking into the actually murder scene as it was happening. A brilliant piece of storytelling technique, which I absolutely love. I could feel the claustrophobia of Montoya, who was probably the best/most competent detective in the precinct, having to not only worry about her accomplishments being lifted by her former partner turned supervisor, but also having to deal with those who have less experience than her, pass her up as well. No matter your affiliation or persuasion, this is a theme many people can relate to universally. Again, I’m all for supernatural fantasy, but I believe this is a movie that shouldn’t just be brushed off. Moreover, because this script is dealing with real issues, or the zeitgeist, I believe this movie is not only relevant, but needed to be told.
Black Canary, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, was written, directed, and performed magnificently. In my opinion, Black Canary is a difficult character to get right; she’s a character that isn’t necessarily a type...upfront. She isn’t comic relief. I would not classify her as the “cool chick”, nor would I say she is the one with rage issues. Throwing out she’s the one who nurtures everyone wouldn’t fit either. At times, she may fit into the “Thankless Leader” archetype, but I feel as if she is everything, and only shades of everything all at once. None of that made sense, I know, but Black Canary is a character who needs to be explained thoughtfully. Yes, she is the highly trained martial artist with the Sonic Cry….but she is so much more.
The scene where Harley Quinn is under the influence, and the dude is trying to get her in the van is a piece of cinema that needs to be discussed at panels, on podcasts, and places of higher learning to be frankly honest. Black Canary could have sped off in her car. I mean, who cares about Harley Quinn, right? Wrong. Throughout the movie, we see the Black Canary, who is secretly working with Detective Montoya to bring down Black Mask, has to play the duality of hero and uninvested lounge singer who happens to work for a Crime Boss. Trying to save someone who’s murdered, maimed, and robbed is not at the top of the to do list for the Canary, but leaving Quinn like this goes against Dinah’s ethics. Yes, watching Jurnee kick butt was awesome, but making the audience see Dinah get in the car, almost choosing to ignore what was going on, but then making the decision to get involved, places the audience in a situation where they have to ask themselves, “What Would You Do?”
Ok, the scene in Black Mask’s club when he is rather cross about whatever is going on with him, and a patron at another table, who happens to be laughing and having a good time, created the most tension to me. Roman Sionis, also known as Black Mask, takes offense. He approaches the table and proceeds to humiliate the woman, demanding that she hops on the table and dance. Roman even instructs the lady’s boyfriend to take her clothes off. Absolute nudity doesn’t happen, but the sequence is disturbing enough, taking away any admiration a movie goer may have had for the character. There was a clear cut message, communicating with the audience that this character must be stopped. Dinah, who at this point of the movie is Roman’s driver and sort of bodyguard has to stay quiet and not speak out, for she doesn’t want to blow her cover. This restraint causes the Black Canary, who gives one of the strongest performances in the film, to cast a single tear down her cheek. Again, we see Black Canary displaying empathy to a woman who was being assulted by men with bystanders around watching. In the first instance, she intervened, but she’s not able to do so here, for it may have stopped the bigger picture, so this woman, who was cut down via humiliation just for laughing, has to suffer. Again, this is a scene where the audience is asked, “What Would You Do?”
Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya was a brilliant move as far as casting is concerned. Of course, we are used to Montoya being one the younger ones on the force as far as in other media, comics and cartoons, but Hodson adding experience to the character was the right move. The meta aspect of the role wasn't lost on me at all, being that the actress may have had to deal with some of the B.S. Renee faced, being a woman of a certain age and of color, navigating a male-driven (Good Ol' Boy) industry network, and the like. In elementary I saw Rosie Perez in Do The Right Thing, with the boxing gloves on and the Brooklyn swagger. If you noticed, each character in this film had their own fighting style. Rosie Perez is a huge boxing fan, so of course we see Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya fight like a pugilist.
I found great joy inside my heart when I discovered that not only was she cast in the movie, but she was also touring with the other actresses, promoting an action film! How often do we see a seasoned actress promoting an action film internationally? Not enough, I will tell you that much! I’m pretty sure Rosie Perez understood the tone and pitch this character needed. A good detective who has to see her former partner not only take the credit she deserves, which eventually led to him being her supervisor, but she also has to deal with taking his criticisms and having to hear the praises of a younger male partner. Again, Christina Hodson wrote an excellent script considering what she was handed. They didn’t allow her access to all things DC. And she didn’t need them. This movie is rich with character and story throughout.
OK. She got me. I love her. Margot Robbie was excellent. I’ve only seen her in Wolf of Wall Street and Suicide Squad, and I don’t really follow Harley Quinn that much, but after this, I am now interested in the character and actress. Miss Robbie won me over. She was charming, disturbing, and down right entertaining. And boy did she kick butt! The scenes with her and young Cassandra Cain were not only delightful, but I thought her Ad Hoc, misguided mentor-ship with Cassandra was quite endearing. Harley was just Harley. She tried to do the right thing, but at times, on the way there, she failed, which is totally human.
The action scenes were spectacular with Harley. The one scene where she "powered up on cocaine" was incredible. I really, really, really tried to pay attention when Margot started and the stunt double ended, but at no point could I tell the difference. I love the world building we saw with Harley's neighborhood, but it was also sad when a lot of it was burn to the ground, sort of speak. After walking out of the film, I understood why she had to lose her turf and home base. She needed to start anew. And we didn't see her walk shoulder to shoulder with the Birds of Prey in the end, which was great.
Helena Bertinelli is my favorite character in all of comics, and I thank everyone involved in for developing this character for the silver screen. Before Harley Quinn: The Birds of Prey, I had never seen a Mary Elizabeth Winstead movie. I know. My loss. I have to say, the narrative around the Huntress, aka, the Cross Bow Killer, made me very happy.
Yes, I know that Mary Elizabeth Winstead's take on the character isn't quite what we are used to as Helena Bertinelli fans, but I really enjoyed the performance and how she was used. Yes, she wasn't in the movie much, but personally, I thought that's what made her RAD. It built her up, making her this mythic-urban legend, who you don't MESS with, OK? To me the essence of Helena Bertinelli is her origin of surviving the massacre which tried to end her family line, only to grow more determined than ever to avenge her family, serving street justice to those who deserved it. But as we know in the books, Helena grows to understand that vengeance is not the only answer; however, justice is.
Many people have come up to me and said that she behaved awkwardly in the movie. Well did she? I don't know. If I walked in an abandoned Fun House, and I saw the detective who's investigating me for murder, Harley Quinn, and a teenager, I would behave awkwardly as well. And the next morning I'm in a Taqueria with them sharing drinks...yeah, I might come off as a tad bit, maladroit.
DC Warner Bros, believe in Birds of Prey. Harley Quinn is awesome, and I know we will see her in the future, but don't give up on Birds of Prey. There is so much there.
I'm a big fan of Cassandra Cain. I even do a podcast called the Batgirl: Cassandra Cain Podcast. As fans of the character in the comics, we are use to her being this high class martial artist, yet in the movie she's an artful dodger type, which I'm a sucker for! My only complaint about this movie is I wish they leaned into that a little more. I wish we saw her pulling more hi jinks, scams, and cons. Adapting a movie to a comic that wasn't even an on-going series at the release of the movie, one might imagine liberties would be taken, which is fine with me.
Perhaps during this world wide pandemic, with everyone sheltered in place, more people will watch this for the first and second time and that makes me happy. The reason it makes me happy is because in the future when someone asks me who my favorite character is in comics, and I respond the Huntress, they will not look at me with a blank stare. And the reason why the random person who doesn't read the comics will know, a great deal of that will be because of this movie. And that makes me thankful.