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Review: “Birds of Prey” truly is “fantabulous”

Let me open this review with a warning: I am by no means a regular consumer of superhero movies. I don’t even know how much I don’t know about the DC franchise, because I can’t tell you which superheroes are from DC and which are from Marvel. Some might think this makes me unqualified to judge a movie like this one; but on the contrary, it makes me the ideal person to judge.

As a general rule, movies should not be accessible only to an elite few who are willing to put in significant amounts of background research prior to watching them. Down that path lies the alienation of the general public and the triumph of a toxic minority who believe that sweating blood to enjoy the media you consume makes you morally superior. Like many moviegoers, I watch movies for one thing and one thing only: to be entertained. And if you, like me, are entertained by female bonding, diverse casts, and great fight scenes, then watching “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” may be the right experience for you.

The plot of this movie, as I understood it, is as follows: Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie), the Joker’s girlfriend and partner in crime, undergoes a less-than-mutual breakup. After she rallies and decides to flaunt their parting of ways, she realizes that without Joker’s protection, she’s become vulnerable prey for everyone with a grudge against her. Chief among those coming after her is Gotham crime lord, Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), also known as Black Mask. A kidnapped Harley cuts a bargain with Black Mask; he won’t kill her if she can recover a valuable diamond that’s slipped out of his grip. One problem, though; that diamond has just been swallowed by young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who Harley will have to break out of jail. Plus, Harley’s not the only person on the job. Sionis has placed a bounty on Cassandra’s head for any mercenary willing to cut her open, and if Harley wants to save both the diamond and the girl, she’ll have to team up with several more female antiheroes: Sionis’s emotionally detached driver, Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a mysterious and awkward hitwoman who wants to be called Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and jaded detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who has been building a case against Sionis for years. 

I would describe this film’s plot as “mostly coherent,” which is honestly higher praise than I can give to many of the action films I’ve seen in my life. Sure, I raised my eyebrows at more than a few plot devices, but as previously stated, this is a superhero movie. Its primary purpose is to serve as a power fantasy. What’s more, this is a female power fantasy. Women almost never get movies like this, and when they do, they have to watch the characters being endlessly attacked for being “Mary Sues” (a term referring to “unrealistically accomplished” female characters; after all, it’s so much less likely that a woman would be good at things than a man). Even if I hadn’t understood a single iota of the plot, I’d be inclined to forgive it on account of sheer entertainment value, which this movie certainly delivers.

The best thing about the plot of “Birds of Prey” is undoubtedly its effectiveness as a mechanism for delivering fight scenes. These scenes are many and varied, visually thrilling, and had me and my fellow moviegoers chuckling with satisfaction as we watched mercenaries get what was coming to them. Among the movie’s greatest visual and creative accomplishments were (1) a water-soaked fight scene that did not remotely sexualize the people, particularly the women, involved (2) a fight scene involving a high-speed roller skate chase, which was one of the greatest things I have ever witnessed onscreen. I would like to petition for every chase scene in every film, no matter how gritty or serious, to incorporate roller skates from now on.

Equally as satisfying as the fight scenes are the movie’s female characters and their development throughout the narrative. These women are chaotic, warmhearted, exhausted, foulmouthed, awkward, and hilarious. Their outfits are incredible; almost every piece of clothing worn by the leads looks like something you would find at a thrift store on the luckiest shopping day of your life. Their dynamic together is supportive but not saccharine, sometimes difficult to maintain but undoubtedly rewarding. Three of our five female leads are women of color, and two are casually established as queer, both of which are (unfortunately) still groundbreaking cinematic choices.

By the way, a note to every man who took to the Internet after this film to complain that the women of “Birds of Prey” weren’t sexy enough; first, please consider engaging with female characters and women in general as people rather than sex objects. Secondly, and this one in particular to the men who claimed that a leather-clad, crossbow-wielding Mary Elizabeth Winstead was not appropriately sexy—on behalf of myself and every woman-loving-woman and nonbinary person in that movie theater, may I say, I don’t think you have any idea what sex appeal is. 

The reviews for this recent release are already rolling in, and after a $33.2 million opening weekend, many of them are already calling “Birds of Prey” a box office disappointment. There are several likely contributing factors to this consensus. For one, due to quite a bit of swearing and a few scenes containing relatively graphic violence or implied attempts at sexual assault, the film was rated R, thus likely driving away many moviegoers under 17. For another, the title “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” usually shortened to “Birds of Prey,” largely buries the lede—that the film is led by fan-favorite Harley Quinn. (Some theaters have been attempting to compensate for this by modifying the name on the marquee to read “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.”) Additionally, this movie is women-led and woman-directed, which will likely both drive away the misogynist demographic and inspire male reviewers to deride the capabilities of women in entertainment and call the film a flop, even if evidence appears to the contrary.

For now, there’s little I can do about the gendered biases that plague movie viewers and reviewers. All I can say is even if the negative reviews have instilled doubt in your heart, if you think you might like a female-led action film, I urge you to go give “Birds of Prey” a chance and form your own opinion.