The Fantabulous Birds of Prey is the Batman Returns Sequel We Need

I have waited many a year for a proper sequel to Batman Returns, and I’m happy to tell you that Birds of Prey is IT. It’s the first comics film that really captures the spirit of those first two Tim Burton Batman films—big and brash and cartoony but also gothy and noir. When it wants to be fun it’s the MOST fun, but when it wants to go dark and, especially, highlight the ways people who present as women, or who the characters and society within the film perceive as women, are crushed by society, the filmmakers are more than happy to make the audience sit with their discomfort. Birds of Prey gives us five antiheroic women who are worthy heirs to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Selena Kyle.

Except there are mallets. And roller-derby. And a funhouse. And a hyena.

Go see it!

The plot is blissfully simple after so many convoluted, three-hour-long comic book movies. Harley and the Joker have broken up; she’s not taking it well emotionally, but she’s also now vulnerable to retaliation now that Mr. J. isn’t protecting her. (And she’s wronged a lot of people.) She ends up in the sights of wannabe Gotham Capo Roman Sionis, who sends her after Cassandra Cain, a kid who accidentally stole something Roman wants. Along the way she meets, fights, and sometimes allies with Dinah “Black Canary” Lance, a vigilante who calls herself Huntress, and Renee Montoya, a Gotham detective who wants to bring Roman down.

And that’s it. There’s no war to avert, no finger-snapping, no giant conspiracy—it’s just a joyful, poppy action movies with some great emotional moments between the group of women. Director Cathy Yan gives us loving closeups of weaponry, food, and shoes, and tracks the fight scenes so that they’re not only coherent (rare enough these days), but thrilling. Screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) tells a stripped down story that is part break-up narrative/part found family, with a perfect balance of emotional beats and punchlines.

And I loved it.

Margot Robbie is perfect as Harley—you believe every moment of her emotional rollercoaster, even the parts when she has to be sincere. This is what I’ve always wanted this character to be onscreen. Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary is tough and world-weary with a beautifully hidden soft heart, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings this amazing tone of deadpan mania to Huntress that made my whole theater shriek with delight. And Ella Jay Basco makes Cass my favorite Kid In A Comic Movie since Negasonic Teenage Warhead. But maybe best of all was Rosie Perez as Det. Montoya, simply because she acts like a human woman who’s actually her age. While the other three women are younger, brasher, and much more obviously Comic Book Characters, she’s there with her bitterness and all of the lines in her face and a flask of whiskey. She’s a real person, who became a cop because she wanted to make a difference, but then had to find a way to keep going as men got all the promotions and her girlfriend got sick of her drinking problem.

Screenshot: DC Films/Warner Bros.

Things I Loved:

  • Everyone’s fighting style is different!
  • The fights are ebullient! They reminded me of early Jackie Chan, when Jackie would end up in a fight not of his making and then have to use whatever crockery or office supplies he could find to protect himself.
  • The Tick’s Francoise Chau is in this film! And he’s great, and I wanted way more of him!
  • When shit gets violent, it gets super violent.
  • But when the characters are connecting it feels earned!
  • Bruce the Hyena!
  • And actually that’s also like Batman Returns? Where Selena’s cats bring her literally back to life, it’s Bruce who returns Harley to life after Mr. J. dumps her, emotionally speaking.
  • Ella Jay Basco is Rufio’s IRL niece!
  • Wait wait wait record scratch: THE SANDWICH. I should tell you about THE SANDWICH. …but I don’t want to give it away? So I’ll just tell you that there’s a whole thing about a sandwich in here that just fucking SINGS.
  • Speaking of, Bird of Prey has given us one almighty chef’s kiss of a soundtrack; there’s even a perfectly-deployed instance of Heart!

Screenshot: DC Films/Warner Bros.

Other pop culture moments referenced hilariously in Birds of Prey:

  • The Shawarma Scene
  • General Okoye’s strategic wig toss
  • Aliens/Endgame en toto
  • John Wick (in a good way)
  • Possibly Drunken Master?
  • The Killing Joke
  • Suicide Squad, obviously

OK so now that all the highlights are covered, do you mind if we get a li’l heavy?

I try not to be too gender essentialist (I tend to view gender as a trap) but this movie felt very much like it was produced by women. There is no male gaze in this movie at all—which has possibly contributed to some of the predictable backlash against it?—the characters who are perceived as women are never shot to be ogled. The fights are sometimes utilitarian, sometimes balletic, but there are only two instances I think where women are explicitly put in the type of vulnerable positions that get so much play in male-driven action films, and in both cases the audience is meant to be empathizing with them, not delighting in their abuse.

The film is also, I don’t know, queer ambient? Multiple characters in the film are explicitly gay or bi, and no one is ever targeted for violence or harassment because of it, it’s just accepted as part of the movie’s reality. (You know, like how it should be?) This allows the movie to give us a gloriously queer-coded villain in Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis. McGregor can be as flamboyant and messy and dramatic as the best Disney villain, but it never tips over into some sort of filmic gay bash because it’s just him. Most of the characters are, if not villainous, at least fucked up. There are drinking problems and vendettas and betrayals galore—but it’s never implied that anyone is bad because of their queerness or gender.

Screenshot: DC Films/Warner Bros.

I’m debating how much I should say about Joker? No, not Jared Leto’s portrayal; he’s referred to as Mr. J and overshadows some of Harley’s story, but thankfully not all of it. I mean the Scorsese fanfic that got a ridiculous number of Oscar nominations. Honestly, cross my heart and hope to meet Nightcrawler, I think Birds of Prey is a better take on Life In A Society than Joker was. (Granted, I think that about a lot of movies, but the comparisons are much clearer here. Birds of Prey is effortlessly diverse. It shows us the struggles of many different types of people without trying to make any one character a pain messiah. Its violence is brutal and graphic, but it’s also usually cathartic, and moves the plot forward, like a good musical number in a musical. It also gives us a few moments of psychological insight that are really, completely, spot on. But it does that without wallowing in bathos the way Harley’s Alt-Universe ex does.

This film is more like Jessica Jones, really, than Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman. It systematically breaks down a lot of the shitty things men do to women. But it’s not, as in Wonder Woman, a giant nebulous patriarchy that needs to be dismantled by a woman so incredibly superpowered that she doesn’t have to listen to the men’s objections. This is men reflexively calling women “my girl”, this is men grabbing and pushing and occasionally punching, this is men getting promotions on the backs of women’s work, this is men screaming and demanding everyone’s attention, this is a man assuming that if a woman is laughing she must be laughing AT HIM, this is men putting women on display in order to be humiliated, to make an example, to terrorize all the other women in the room. Roman, the main perpetrator of this kind of behavior, makes for a much more sinister antagonist than Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg, because he’s allowed to be actually vile rather than just smarmy.

In one biting moment, Roman objectifies a woman and forces her to dance and then the camera just drifts over to him as he moves on with his night. She’s still up there, dancing—she must be, because given Roman’s personality, she’ll be killed if she tries to stop, or escape. But she means so little to him that he can turn away and leave her there once he’s sure she’s been traumatized. She’s an afterthought. She doesn’t matter.

And in an ordinary action movie this might be the end of it. How many times have strippers been used as set dressing, in everything from Beverly Hills Cop to Deadpool to Shazam!? But since the camera lingers on Black Canary’s reaction to what’s happening, we see that this woman does matter to the film. The scene is framed to make us squirm, but also to make us realize that this is just another day in Gotham, with a powerful man doing a terrible thing, and a roomful of people letting him get away with it.

And what is fantastic about this movie is that is shows us people—mostly male-presenting characters of various stripes—choosing to be shitty as an undercurrent, so if we want some gristle we can chew on, it’s there. (I do, obviously, I don’t just write thinkpieces for the fortune and fame.) It also shows us our protagonists being shitty to each other a few times, though—much like Mad Max: Fury Road, Birds of Prey shows how everyone is victimized in societies built on inequality. It just shows us that with a spooky carnival and a mallet and the odd glitter rocket.

Where the film gains its power is in women working together, despite their considerable differences. Wonder Woman was alone on her quest. And even when we do see the other women of Themiscyra fight it’s literally a gaggle of goddesses; Carol Danvers fights alone, with increasingly godlike, unstoppable power; the MCU’s squad of women team up in a super pander-y Endgame moment explicitly to rescue bb Peter Parker so we don’t all have to watch him die again. And while I loved a lot of those moments, and teared up during the Themiscyran training montages and clapped with delight when Peter introduced himself to glowing, floating Captain Marvel. The Birds of Prey, on the other hand, are only slightly superpowered when they’re superpowered at all. They fight in tandem, use roller derby tactics, toss each other weaponry and the occasional well-timed hair tie, catch each other, whip each other into the bad guys. The big showstopper fight is centered around protecting young Cassandra Cane, and it’s gorgeous to watch each woman, none of whom are traditional moms, trade the kid between them, check on her, try to shield her from the worst of the violence. And it’s also great that the film makes room for Cassandra to defend herself and help her new BFFs a few times.

And now, a story.

When I got on the train to go home after the movie, I sat in the center of the train car. At one end, two large guys were discussing how “that BITCH is a TROUBLEMAKER” trading the phrase back and forth, repeating it, and occasionally agreeing with each other by saying “she sure is.” At the other end of the car a very large man was muttering things himself, pacing, shadowboxing, and occasionally, hissing.

I am the only other person in the car.

I am the only AFAB.

My phone battery is currently glowing red as Harley Quinn’s lips.

It is four lonnnng stops before anyone else gets on the train. Throughout the ride, I calm down, slowly, relax into the safety of a crowd. I keep my eyes screwed to the train’s floor. But every time I look up a different man is staring at me. Granted, my hair is currently bubblegum pink with a few splashes of Twilight Sparkle purple (plus roots, bleh)—I have made myself a target. But still. I’m a New Yorker, and I’d no sooner openly stare at someone than narc on a bodega cat.

Obviously, readers, I got home just fine, because you’re reading this now. My point is that this is simply ambient noise in my day, to come out of a film explicitly about men’s abuse of women and to just…notice this shit. To notice my own space in this world, and how fragile it feels.

And me without my mallet.

Leah Schnelbach wants a hyena, now more than ever. Come join them in the rollerderby chaos of Twitter!

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