From August 2017-January 2020, Keith R.A. DeCandido took a look at every live-action movie based on a superhero comic in the weekly “4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch.” He caught up to real time, as it were, with Joker in January, but now that we’re at the halfway mark of 2020, Keith will take a look at the 2020 releases to date (Bloodshot last week, Birds of Prey today), as well as one movie he missed the first time, 2000’s Faust: Love of the Damned.
Harley Quinn was only intended to be a one-shot role. In the “Joker’s Favor” episode of Batman: The Animated Series, the producers thought the episode would work better if Joker had a female sidekick, so they created Quinn. The character was inspired by an appearance by Arleen Sorkin in a dream sequence in Days of Our Lives in a jester costume, and the episode’s writer, Paul Dini, was friends with Sorkin, and was able to get her to voice the character.
That should have been it, but hoo hah was it not…
The character took off, becoming incredibly popular. She soon evolved into a worthy villain on her own, even separating from the Joker and teaming up with Poison Ivy in what may be the greatest episode of B:TAS, “Harley and Ivy.” Eventually, she was incorporated into the comics continuity as well.
The one-shot Mad Love gave the character’s origin story, hinted at but never seen in the animated series: Harleen Quinzel was a psychiatrist who worked with the Joker at Arkham Asylum and wound up falling for him, helping him escape, and becoming his sidekick.
Already a hugely popular character, Quinn hit the mainstream zeitgeist with Margot Robbie’s portrayal in 2016’s Suicide Squad, one of the few bright spots of that dismal film. A Quinn-focused film was green-lit, with Robbie as one of the producers.
In 1996, DC published the Birds of Prey comic, primarily a vehicle for Black Canary (and also something to do with the Barbara Gordon character after she was maimed by the Joker in The Killing Joke). BOP was a particularly strong early example of the now-very-common trope of the action hero in the field while a smart person with computer access talks in the hero’s ear and guides them and provides technical support of various kinds from a safe distance.
The character of Black Canary was originally created in 1947 as Dinah Drake, and both she and her daughter Dinah Laurel Lance have had that superheroic identity over the decades. The character has been part of both the Justice Society and the Justice League, and Lance is often paired (both romantically and superheroically) with Green Arrow.
Huntress was added to the team by Gail Simone when she took over writing the book. The third character with that name, Helena Bertinelli is the child of mobsters who saw her family slaughtered, and has sworn vengeance. She has always been a bit unstable and more of a brutal vigilante than other costumed heroes.
Over the last twenty-five years several female (and the occasional male) character have been part of the Birds of Prey.
Robbie’s Quinn movie used the BOP concept to bring together a bunch of female characters, including each of the above, plus another one who, like Quinn, originated in B:TAS and became part of the comics: Detective Renee Montoya. One of the recurring Gotham City Police Department officers on TV, Montoya was incorporated into the comics immediately, and became a major supporting player, one of the focal characters in the Gotham Central comic book, and for a while taking over the role of the Question from Vic Sage.
The final main character is Cassandra Cain, who has the same name as the person who took over as Batgirl from Barbara Gordon after the latter was maimed. Instead of a mute martial artist who works as a superhero, Cain in this movie is a smart-mouthed pickpocket, and also the film’s Maguffin, as she swipes a diamond that everyone in the movie wants, and swallows it, so now everyone’s after her.
Though it follows up from Suicide Squad, Robbie is the only character from the prior DCEU oeuvre who appears in this film. (Joker is never seen, except briefly in flashback footage from Suicide Squad, and you never actually see Jared Leto’s face. Which is, y’know, fine.) Debuting in this film are Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Rosie Perez as Montoya, Jumee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary, and Ella Jay Basco as Cain. The bad guys are Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis, a.k.a. Black Mask, and Chris Messina as Victor Zsasz, both also longtime villains from the Bat-comics.
The movie had a poor box-office performance, partly due to people not realizing it was a Quinn film (a hasty rebranding of the movie to Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey midway through the theatrical release was too little too late). In addition, international box office numbers were depressed by the coronavirus outbreak. While there has been talk of sequels—a Quinn solo movie, possibly also featuring Poison Ivy, a BOP solo movie without Quinn, a Gotham City Sirens movie featuring everyone, etc.—it’s unclear what the next step is given the disappointing showing of the film.
“You’re not the only one who makes money off dumb rich white people”
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Written by Christina Hodson
Directed by Cathy Yan
Produced by Margot Robbie, Bryan Unkeless, Sue Kroll
Original release date: February 7, 2020
Harley Quinn narrates the entire movie, starting with an animated summary of her origin, from her childhood to her achieving a medical degree in psychiatry to her treating and then falling for the Joker, a.k.a. Mr. J, a.k.a. “Puddin’.” But after he broke her out of Belle Reve at the end of Suicide Squad, he went back to treating her like crap, and she has gotten fed up with it. When she tries to get him to treat her better, he kicks her out, at which point we switch to live-action, since the rest of the scenes don’t require paying Jared Leto to appear.
Initially, she keeps their breakup under wraps. She parties at a club owned by Roman Sionis, a.k.a. Black Mask, letting people think she’s still with Joker (which protects her, as nobody messes with Joker’s girl). She also gets involved in roller derby, and acquires a hyena, whom she names Bruce. (An animal control guy brings her in to take the hyena, thinking he’ll get sexual favors for the new pet; Quinn instead has Bruce kill him.)
One night, while listening to Dinah Lance sing at the club, she gets drunk and breaks Sionis’s driver’s legs. Later, someone tries to abduct her, likely hoping to ransom her to the Joker, but Lance beats up the would-be kidnappers. (A drunken Quinn unconvincingly says she could’ve handled it.) Sionis sees this and decides to hire Lance as his new driver.
After overhearing some of her drinking buddies talking about how pathetic Quinn is because they think she’ll go back to him in a shot, she publicly breaks up with him by blowing up Ace Chemicals, the chemical plant where Joker was born and where Quinn dove into a vat of chemicals to show her devotion to him.
At the same time that she blows up the plant, Detective Renee Montoya is investigating a multiple homicide of some gang members by the so-called “crossbow killer,” who’s been targeting mobsters with a crossbow. When the plant blows, she runs to the scene and immediately figures out that it was Quinn who did it by the necklace she left behind.
The Bertinelli crime family, which was massacred years ago, has a diamond that has the number for the account where their ill-gotten fortune is kept. The diamond is coming to Gotham City, and Sionis sends his right-hand, Victor Zsasz, and Lance to retrieve it. They do so, but a pickpocket named Cassandra Cain lifts it from Zsasz, and then is arrested. She swallows the diamond while being driven to the station.
The consequences of Quinn’s public breakup are that everyone she’s pissed off is now trying to kill her, since they know that Joker won’t retaliate. She finds this out when she goes to her favorite greasy spoon to get a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, but before she can eat it, all those people she’s pissed off (and there’s a lot of them) start coming out of the woodwork: a guy whose face was tattoo’d by Joker at Quinn’s instigation, Sionis’ driver, a roller derby competitor, the animal-control guy’s brother, Montoya, and Sionis’ henchmen. While Quinn is able to take care of several of them, some by chance, some by them all getting in each other’s way, she eventually is forced to surrender to Sionis. At this point, the sandwich is long gone, uneaten, abandoned, destroyed.
While chasing Quinn, Montoya had garbage dropped on her, so she has to change clothes at the station, and all that’s available is a T-shirt that reads, “I shaved my balls for this?” Montoya tries to convince her boss (and former partner, who took all the credit for a bust she orchestrated) to go after Sionis, but there isn’t enough evidence to support it, even though Montoya has an informant in Sionis’ gang. Montoya gets a call from Lance saying that Cain has the diamond. Then Quinn shows up at the station and starts shooting people with non-lethal, very festive shotgun rounds.
Quinn realizes that she’s telling things out of order, so we back-fill: Montoya’s informant was the driver whose legs Quinn broke, so she approaches Lance to be her new informant. Lance declines, and gets pissy when Montoya brings up Lance’s mother the superhero, who apparently died in battle. Montoya gives her a card anyhow. Meanwhile, Quinn is tied up and smacked around by Sionis, who is about to have Zsasz slice the skin of her face off (his favored method of torture and murder) when she offers to get the diamond back. (After being smacked in the head, Quinn has a loopy dream sequence where she’s Marilyn Monroe singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.)
Sionis, though, also puts a bounty on Cain, so Quinn is one of dozens of people going after the kid. Quinn fights them off trying to protect Cain (who keeps trying to run away from everyone), and they eventually escape to her apartment, a place over a Chinese restaurant.
The crossbow killer strikes again, and we learn that it’s Helena Bertinelli, the only survivor of the Bertinelli family, who watched her family get massacred fifteen years ago, and has spent the years since training to become a killer who calls herself the Huntress so she can get revenge.
Cain and Quinn hang out at Quinn’s apartment and bond, an experience that only lasts until Sionis blows the place up. The Chinese restaurant owner gave her up. Realizing she has nothing left, Quinn calls Sionis and offers to give him Cain. They meet at an abandoned amusement park.
Sionis sends Zsasz and Lance to the amusement park. Lance surreptitiously calls Montoya to tell her about the meet, but Zsasz overhears this and tells Sionis. Sionis puts on his black mask and gathers his henchthugs.
Quinn duct tapes Cain to a toilet in the hopes that she’ll shit out the diamond. Montoya shows up, but Quinn kicks her out a window. Then Zsasz tranqs Quinn and orders Lance to kill Cain. But Bertinelli shows up and kills Zsasz, the last of the mobsters who slaughtered her family.
Sionis shows up with a ton of bad guys. Quinn says they have to team up. Sionis has an animus against all of them, not just Quinn: Lance betrayed him, Bertinelli killed his bestie, Montoya’s been building a case against him, and Cain’s digestive tract has the diamond he wants.
So they team up to fight Sionis and his thugs.
Despite an impressive amount of ass-kicking, Sionis manages to get his hands on Cain and drive off with her. Bertinelli (on a motorcycle) and Quinn (on skates) engage in a car chase through Gotham, but in the end, Cain winds up saving herself by dropping a grenade she swiped earlier in Sionis’ pants and pulling the pin.
After Sionis is blown up, our heroes gather in a diner where Cain eats lots of spicy food so she’ll finally poop out the diamond. Quinn and Cain then bugger off in Lance’s car.
Bertinelli, Montoya, and Lance become a vigilante crime-fighting team called the Birds of Prey, while Cain is now Quinn’s protégé.
“You killed my sandwich!”
This is an absolute delight of a movie, and the fact that it did poorly at the box office depresses the hell out of me—though I freely admit that, while I love the title, I can see how people wouldn’t realize it was a Harley Quinn movie at a glance.
But it’s so goddamn much fun, completely embracing the chaos and batshittery. Gotham City is the perfect milieu in which to do a crime-adventure story that feels like it could’ve been directed by Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie, but with people in costumes, and dammit, it works.
More so because (unlike Tarantino or Ritchie’s oeuvre) it’s also very much the story of women. Montoya spends the entire movie with her head smashing against the glass ceiling. She’s the smartest cop in the room no matter what room she’s in, but the men around her get all the accolades and promotions. Lance’s mother died alone while trying to do good, and she accepts being Sionis’s pet until she realizes just what a monster he is, at least in part because nobody does anything about it (her reaction when Sionis humiliates a woman in the club for no good reason is heart-rending). And Quinn is as much of a bad-ass as the Joker, but he gets all the press, and it’s his protection that she needs to stay alive (except, of course, once she loses it, she stays alive anyhow).
I love every element of Christina Hodson’s superlative script (Quinn giving Lance a hair-tie in the midst of the fight! The sandwich! Cain having a cast, not because her arm is broken, but so she can be a better pickpocket! The sandwich! Bertinelli hating being called the crossbow killer! The sandwich! Quinn firing bean-bag rounds full of glitter! The fucking sandwich, which is so perfect!), but the thing I love best is that she leans into Quinn’s psychotherapy background. She’s constantly psychoanalyzing the people around her just kind of randomly. I particularly love when Sionis has her tied up and she tries to get him not to do the clichéd detailing of his master plan and she sums up his psychoses in about two seconds.
The performances are amazing, too. We already knew Robbie was awesome as Quinn from Suicide Squad, and she turns that up to eleven in her starring gig. Rosie Perez was born to play Montoya, Jumee Smollett-Bell gives Lance a quiet, tired anger that particularly comes out in her singing at Sionis’s club, and—for all that this is, annoyingly, not at all the Cain of the comics, who is a fantastic character that is pretty much the opposite of a wisecracking pickpocket—Ella Jay Basco is tremendous fun as the wisecracking pickpocket.
The standout, though, is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who brilliantly plays the hugely damaged Bertinelli. She’s sometimes subtle—her affect is just a little bit off throughout, and she very obviously struggles at the end with the idea of being friendly and having fun—and sometimes not so much (her response to Quinn saying she has rage issues is to shout, “I don’t have rage issues!” at the top of her lungs).
Best of all, though, is that Cathy Yan, like Patty Jenkins before her, doesn’t male-gaze her female characters. Gone is Quinn’s tight T-shirt and booty shorts from the David Ayer-directed Suicide Squad, replaced by clothes that still are unmistakably and colorfully Quinn’s, and even Lance’s semi-burlesque outfit is subtle.
Yan also does a fantastic job with the action. Everyone has their own fighting style: Lance is kick-oriented martial arts, Montoya’s a brawler, Bertinelli favors the pose-point-and-shoot method, while Quinn pretty much uses roller derby as her model for how to beat people up. (Also tellingly, she comes alive when she finds a baseball bat in the police evidence room.)
The movie isn’t perfect. The cops are strangely absent for a lengthy fight between Quinn and various others in the evidence room (Quinn couldn’t possibly have taken all of them out), and while Ewan McGregor is obviously having fun chowing down on every available piece of scenery, his Sionis is hardly in the upper echelon of Bat-villains to choose from, and Chris Messina’s Zsasz is tired and uninteresting. (I kept longing for Anthony Carrigan’s gleefully psychotic portrayal of the same character on Gotham.) And the whole plot with a diamond encoded with a bank code doesn’t make anything like sense.
But overall, this movie deserved way bigger of an audience than it got. Maybe it’ll find it on the home-video front and we’ll get the sequels (both with Quinn and the BOPs) that they deserve.
Next week: We step into the wayback machine and cast our eyes upon an adaptation of the Tim Vigil/David Quinn comic book Faust from twenty years ago.
Keith R.A. DeCandido is doing a live reading today at 5pm Eastern time with FAE Productions, followed by a Q & A on Discord (here’s a direct link to the YouTube live video), and will be interviewed by Russ Colchamiro on Russ’ Rockin’ Rollercoaster on Wednesday the 17th of June at 8pm Eastern (register for this free event here).