Despite Birds of Prey, Warner Bros.’s Harley Quinn spinoff, earning great reviews, and despite making an estimated $81 million worldwide in its opening weekend, the film has already been labeled a commercial disappointment in the DC Expanded Universe canon.
But the silly thing is that, because of how rare women-fronted superhero movies are, Birds of Prey’s disappointment is a bigger deal to fans looking for more representation in their superhero movies.
Thanks to the glut of male superhero-led movies, that Thor movie you didn’t see and the beleaguered Justice League are easier to write off as flash-in-the-pan flops when they don’t make big box office numbers.
Yet, because Birds of Prey is now just the third film after 2017’s Wonder Woman and 2019’s Captain Marvel in both the modern-day DCEU and MCU to focus on women superheroes, there’s a nagging worry that studio executives will take it to mean people won’t see women-led superhero movies. It has happened in the past with disasters like Catwoman and Elektra, and those box office busts have directly led to the clear lack of women-led superhero movies compared to their male counterparts.
The attention paid to Birds of Prey and its cohort and reading their success as a bellwether isn’t unique to women-fronted superhero movies. But the concern that the success of each movie in a marginalized genre impacts that genre’s future comes with the territory. There was pressure on Crazy Rich Asians’s box office numbers, for example, because its success dictated the future of Asian American representation; when a movie dares to represent something other than the status quo, the movie’s supporters are forced to cross their fingers.
The pressure of its own importance to superhero movies shapes Birds of Prey and the conversation surrounding it. The thought goes: The better the movie does, the more it feels like a victory for representation, and vice versa. But is that true equality? What if the real fight for representation is in a movie’s shortcomings — as may be the case for the delightfully messy Birds of Prey?
Birds of Prey is an important movie because there are so few movies like it
The most difficult thing for Birds of Prey might be that it came out in the year 2020. For Birds of Prey and the women-centric superhero movies that preceded it, simply existing at a time when such movies are few and far between has posed an uphill battle.
Up until Captain Marvel’s debut in 2019, Marvel had never made a women-led superhero movie. And Warner Bros., after years of fumbling and complaining about how hard it would be to make a Wonder Woman movie, finally did so in 2017.
These movies, because of their gender-barrier-breaking milestones, had to not only make enough money to convince executives that they could stand with traditionally male-led heroes, but they also had to make up for the decade of stories where women were primarily sidekicks, love interests, or damsels in distress, not action heroes. Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel had to give women a superhero in whom they could see themselves — a single character encompassing a myriad of lives, just like the multiple male heroes who have been on the big screen over the past decade are meant to do.
Viewers, in turn, want both someone to cheer for and a movement to cheer about. It’s why these women-led movies are framed and sold in a way that champions female empowerment. Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and movies that similarly represent people who don’t often get the attention they deserve on the big screen — Black Panther, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, and even a movie like Crazy Rich Asians, which exists in a different genre — change the way we talk about movies (see: all the pieces about how these movies could change the future of filmmaking).
Because of their scarcity and rarity, movies about underrepresented voices become symbolic. They’re discussed and looked at in ways that you don’t see, say, with the various Spider-Man reboots or Batman flicks, particularly by the people they represent.
The characters themselves, more than just the movies they’re in, become symbols of representation, too.
Both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel can kick and punch as hard as the men, and they’re also morally uncomplicated. They fight for good and for people who need protecting (the refugee Skrulls for Captain Marvel, and all of humanity for Wonder Woman) from those more powerful than them. And the feminism in Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman attempted to be as pronounced and clear as possible — these women support other women, they’re in charge of their own sexuality and appearance; they’re instantly good and good at what they do.
For better and worse, that happens in Birds of Prey, too.
While Birds of Prey is fun and crackles with excitement, it’s very careful not to miss its female-empowerment-moment beats. Its feminist heart is cleanly marked and packaged tightly. Harley Quinn, a woman we know best as the Joker’s main squeeze, tells us that she and her squad are rough around the edges — more dinged up than the usual squeaky clean heroine. But the script never allows Harley or the Birds of Prey to fully exist beyond representational avatars — not unlike Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel.
Though she commits terrible acts — breaking a man’s leg, evading police, and blowing up a chemical plant — Harley Quinn mostly spends the movie acting out as a consequence of her breakup with her old lover, the Joker. Her background is immediately tied to the Batman universe’s most hated villain, putting Harley in a much grayer area than the usual star of a supposed superhero movie.
In the second half of the film, while she’s facing off against the villainous misogynist Roman Sionis (Harley’s narration via on-screen notes says one of his grievances against her is her having a vagina), Harley also ends up committing some pretty bad crimes — kidnapping Cassandra Cain, holding her for ransom, maiming bounty hunters, etc. But these are done in the interest of protecting herself from Sionis, not out of sheer malice.
If not for these villainous men in her way, the movie seems to suggest, then Harley Quinn isn’t all that bad. She’s a loyal person, as evidenced by her relationship with her landlord Doc. She never harms Cassandra Cain, protecting her from Sionis and his bounty hunters multiple times. And by the end of the movie, she’s easily made friends with the rest of her makeshift team and takes Cain under her wing.
Had the dice rolled the other way and had she never met the Joker, the movie suggests, Quinn wouldn’t be a villain. And the movie shows us that she’s more antihero than villain.
The other members of the girl gang Harley ends up corralling find themselves in similar situations. Each one is a strong woman wronged by men (Renee Montoya and Huntress) or kept as their pet (Black Canary). They’re very clearly the heroes in their own stories, and these women only cause harm to the people who very clearly deserve it within the film. (And typically, they’re guys, which is even better.)
In the final act, when all the women decide very quickly to become friends, everything — their success, independence, and power — locks into place.
Birds of Prey’s uncomplicated feminist message made me think about a 2018 BuzzFeed piece from film critic Alison Willmore, in which she wrote about her qualms with the way girl power is commodified in Hollywood. She contrasted the lack of complexity in the all-women heist movie Ocean’s 8 with the grittiness earned in that year’s other all-women heist movie, Widows.
Willmore succinctly explains what makes Widows so great, where Ocean’s 8 failed to leave a strong impression:
They don’t like each other right away, and they aren’t instantly great at crime. Why would they be? The smile Viola Davis gives one of her costars in the last act is heartstopping because it’s so hard-won, one of the few genuine expressions of warmth in the movie. This crew’s successes are all the sweeter because they’ve had to fumble through and work to find out, literally, if they can bear up under the weight of what they’re doing.
Reading this now, I kept thinking about how much better Birds of Prey could’ve been had it been allowed to be more like Widows, a truly excellent film.
Granted, Birds is a superhero movie, and superhero movies have a tendency to treat success as a result of how well you punch your way through conflicts. And Widows was filled with bloody violence and themes that would never make it into a PG-13 rating, the typical aim for a superhero film. But the “hard” R-rated Birds of Prey so loudly promised a story about a chaotic, unconventional antihero, it’s a shame that it didn’t swing for something darker, grittier — and something more rewarding.
True equality will be when Harley Quinn can star in a movie like Joker
Unintentional or not, Harley Quinn’s Birds of Prey is hitting theaters right after a movie about her bad boyfriend: Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. And despite having a Rotten Tomatoes score (68 percent) lower than Birds of Prey (79 percent), that movie has stormed its way to over $1 billion worldwide at the box office.
While critics were mixed on Joker, many viewers lauded the movie and Phillips for focusing on a character who revels in his own ghoulishness. Joker had no ties to the larger DC cinematic universe and no worries about overblown violence. Unlike Birds of Prey, it wasn’t tethered to past portrayals, namely the particularly dismal one by Jared Leto in Suicide Squad.
“It was a hard movie for us to get made and to convince DC and the studio,” Phillips told the Associated Press in August. “And in fairness the studio took a bold swing with the movie and let us do exactly what we wanted … there really were no rules and boundaries for it.”
Reading Phillips’s multiple interviews about his own movie’s edginess and how “woke” culture inspired him to create Joker is hilariously frustrating when compared to what it takes to get women superheroes onto the screen. Never mind the hoops a movie about a female supervillain would have to jump through to get made — like Gotham City Sirens, what would have been Warner Bros.’s first female-supervillain-centered movie (which was also supposed to star Robbie’s Harley Quinn). It has reportedly been put on hold.
It feels like while there’s hemming and hawing over Harley Quinn’s solo box office potential, Phillips is already on his way to making another edge-lord movie that promises to shock the masses.
And it’s rough that we’re still at a point where Harley can’t be a character who can be as deranged, messy, and reprehensible as her boyfriend. It’s not the number of Harley Quinn or Wonder Woman movies that will determine whether they’re equal with the boys, but rather if either one — or any woman superhero for that matter — ever enjoys the same artistic freedom as Phillips and Joker.
Imagine letting Harley be her own human-disaster self, not a forced role model for women. Imagine Birds of Prey not having the pressure of meeting absurd box office goals in order to square away its future. Imagine what kind of bonkers, off-the-wall, uniquely enraged movie that could be.
We aren’t at that point yet, but hopefully Birds of Prey, along with this year’s Black Widow prequel and Wonder Woman 1984, will bring us somewhere closer.
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