Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

I believe that this title is supposed to have a colon but I can’t bring myself to type it. On the certification card and the listings it is situated before the conjunction but I can’t have any part of placing a colon before a conjunction. I would do anything for love but I won’t do that.

Also the colon doesn’t work because the second part of the title does not provide additional detail on the first as said point of punctuation indicates. Once you’ve seen the film you’ll know that it is not all one name, it is actually two for the two stories being told. This is effectively two fairly distinct movies blended together; Birds of Prey and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.

The second of these is the main component part and I’ll happily pronounce this as the best Batman film with no Batman to have come out in the last six months. The protagonist’s story is literally all about stepping out of the shadow of the Joker, rejecting his influence and moving on to a better place. As someone who found the Todd Phillips/Joaquin Phoenix film objectionable, I am totally on board with this as a theme. Of course this character is not associated with Phoenix’s Joker, she was instead partnered with Jared Leto’s version in Suicide Squad, but they actually avoid any distinct images or representations of any particular incarnation so you can read it how you like. To me The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is demonstrably addressing the flaws in DC’s last film.

The thing this movie gets right that that one got wrong is how it knows its set up is high spirited and kind of silly and it doesn’t flippantly try to squeeze in a very different kind of story, with real world issues, where it doesn’t belong. It knows what works with these comic book characters and what doesn’t. There was one shot in the trailer for this film showing Harley in real anguish that made it look like they’d be genuine heartache here but when you find out what is actually causing the emotional devastation it is actually one of the most amusing gags in the movie.

Pain and anguish felt over a high spirited and kind of silly loss

Yep, this second outing for Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn definitely leans in to the high spirits and the kind of silly. She was the best element of Suicide Squad and it is great to see her on screen again. Robbie’s portrayal of the nutso gangster’s moll turned nutso anti-hero is entertaining throughout but there is one particular scene where she breaks into a police station with a tricked out smoke grenade gun that is a deliciously enticing ballet of violence and glitter.

This movie is quite violent but as is appropriate to a comic book film it is comic book violence (yes that was another dig at Joker). It doesn’t reach the levels of something like Kick Ass but it is in that arena and as with Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 movie it is significant that it is a female that is dishing out much of the pain. DC seem to have learnt from rival superhero studio Marvel and with Aquaman, Shazam and now this they are having a lot more fun. (Suicide Squad would have been more fun too if it hadn’t been so annoyingly sloppy.) What DC have always been just that little bit ahead on though is putting women front and centre. Like DC’s 2017’s Wonder Woman and belatedly Marvel’s 2019 Captain Marvel (both the best part of a decade after Kick Ass and twenty years after Buffy) this feels feminist without labouring the point. It is simply saying ‘look, women can do this stuff too’. Also like those other movies and unlike the early millennium Charlie’s Angels films, Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raiders, Sucker Punch, Underworld and indeed Suicide Squad, it does this without perving over the ladies.

The costumes are not adverse to showing a little bit of midriff but Harley’s shorts are certainly more substantial than the ones she wore before and by the end she even gets a pair of comfy trousers; which is the holy grail for all women in these kinds of movies. Crucially while there may be some flesh showing the camera doesn’t linger on this and that is the result of having a female director. This is most evident in a scene where the bad guy forces a woman to remove her dress. It shows him for the misogynistic beast that he is but it does so without displaying this vulnerable woman’s body to the audience. This film respects women without idolising them, the female characters are certainly not morally unimpeachable but it allows them different layers without making them femme fatales. It gives them the flaws with none of the phwars. This is becoming the norm but it isn’t so long ago that it wasn’t and it should still be celebrated.

Harley’s journey of freedom and her battle against all those that want to do her harm is only part of the narrative, there also is that whole other Birds of Prey part. The main antagonist is Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis (that’s his name, he’s not a centurion although in this film that wouldn’t be weird) and Harley isn’t the only lady to find herself in conflict with him. In the mix we’ve also got Renée Montoya; a cop played by Rosie Perez and Huntress; Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s assassin. Then there’s Jurnee Smollet-Bell as Black Canary; a character that has been played by multiple actors on TV, sometimes with and sometimes without her ultrasonic scream powers, and Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain who in the comics goes on to become Batgirl. Somehow Harley Quinn is both instrumental and incidental to this gang getting together. What is refreshing about this whole group, apart from the fact that they are all women, is only two out of five are white, two are in their mid thirties, one is twenty years older than that and one is thirteen. This is a nicely diverse group. Margot Robbie is the only blonde twenty something, and she’s not even really blonde, oh and she’s Australian and she’s the producer too.

Even though this is Robbie’s film all of the women get good story arcs with the possible exception of Huntress. Even she gets some great moments at the end though when it transpires that being raised by killers has given her all kinds of special skills but none of them social.

Birds of Prey (:) and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a fairly common action film but one that is executed with style and by people who don’t commonly work on action films. It’s not going to receive eleven Oscar nominations but that’s no guarantee of quality anyway and what it will give you is an entertaining (and non-objectionable) night out at the cinema.

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