My problem going into Birds of Prey was one the film was perhaps aware of but still never solved: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is a mess of contradictions. She is a hot mess, I guess, and that will be enough for a certain kind of viewer, but the film neither embraces the male gaze nor repudiates it.
While Quinn’s back story has been very stable since the character was introduced in a television cartoon, its significance (and hence the character’s meaning) has remained elusive. She is a psychiatrist working at Arkham Asylum who first treats, then falls in love with, The Joker. To prove her love she breaks him out of confinement and eventually dives into a similar vat of chemicals to the one that changed the Joker’s appearance.
Of the many things I hate about this origin story, perhaps the thing I hate the most is the way it uses mental illness as a cheap plot device to make Harley’s underlying character entirely malleable. She is a victim when the writers want us to feel sorry for her, a vengeful force of nature when they want us to cheer her.
There is an inevitable sisterhood theme running through all this, but it is hard for this egalitarian to see how Harley is much better than the sadistic men who defend and empower her. The film opens with her realization that Gotham’s underworld has been scared to attack her for fear of the Joker’s retribution. She makes a massive display of property damage to announce her independence and soon finds herself on the run from any number of thugs. In other words the “emancipation” of Harley Quinn is not a freedom from unwilling bondage to a man but rather a freedom to break bones and shoot people on her own. You’ve come a long way, baby.
The Birds of Prey are a trio of female characters from the Batman universe — Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell) and Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). Their own backstories are thin and rushed, and as a result carry very little emotional weight. I’ve resisted the knee-jerk preferences for all things MCU over all things DCU, but as with the Justice League movie, Birds of Prey still feels like DC playing “catch up” with Marvel by trying to introduce multiple characters in the same movie and then wondering why they are so thinly developed and uninteresting. Winstead, so very, very good in All About Nina, looks lost as The Huntress is given nothing to do but scowl at people who make jokes regarding her hero name. Smollett-Bell fares a little better, but Black Canary spends so much time cowering in fear of Roman Sionis/a.k.a. Black Hand that when she finally lets her sonic cry rip we wonder why she has been letting her employer push her around so much.
When Harley gets down to the business of bashing heads with baseball bats, the film has an admitted action-sequence competence that makes these sequences mildly enjoyable to watch. There is a cleverness to fight choreography that reminded me, just for a second, of Captain America stuck in an elevator with a bunch of Hydra operatives. But when Harley does a back flip over a moving car, reminiscent of Rey in the last Star Wars movie, it occurred to me that these characters are just interchangeable avatars. The thrills are in the stunts themselves, regardless of whether the character executing them is fighting evil or embodying it.
Chaotic neutrals — characters who don’t fit neatly into the categories of hero and villain — are a welcome and necessary part of our imaginative literature. Characters like Omar in The Wire, Jack Sparrow, or Deadpool allow us to imagine being freed of the constraints of the law while retaining some sort of moral code that distinguishes us from evil. But there is a difference between being chaotic and being insane, between operating in accordance with one’s own code and endlessly shifting sides as circumstances change.
It is worth adding that in addition to being muddled thematically, Birds of Prey is crass and crude aesthetically. Harley swears incessantly. She robs a grocery store, hurting a security guard, because “paying is for suckers,” and she shoots police officers with bean-bag guns just…because. McGregor’s Black Hand is particularly sadistic, and the glee with which the film depicts men torturing women and even children is supposed to justify, I guess, the glee we feel at Harley paying them back in kind.
That film’s sadism might be worth enduring if there were some glimmer of reflection in Harley or on her behalf about how quickly we become the thing we are punishing, but even that truism is too deep for this movie. It cares only for how gracefully its characters inflict pain on one another, not a whit for their reasons for doing so.