As I left the theater in early February, I knew instantly that director Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) was not for me. The post-fight margaritas, the bullet-proof bustier, the severity of Black Mask’s defeat: all of it was not for me. Hold up, hold up, hold up. I’m getting this all wrong. Let me try again. ::rewind noise:: As I left the theater, I knew instantly that Birds of Prey was not *for me*. Whew, yes, that’s better. See, I completely understand who these characters are from many years reading DC Comics, watching Batman: The Animated Series (and subsequent animated programs to follow), and generally consuming the stories of Gotham City. The thing is, what Yan, screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee), and lead actor/producer Margot Robbie created speaks not to the fandom, but to women — to their experience, their world view, and their realities. Since its theatrical, and subsequent VOD release, countless articles, Twitter threads, and more have analyzed BoP, revealing a treasure trove of references to DC lore, but, more empowering, repeated nods and acknowledgements to feminine strength. With BoP fully available on home video May 12th, audiences no longer need to shell out $20 a pop for a mere 48-hours of anarchy, they can bring it home permanently.
If you’d like a spoiler-free examination of Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), head to the theatrical review. Moving forward provides a high chance of spoilers.
The end of 2016’s Suicide Squad saw the Joker (Jared Leto) break Harley Quinn (Robbie) out of Blackgate Prison, presumably to continue their relationship. However, things do sour for the toxic couple and they break up, leaving the typically untouchable Harley an open target for everyone with a grudge. Meanwhile, club owner Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) is looking to consolidate the Gotham underworld beneath him, except he loses the one thing that will secure his possession to a young thief. Seeing an opportunity to save herself, Harley offers to track down the item in exchange for freedom. Her search ends up putting her on the same path as a mysterious assassin, a lounge singer with a heart of gold, and a Gotham PD detective with a grudge. With their motivations lining up, the four women and the thief may just have what they need to take down Sionis and everyone else who wants to take their independence.
Strangely, I had the same reaction to BoP as I did to director Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite. While that may sound like an odd coupling to make, let’s examine an aspect of each film. In Parasite, a moment of incredible tension comes when the wealthy Park family calls their housekeeper and asks her to make Ram-Don before they arrive. I won’t get into why it’s a tense sequence, but I will explain why the Ram-Don is so important: it’s a dish made from two incredibly cheap noodles (Chapagetti and Neoguri) topped with an expensive steak. Parasite is an eviscerating look at classism with this dish exemplifying it perfectly: expensive tastes laid upon inexpensive materials to create a false luxury. In concert with Bong’s other deep nods and references, Parasite becomes a highly complex and nuanced work. (Unless you don’t know anything about Ram-Don ::raises hand::, at which point the significance is lost.) In looking at BoP, let’s go to Harley and her time with the roller derby. In the bonus featurette “A Love, Skate Relationship,” it’s mentioned that Harley is the only comic character on skates and is deeply loved by the derby community, something which began during the 2011 “New 52” relaunch for DC Comics. Though Harley’s only briefly shown in the film as a jammer on a derby team, Harley brutally takes a few people down, pigtails bopping out of her helmet, as she joyously races around the track. This would be fine and dandy except, just a moment or two before, Harley cuts her pigtails post-breakup. It’s common for anyone going through a trauma to change something with their hair as a means of exerting control over something, but then she has pigtails again? Is this incongruity the work of a script supervisor losing track, poor editing, or just Harley being Harley? If you don’t know anything about derby, any of those are likely to suit you. For those you skate, though, they immediately recognize that Harley attached her recently shorn tails to her helmet like a hunter mounting a kill’s head on a wall. She didn’t just remove the hair, she’s made it an adornment for when she goes into battle. It’s no longer something that makes her pretty and innocent, but a symbol of her ferocity.
As previously mentioned, better and more apt writers have explored the level of detail and authenticity of Yan and Hodson’s BoP. For instance, if you haven’t read Leah Schnelbach’s article “On the Significance of Harley Quinn’s Split Lip in Bird of Prey,” make sure that you take the time to do so. As a tease, Schnelbach compares the presentation of women and violence for Black Widow in 2012’s The Avengers against Harley in BoP. Black Widow frequently gets punched, yet rarely looks damaged, whereas Harley not only gets a split lip from Sionis, but it’s visible in her dream sequence and throughout the film. This little detail, while inconsequential to most, highlights how BoP wears its scars right up front and refuses to hide them. It’s in the way it takes a moment to highlight the socially awkwardness of a girl brought up to be an assassin or the distrust of a fighter who’d rather sing then embrace her strength because she knows what it cost her mother. These are real details that the film uses (some for a glorious bit of laughter, some to add emotional weight to the reluctant allies) to ground the hyper-realistic aspects of the comic book genre. It’s these little details — character beats and depictions, clothing utility and character presentation, production and set design — that make BoP resonate and instill a desire to revisit Harley and the Birds of Prey over and again.
If you’re the type whose been chomping at the bit to get into the special features, you’re in for a serious treat. There are a total of six featurettes examining everything from the making of BoP, the set design and creation, the costuming, the stunts; as well as a gag reel and feature-length special edition viewing experience called “Birds Eye View Mode.” Whereas many featurettes in recent releases have been on the shorter side, these tend to take their time with “A Love, Skate Relationship” being the shortest at 4:29 minutes and “Grime and Crime” being the longest featurette at 10:39 minutes. The most disappointing bonus feature is the gag reel and that’s because it’s the shortest bonus feature running a scant 2:02 minutes. Underscored by the truly infectious official soundtrack, these featurettes highlight just how much thought went into the development of the narrative, design of the sets, and execution of everything from character interaction to stunts. Even if, like me, you weren’t overcome by the deeper meaning of BoP, you’ll undoubtedly come away from the featurettes with an appreciation for just how much work and passion went into creating the experience. As is often the case, if something looks easy, it likely took ages of planning to accomplish.
While I stand by my previous statement that the pacing of BoP diminishes the experience and that there’s not enough of the group together for a film titled Birds of Prey, it is a hell of an origin story for all involved. Currently there’s been no announcement of another installment, but there’s certainly a desire for one. And for anyone who thinks that BoP and any other Birds of Prey stories should be PG-13, did you see Once Upon a Deadpool? That flick is funny for the new material and utterly toothless for the rest. By granting Harley and the Birds a proper R-rating, they got to explore the violence women endure without having to gloss it up or tone it down. That’s awfully uncomfortable for some and deeply liberating to see for others. Why? Because we’re not used to seeing women hurt on screen like this, but it happens. To see it acknowledged is empowering. You don’t have to be a trained psychologist to understand the value of that.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) 4K UHD, Blu-ray Combo Pack, and Digital Special Features
- Birds Eye View Mode (1:48:53)
- Birds of Prey: Birds of a Feather (8:26)
- Sanity Is Sooo Last Season (7:39)
- Wild Nerds (6:03)
- Grime and Crime (10:39)
- Romanesque (4:57)
- A Love, Skate Relationship (4:29)
- Gag Reel (2:02)
Available on digital beginning March 24th, 2020.
Available on VOD beginning April 7th, 2020.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray Combo Pack, and DVD May 12th, 2020.