The superhero movies based off of DC Comics properties over the past decade have missed more often than they’ve hit, a painful truth for those of us who are frustrated with Superman’s treatment in film of late. The strange upside to this has been that other characters who are less popular (or at least who have been adapted fewer times) have been given a strange kind freedom to try something—anything—that will shake up the formula. Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam all have been received somewhat better than the higher-profile Superman and Justice League adaptations, in part because they zigged where those latter films zagged.
In light of those efforts, it makes sense that Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) veers in the complete opposite direction of its forebearer, Suicide Squad, which unveiled Margot Robbie’s portrayal of the Joker’s long-suffering girlfriend. First introduced to fans in the immortal Batman: The Animated Series, in the nearly 30 years since her debut, the character has gone from the Joker’s henchwoman to a reliable fan favorite. Besides adding another story to the recent trend of films about women turning to crime when they’ve had enough, Birds of Prey manages the handy feat of focusing on the character of Harley Quinn—her underlying complexities—without making her character wholly dependent on the men in her life.
Harley first appeared in “The Joker’s Favor,” and while she won fans immediately, she was clearly a sideshow to the main event that was Mark Hamill’s portrayal of the Joker. It didn’t take long for the writers of the show to make her the focus of her own episodes, though: The second season’s “Harley and Ivy” teamed her up with Poison Ivy. At one point after a heist they are in a car, stopped at a light, when some catcalling morons pull up in the lane next to them. Harley blows their car up with a bazooka.
Throughout the animated series, Harley breaks up with the Joker (or appears to) several times, always to come crawling back. It wasn’t until the last season of the show and the episode “Mad Love” that the writers really dug down into why. In what has to rank as one of the darkest episodes of a children’s TV show—even when set against the quarter century of shows that have come since—we get a deep dive into Harley’s past. The episode codified her canon backstory: The psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel, manipulated into becoming obsessed with the Joker, dropping the prim and professional façade for a life of crime. The best writers who have been handed Harley in the intervening years have understood the tension between her liberation from norms and the irony of it coming attached to her total subservience to the Joker.
There have also always been those who, as Harley’s ex would put it, just don’t get the joke. One persistent legacy of the two characters are the years of memes adoringly holding them up as an ideal couple when it’s always been abundantly clear that good lord, no they aren’t. It almost feels like Harley’s more recent high-profile portrayals are all aimed at dispelling that misunderstanding: In the Injustice 2 videogame, she struggles with the trauma of the Joker’s manipulation after she gets gassed by the Scarecrow.
The “fantabulous emancipation” in the title is where Birds of Prey starts, by centering the question “Who is Harley without the Joker?” It’s a legitimate one from the standpoint of the franchise, but it also mirrors the doubt that so many survivors of abuse struggle with. “You’re nothing without me,” is the refrain of so many abusers, including the Joker in more than one portrayal. Having broken up with him, Harley goes out to paint Gotham City red, only to reveal her new single status to the city when she blows up Ace Chemicals (where their bad romance began). It’s a hilarious little detail that under-appreciated homicide detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) immediately understands what the explosion means: Gotham criminals are evidently local celebrities.
Harley is immediately punished for her independence. Suddenly everybody in town she’s ever crossed decides to kill her because she’s no longer under Mistah J’s protection. The literal obstacle before her is that the world is repeatedly telling her that she is, in fact, nothing without her ex-boyfriend. It’s when she’s at the mercy of underworld boss Roman Sionis (the comic book character Black Mask, played with addled grandiosity by Ewan McGregor) that she’s forced to bargain for her life, and the movie makes her status as an abuse survivor explicit.
As Sionis has her tortured, Harley retreats into a mental mind palace complete with glitzy dance routine. This is how she’s coped.
That Birds of Prey went there makes it unique enough, but it also stacks the cast with actors who all provide fresh takes on old characters, all unified by the experience of being tired of putting up with men’s shit. It takes a McGuffin (a diamond no less) to put Montoya, Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and a pre-teen Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) on various collision courses with one another and Sionis’ army of mob hitmen.
Some of the—we’ll charitably call it “discourse” surrounding the film centered on the absurdity of an early scene in which Harley drools rapturously over an egg sandwich, a simple joy in life which is cruelly wrenched away from her as the consequences of her actions all come to bear at once. It’s only at the end of the film, after ripping through a police station with glitter grenades, offering her fellow combatant a hair tie in the midst of combat, and pulling one over on her enemies that she gets to chow down on that perfect combination of toast, egg, cheese, and just enough but not too much hot sauce.
As journeys of self-actualization go, that’s one tasty metaphorical destination.
Kenneth Lowe served you a subpoena once (it was a small subpoena). You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.