A Candy Colored Riot
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
There is no denying that Harley Quinn (as played by Margot Robbie) was the breakout star of 2016's Suicide Squad. While that film was an absolute and total mess, like just about everything released for a first few years of the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe., Harley was one of the only worthwhile characters to come out of that film (the other being Will Smith's Deadshot, who I liked even if it was the usual Will Smith character). After that film's (relative) success (at a time when every superhero movie couple make almost a billion dollars, or more), plans were put into place to spin Harley out into a number of films -- a Joker and Harley Quinn film, a Gotham City Sirens adventure, another Suicide Squad, the first film we've gotten is (takes a deep breath): Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
Let's be clear up front: this is not a Birds of Prey movie. While they're the team name-checked in the title, this film is all Harley, all the time. It's told from her perspective, it treats her as the protagonist, and it follows her (minor) redemption arc. While the Birds of Prey (who never use that name in this film) eventually come together to help Harley, they are just side characters to the queen clown at the center of it all. This is Harley's world we're living in (for about two hours).
Personally, I'm not bothered by it. The trailers for the film clearly illustrated that this was Harl's film so if you paid any attention to the advertisements at all you should have known what you were getting into. That said, there has been much hand-wringing over the weekend as (deep breath) Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) failed to make anywhere near as much money as even the most conservative estimates laid out for the film (it was expected to make at least $45 Mil in its opening weekend, but it "only" made $33 Mil). So what happened to make Birds of Prey a (relative) failure?
Well, it's not the film itself, that's for sure. This movie is about what you'd expect from Harley Quinn (Robbie), who is, frankly, nearly as crazy as Deadpool, and her movie is designed to reflect that. Over the course of the film, which Harley narrates, we learn about her plight (told through asides, time jumps, inter cuts, and a lot of winking at the camera). Having just broken up (off-screen) with the Joker, Harl is on her own for the first time in a long time. But, without the scariness of the Joker to protect her (who'd want to cross the Joker's girl and face his wrath?) every villain, henchman, and low-level goon with a grudge is after her, and that includes Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), a rich and powerful mobster who desperately wants to kill Harley for a whole multitude of reasons.
Getting Roman off her back is Harl's main goal, and through a bit of negotiating she lands on a deal: find a girl, Cassandra "Cass" Cain (Ella Jay Basco) who stole a diamond Roman wants (for convoluted reasons beyond "it's a shiny diamond") and get the diamond back to Roman. Do that and everything is square. Unfortunately for Harl, Cass ate the diamond before getting fingered by the cops, so Harley can either cut the diamond out or wait for Cass to drop the stone naturally; since she's not a complete monster she waits for the latter option. Unfortunately this doesn't work for Roman's time table, so he puts a bounty out, laying a price on Cass's head (with Harley caught in the crossfire). It's going to take Harley, and a few allies she picks up along the way -- Helena Bertinelli / Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Dinah Lance / Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) -- to keep the kid safe and fight off every half-wit villain in the city.
The film, from this perspective, is good. It's funny, fun, with just enough irreverent sense of itself to never let anything get too heavy. Harley jokes about the story, makes winks and nods at the camera, and generally has a blast even when the film drags her down. Even the other characters get into the swing of it from time to time, like when Harley changes into roller skates half way into a fight and Black Canary has to remark to the audience, "when did she have time for that." The creators have a solid sense of who Harley is and what kind of movie she'd star in.
Birds of Prey (yada yada) also knows how to deliver solid action. With consulting from John Wick: Chapter 3 / Deadpool 2 stunt coordinators Chad Stahleski and David Leitch, the movie really delivers action that feels solid and real. Previous DCEU films have leaned heavily on the CGI to produce superheroic action sequences, but the characters in this film (barring a Canary Cry use from Black Canary late in the film) don't have any powers so their action has to be something achievable by mortal men. And, in the case of Robbie, she delivers exactly the action you'd hope.
Robbie throws herself into the action having obviously trained for her stunt sequences. The stand out is a mid-film sequence with Harley working to free Cass from jail while being hounded by a gang of bikers out for the bounty. Harley kicks ass through their ranks, delivering especially brutal damage with a baseball bat she finds along the way. It's pretty epic.
If there's a flaw with the film it's that the rest of the characters can't get into the film as well as Harley. Any time to movie cuts away from our clown queen it loses some of it's pace. The rest of the characters aren't as funny, aren't as irreverent, and don't have any of Harl's crazy. They're serious people on serious business, and since Harley doesn't really meet up with any of them long term until near the end of the movie, there's no real chance for them to bounce of Harl and get her irreverence all over them.
To go back to Deadpool as the example, that film knew how to keep the story funny: put Deadpool in every scene. Very rarely does Deadpool ever cut away from Deadpool and, because of that, the Merc with a Mouth gets to joke and comment on everything going on around him. This helps to keep the tone consistent. Due to the construction of (once again) Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) we don't get that same constant commentary. The film tries to make up for it by having Harley occasionally narrate proceedings, but her narration drops off part way into the movie so even she can't lift up some of the slower scenes.
There's also the fact that Harley is the only one that really delivers the action. Credit to Jurnee Smollett-Bell who is able to come a close second but she doesn't get anywhere near the elaborate sequence that Harls finds in the police station. Winstead of Perez, though, clearly didn't train anywhere near as much for their roles as, when the spotlight is on them, their action is far from convincing. More hits, more action from the side characters would have elevated the climactic showdown which, while good, still pales in comparison to Harley's action spree at the midway mark.
I liked (deep breath) Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), but I'm also willing to admit it's not a perfect movie. I enjoyed the hell out of it, though, and found myself chuckling and smiling along with the movie the whole time as Harley deliver bon mots alongside her crunchy, bone-breaking hits. While I think other films have delivered the comedy (Deadpool and action (John Wick) better, this film is able to strike a decent balance and find a tone, and style, that works a good chunk of the time. It certainly makes it one of the better DCEU films in their short (and flawed) run (easily besting Aquaman although maybe not as good as Shazam!).
Considering the fact that other, worse movies have made way more in their opening weekends (Suicide Squad for example), the question then is what exactly brought down (say it with me) Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)? Well, for starters, let's take that name (which I have been gently mocking this whole time). I think the title is amusing, certainly, and it fits Harley's personality. For general audiences, though, it was probably a turn off. Who are the Birds of Prey? No one that watches just films would know as, up until now, they had never be introduced at the Box Office. People do know Harley Quinn (if only from Suicide Squad) and generally have good thoughts about that character, but it's fair to say that the subtitle, long as it is, buries the lede as to who is really the star of this film. If the film has simply been called Harley Quinn or Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey (or, if they wanted to keep a bit of that goofiness, A Fantabulous Harley Quinn (with opening act the Birds of Prey) that probably would have helped general audiences.
Some people also blame the fact that it's an R-rated film. There's much clutching of pearls declaring that "young girls who grew up watching the classic Batman cartoon and Suicide Squad couldn't go and see this film because of the R-rating." I think that's bull, though. Firstly, Deadpool (both of them) were R-rated, and so is basically everything Harley has been in since Suicide Squad (her cartoon on DC Universe is amazingly, gloriously, fucked up). Plus, frankly, any girl that grew up watching Harley on the classic cartoon (from the 1990s, remember) would be in their mid-to-late 30s so I doubt that audience is going to have too much of an issue with the rating. And their kids would get in to the movie to because, if the audience I've seen at Deadpool is any indication, parents have no issue taking their kids into R-rate superhero films.
No, I think if the audience that should have show up didn't it's not because of the rating but simply because of the advertising. This film is called "Birds of Prey" but the marketing was all Harley Quinn (because, again, it's her movie). The trailers for it focus on Quinn but they try to tell a normal, standard trailer story. This isn't a normal, standard movie; it's more like Deadpool and should have been advertised as such. The trailers for the Deadpool films are irreverent and weird (remember the Bob Ross-style trailer for Deadpool 2). While this film might not have been quite as over-the-top as Wade Wilson's affairs, it should have take a tone with its trailers more in like with those movies. Plus, again, a name change.
Plus, let's be frank, the DCEU is a shitshow and audiences may not have wanted to suffer through yet another B-list DC film until they knew the series was solid. Sure, Aquaman did well (powered entirely by Jason Mamoa going around shirtless), and Wonder Woman '84 is getting great buzz (off a phenomenal trailer), plus Joker was well received by audiences (because, really, it's the Joker), but there's probably still unease for any DC movie that comes out. Something weird like this is climbing an uphill battle.
And, maybe, the superhero boom is dying off. This one is harder to judge because we don't have a solid data set yet, but with Marvel having finished the "Infinity Saga" in the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. it's entirely possible that the momentum driving audience's lust for superhero films could be waning. Sure, Spider-man: Far From Home did well post-Avengers: Endgame, but SpidermanSure, DC Comics has Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but among the most popular superheroes stands a guy from Marvel Comics, a younger hero dressed in red and blue who shoots webs and sticks to walls. Introduced in the 1960s, Spider-Man has been a constant presence in comics and more, featured in movies regularly since his big screen debut in 2002. has always been a character that could stand on his own, one of the most popular characters in comic history. We'll have a better idea of how audiences feel about superhero films when Marvel puts out Black Widow or (even more likely) The Eternals. Once we get a new property not tied into the AvengersMarvel's answer to DC's Justice League, this team features many of Marvel's biggest superheroes working together to protect the world and avenge its evils., then we'll really be able to see what state the superhero market is really in for 2020. If even Marvel's movies start to under-perform expect any number of think pieces declaring "the end of superhero cinema!"
Maybe DC is finally getting their act together right at the point where audiences are losing their interest in superhero films. Maybe it really is a culmination of all the factors -- the name, the advertising, the rating, and MRA women-haters, and more. Perhaps, if (once more with feeling) Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) had come out three or five years ago it would have been an automatic smash hit. But now, post Endgame, audiences feel like they can be a little more discerning, a little choosier about what they see. If it doesn't build to a giant, smashing, climactic event, do they really need to see every superhero film that comes out in a series? I think it's probably that a small cooling period was inevitable for superhero cinema, and if we're in that realm now it might force all the players to take an even harder look at what they're releasing and work to step up their game even further. DC did a good job with (here it comes) Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), because it is one of their better DCEU films. It's a solid B, for sure, but audiences may hold out for A+ material.
It's a pity, really, because I truly enjoy Robbie's Harley Quinn, and I think the actresses they picked for the rest of the Birds of Prey are good and deserve their own film (especially if Winstead can really train to better own her Huntress role's required action). I'd hate to think Harley, or the Birds, will get axed from future films because DC now has cold feet over them. Worse, I'd hate to think DC is going to get cold feet over any further female-led superhero movies. While it's possible some MRA guys decided not to see this film because it was female-led (and, yes, it does have a strong feminist bent, even if it doesn't beat audiences over the head with it) I think most people probably didn't care if it was dudes or ladies in the lead for this film. DC needs to realize that the failure of this is not in the film (flawed as it may be) but in their own work getting it out there. It's a film with an anemic opening, yes, but it's not a flop (it'll make it's money back, and then some). Next time, they just need to make sure they hook audiences in for a kooky affair like this, and really advertise the shit out of it.
And they need to give these ladies more movies. They're worth it.