Birds of Prey is the first good female superhero movie
A movie like Birds of Prey is no longer a novelty. Female-fronted action films have been par for the course for years now, with more on the way: Wonder Woman 1984, Black Widow, even a lady James Bond movie. Finding a way to market each installment as a historic "first" has, consequently, meant getting creative: Birds of Prey, for example, is described as "[DC's] first live-action — and R-rated — female-driven team-up title."
But even if it's safe to say that female superheroes have arrived, it's been a clumsy landing. Both DC and Marvel have fallen into the trap of presuming that a movie is feminist just by virtue of having a woman superhero's name in the title, failing to put in the work that takes a movie beyond mere pandering. Studios shouldn't get brownie points just because they're finally realizing that women can be comic book fans, too. That's why Birds of Prey, out Friday, is different than the rest of the crop: Unlike the movies that paved its way, it doesn't pander or condescend. It simply performs.
Functioning as a loose sequel to 2016's notoriously bad Suicide Squad (you don't need to have watched it first), Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn is the pet project of actress Margot Robbie, who also produced the film and has said in interviews that she kickstarted the movie because the franchise's initial film failed to give her character, Harley, her due. With only the briefest of references to the first film, Birds of Prey begins with Harley torn up over her breakup with the Joker and suddenly vulnerable as his protection over her lifts. At once, all the baddies in Gotham have a bone to pick with Harley, who manages to save her neck from the wrath of one, the Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), only by promising to retrieve a diamond that serves as a key to an offshore fortune. There's just one problem: The diamond has been ingested by a 13-year-old master pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
Harley may only be the latest in a long line of female superheroes and villains to grace the big screen, but Birds of Prey feels like the first of these films to truly respect its audience. Historically, these women tended to be written and portrayed — in all their impossible proportions and impractical outfits — for male eyes. More recent "badass" protagonists, like Lara Croft or Catwoman, still relied on appealing to men: "Calling a woman ... 'badass' is a way to signify that she's cool or relevant because she's acting like a man (specifically, an aggressive, swaggering one)," journalist Charlotte Druckman once put it to NPR. For decades, this has been the case; female superheroes have been "super" because they're "not like other girls." But why can't they be?
Today's female-fronted action movies have attempted to distance themselves from the decades that were spent sexualizing the characters: Wonder Woman's Diana is a somewhat nerdy girl-next-door, and the lady Avengers are hyper-competent. But gestures toward "feminism" usually run out there, even in films like Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, which are celebrated as the standard-bearers of the genre. As Thrillest's Emma Stefansky writes in her essential piece on the topic: "It's not that Captain Marvel presents itself as such an inexorably, overwhelmingly female experience, but the 'female' experiences it addresses are little more than #MeToo buzzwords." At worst, such attempts to pander to women become downright insulting; of Captain Marvel, Vulture wrote "when it comes to gender politics, the film doesn't say much that couldn't fit in a shoe commercial." But when critics have dared to point out that such movies are simplistic and not very good, they've been accused of being bad allies, or worse, lumped in with the sexist fanboys who decry anything that doesn't meet their testosterone threshold.
Truth be told, Birds of Prey would have been the last movie I'd expect to get female-fronted action right, in part because Harley Quinn was initially the epitome of male fantasy. In Suicide Squad, director David Ayer leaned into using Robbie as a hyper-sexualized version of the Batman universe villainess, replete with shots of her bending over in bikini bottoms or shimmying out of a T-shirt. "She oozed sex, fully embodying a disturbing trope — the crazy hot chick," wrote Syfy Wire. Birds of Prey reels back that image. Harley still has zany outfits and mismatched shoes, but one needs to look no further than the promotional images to see the difference; most often she is shown in a gold romper that goes down to her ankles, with a hot pink crop top beneath. The rest of her squad are also basically fully clothed; the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) even wears what looks like a practical sports bra (notice that only one character in the promotional picture used at the top of this article even has cleavage). To explain this dramatic departure from Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey's costume designer, Erin Benach, simply told Vogue: "That's what happens when you have a female producer, director, writer."
Additionally, while many superhero movies still ground their female protagonists in romantic partnerships, Birds of Prey is all the more radical because Harley Quinn doesn't end up with a lover. In fact, she isn't romantically involved with anyone in the entire 109-minute runtime. Also unusual, Birds of Prey is "the only female-led superhero film [in the modern era] that isn't a prequel or a period piece," notes Polygon, suggesting that part of the reason might be because movies about characters like Captain Marvel and Black Widow "are still an afterthought. Their movies don't push the overall storyline forward, but instead are made to fit into gaps [in male characters' sagas] where they won't affect anyone else." On the contrary, Birds of Prey lives up to the emancipation suggested in its full title by going so far as to definitively establish that the Joker isn't needed for the franchise to continue (somewhere, Jared Leto is weeping).
The movie instead centers on Harley's relationship both with the women around her — she isn't a woman on a team of men, like so many of her forebears, but a woman on a team of women — as well as her relationship with the women in the audience. Birds of Prey is narrated in a direct address, and while it never singles out who it's talking to, it has a chatty, confessional tone that assumes female camaraderie. And in other ways, the writing and directing is regularly on a frequency that excludes male viewers. That can be subtle, like the way Dinah (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) watches out of the corner of her eye as a man takes interest in an inebriated Harley. Other times it's explicit: Harley, when pondering what the Black Mask's grievance with her might be, wonders if it's simply because she has a "vagina." Harley's team also pointedly looks nothing like, say, the women Avengers or Charlie's Angels; one actress is 13, while Rosie Perez, who plays Gotham City Police Detective Renee Montoya, is 55. Still, even Renee gets an equal standing on the team, complete with a sexy bulletproof corset — obviously a rarity for a woman in an action movie who is any older than about 35.
Birds of Prey isn't perfect. At times, it still falls into the trap of confusing "badass" with "feminist." Harley still fights in a very traditionally "macho" way, even if the canisters she fires from her gun are loaded with glitter. And despite the female director, screenwriter, and producer, Harley can on occasion be brushed by the male gaze, including the way a running motif of her eating a ham and cheese breakfast sandwich plays into the "fetishization of thin women eating total garbage food."
What Birds of Prey is, though, is the only time I've not felt talked down to by a comic book movie that purports to be feminist.
That's a big first. And it won't be the last.
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