BIRDS OF PREY – Review and Discussion

A female-driven comic book movie with beloved characters, made at a tempestuous time for DC movies, after the failure of Fox’s Dark Phoenix and the wild success of Marvel’s Avengers Endgame.

No pressure.


Some mild spoilers follow…

The first five minutes confused me – not because the animated craziness and voiceover disoriented me (for I love that quirky kind of filmmaking) but because it didn’t seem like the film that the posters and trailers promised. More on that later.

Luckily, the film soon won me over. The opening sequence neatly summarizes Harley’s backstory to allow us to charge ahead with the plot.

Margot Robbie’s interpretation of Harley Quinn made a HUGE impact in David Ayer’s uneven, wildly successful, Oscar-winning but sometimes hated Suicide Squad, and she is most definitely the star here – although the whole cast are fantastic.

Harley’s Tale

Harley has been dropped by Joker, who is absent from this film (other than a brief clip salvaged from Suicide Squad) and it living it up in Gotham, seemingly immune to any trouble as everyone thinks she is still Joker’s girl.

The voiceover framing device and the on screen graphics that occasionally pop up sit better during the film, as this story is told from Harley’s highly subjective point of view. I recall last year when my Media pupils interpreted one of the posters in that way.

We are introduced to Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer in the nightclub owned by Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a crossbow-wielding motorcycle riding assassin who calls herself “The Huntress” (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and a young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).

The story strands gradually pull together as each woman gets caught up in Roman’s plan to acquire a diamond (which is encoded with the location of billions of dollars).

Thoughts

There’s a freewheeling Pulp Fiction vibe to the film which really works – not only in the non-linear narrative but also in the dialogue and the style of the film.

The action scenes look fantastic. Led by Chad Stahelski, the action coordinator and director best known for the inventive hand- to-hand battles in the John Wick films, the sequences allow director Cathy Yan to create some colourful, explosive and fantastic-looking action that you’ve probably never seen the like of before.

The film has a cunning sense of humour shown through the dialogue and in the edit. There’s a funny running gag with Huntress, and even a great visual moment during a long battle scene where Harley gives Dinah a hair band mid-punch to stop her hair getting in her eyes!

Rating

A big deal was made of the rating for the film. The R rating (15 in the UK) was announced early on – primarily for loads F-bombs and broken bones. Could the F-bombs been removed and the action trimmed? Sure – but the content of the film includes a tense humiliation scene where Sionis abuses his power to have a customer assault his girlfriend.

There is also a fight scene in a police evidence room where Harley accidentally inhales some cocaine which delights her then gives her a boost to continue fighting.

The film is full of great actors, with a smart script, laugh out loud at times. It looks great, and the action is slick. The film may not be everyone’s egg sandwich, but I really enjoyed it. In a world where films are surely allowed to have different styles and variations in tone, for me, this movie works.


The Trailers and Poster Campaign

The trailers are definitely striking and full of colour. And after viewing the film, the trailers did hit the correct tone.


The posters were equally colourful and quirky BUT they seemed to drift across styles and have different inspirations, making it difficult to figure out what they were aiming for. Check the gallery below to see some examples.

Some also complained about the title being so weird, and long, and not mentioning Harley Quinn herself until the end of the title, because apparently some people wouldn’t have realised she was in it (?).

All of which leads us to the question:

What were the audience expecting?

Many complained that the rating prevented younger Harley Quinn fans from seeing the film, which may be true, but nothing about this film is for younger audiences (language, violence, morality, Harley accidentally inhaling cocaine before a fight, a humiliation scene in a nightclub – none of that says “pre-teen dress up character for Halloween).

Neither Suicide Squad, or the Harley Quinn animated series (streaming on HBO Max in the US and with no announced UK broadcast of Season 2) are meant for a young predominantly female audience either. This may be an untapped audience for the character – those youngsters who are too old for Super Hero Girls and not yet mature enough for Margot Robbie’s Harley.

The Box Office

As of the time of writing (5 February 2021) , here’s the latest from Box Office Mojo:

On the rule of thumb that a film needs to make it’s production budget back in domestic tickets alone. Another says that a film requires 2.5 times it’s budget (as marketing costs needs to be added) before it can really be a successful movie with a decent profit.

BOP made just less than it’s budget domestically, and internationally just under 2.5 times the budget – so in that sense could be seen to be a failure. (It has been released VOD and physical release and just appeared on Sky Cinema in the UK which will bring in more money).

I suppose it depends on how you define “failure”. If you compare it to Avengers: Endgame it can be seen as a failure – but the last Avengers film broke box office records.

X-Men Dark Phoenix made the least money – budget of $200 million, made $66 million domestically and $252 million overall. Ouch. (And I love that movie). Yet the noise was always about how “badly” BoP performed.

DC’s Joker movie made over $1 billion – proving that darker, more adult serious fayre can succeed. Maybe the tone and the fuzzy target audience and extremely diverse posters muddied the waters for the BoP movie goers?

Cathy Yan

Cathy Yan is the first female person of colour to direct a DC movie (previous directors included Richard Donner (Superman The Movie), Tim Burton (Batman / Batman Returns), Joel Schumacher (Batman Forever / Batman & Robin), Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy), Zack Snyder (Man of Steel / Batman V Superman), David Ayer (Suicide Squad), Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman). James Wan (Aquaman) and David F. Sandberg (Shazam).

Yan has said that she would love to see a film with Harley and Poison Ivy but perhaps the “failure” of Birds of Prey will kill that idea off. I really hope not – it would be great to see the gang back together. She recently touched upon her experience working on a blockbuster for a hands-on studio.

The fact remains that the character of Harley Quinn remains very popular, and Margot Robbie’s portrayal of her is still a winner. Her Harley debuted in Ayer’s Suicide Squad, continued in Birds of Prey, and will return in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (released later this year).

We are definitely seeing her again. I just hope it’s not the last we see of the rest of the Birds of Prey.


Director: Cathy Yan
Writer: Christina Hodson
Starring: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Pérez, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor, Ella Jay Basco
Producers: Margot Robbie, Bryan Unkeless, Sue Kroll, Walter Hamada, Galen Vaisman, Geoff Johns


My previous posts on BIRDS OF PREY AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN:

Why The “Birds of Prey” and “The Little Sparrow” Are A Great Mix
“Birds of Prey” poster analysis

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