If you happened to watch last Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony telecast, you may have noticed that “woke” Hollywood was in catchup mode after some duly noted backsliding into #oscarssowhite territory. Natalie Portman wore a designer cape embroidered with the names of deserving female directors who had been snubbed during the nomination process. Greta Gerwig’s name, not nominated for her bangup job on Little Women, was on a lot of indignant people’s lips. Presenters, many of them people of color, did comedy routines about the paucity of PoC among this year’s acting nominees (since Antonio Banderas is Spanish and therefore doesn’t count as Latino, there was precisely one: Cynthia Erivo). If the festivities had a theme, it was “representation,” with a multilingual chorus singing along on the nominated song from Frozen 2 and Zack Gottsagen, the actor with Down Syndrome who starred in The Peanut Butter Falcon, presenting the Best Live-Action Short Film Oscar.
There are many obstacles and detours on the long hard road to a movie industry that’s truly a level playing field. And part of the package of women being afforded equal opportunities with men on all levels of film production is the need for a willingness to tolerate women making as high a percentage of lousy movies as men get away with. Try as we may to be judged by our best work, we can’t all be dancing backwards in heels all the time, forever. Women producers, directors et alia need room to make glorious mistakes, the same way some of their male counterparts have always done, ultimately pushing the cinematic artform forward.
This is by way of prologue to my sad responsibility of reporting that this week’s new movie was one of those failed experiments, though it’ll probably be embraced by diehard fans of comic-book-based screen products nonetheless. I didn’t truly expect to like Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), as that sort of thing is not my cup of tea anyway; but I wanted to, because it has a female director (Cathy Yan), a female screenwriter (Christina Hodson) and two out of three female producers (Margot Robbie and Sue Kroll). Surely, if there was a team who could fix all the things that are horribly wrong with DC Comics’ Harley Quinn character, these women could pull it off. Nuh-uh.
It’s not as if they didn’t try. Birds of Prey is supposed to be a badass-female-bonding movie, the origin story of a scrappy all-girl DC crimefighting team: Besides Robbie’s Quinn, there are Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya, Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Dinah Lance/Black Canary, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Helena Bertinelli/Huntress and Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain. Trouble is, their various plot threads don’t knit together into teamwork until the last act of the movie: an utterly implausible battle scene cleverly set in the funhouse of an abandoned amusement park (which is quite thematically correct for the lead character).
The battles really never end in Birds of Prey, wantonly mixing the silliness of glitter bombs with the gruesome sound of crunching bones. And they typically follow the traditional action-movie format of antagonists who far outnumber the heroes politely approaching them one at a time so they can be dispensed with neatly. Worse, it’s violence presented in such a lighthearted way that it’s glamorized, and channeled primarily through a character with inexplicable appeal to tween and teen girls (scanty Harley Quinn costumes are top sellers for Halloween and cosplay). There’s a disturbing scene in this movie that will trigger date-rape survivors and that young girls – who will be begging their parents to let them see Birds of Prey – should not be seeing at all, in which a drunk, incapacitated Harley makes almost no effort to fend off a man who is molesting her.
The story picks up right after the most problematic aspect of the Harley Quinn narrative: her toxic co-dependent relationship with the Joker. It’s supposed to be about her journey in putting this abusive former lover behind her and learning to build trust with other oppressed and victimized women. But any expectation of consciousness-raising implied in that premise fizzles almost immediately. The primary consequence of breaking up with the Joker is that she is immediately targeted by all the people from all walks of life – though mostly thugs – whom she has previously offended while under his protection. So most of Birds of Prey consists of chase scenes and acrobatic fights. It’s a comic-book movie in the worst sense of that phrase: eye-popping, hyperkinetic and populated by one-dimensional characters.
That’s true even of our protagonist. Robbie is clearly having fun with the role and sustains a high energy level, but never manages to make Harley at all relatable. In fact, I found myself nodding along with the primary villain, Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), when he calls her “tiresome,” and with Black Canary when she calls her “that asshole nobody likes.” Picture a spoiled, entitled high-school-clique mean girl with the worst case of ADHD ever recorded and you’ve pretty much got Harley Quinn. A villain sans gravitas, she takes whatever she wants whenever she wants it and walks all over people, literally and figuratively. I guess we’re supposed to be charmed. I found her relentlessly obnoxious, and would’ve left the theater within the first half-hour if I didn’t know that I had to write a review.
So, as a potential demonstration project for what can be portrayed differently when women are behind the camera, Birds of Prey is as huge a disappointment as your initial hopes were unrealistically high. Some who demand less of their big-screen fluff will find it enjoyable. I emphatically didn’t. But I still want more space in the industry for women, like men, to make bad movies as well as good ones.