‘Birds Of Prey’ Is The First Superhero Film To Celebrate The Female Gaze

The male gaze is entirely absent from the film’s DNA. 

Birds Of Prey Harley Quinn

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From the Joker’s lovesick offsider to irreverent anti-heroine, Harley Quinn has come a long way from her origins as a one-off character in the 90s Batman Animated series.

Apart from her top billing in 2016’s Suicide Squad, Harley also got her own animated series in November of 2019, and now she’s got her own solo flick, Birds Of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Everything’s coming up Harley Quinn.

Birds of Prey sees Margot Robbie reprises her role as Harley Quinn, a role I am convinced she was grown in a lab to play, alongside a rogue’s gallery of amazing characters.

We’re guided through this chaos by Harley’s own narration, telling her story exactly (and I quote), “how [she] fuckin’ wants.”

The first half of the film is a little frantic as Harley catches you up on her and the Bird’s current predicament,  jumping back and forth between scenes as she remembers (and forgets) what she’s meant to tell us, leaving  the pacing a little stunted in places during the first act.

But Harley’s narration is complemented by some frankly nifty plot devices to place you perfectly in Quinn’s frame of mind. Some of these include an animated vignette of Harley’s origins (in which Harley is confirmed as bi), stats that appear next to the mercenaries about to kill her with their names and grievances against her (my favourite grievance being “cosmetic vandalism”), and unabashedly excitable introductions of her fellow Birds.

From Harley breaking the fourth wall, to her darkly flippant persona, it’s almost too easy to make a comparison, as many male critics have, to 2016’s Deadpool. There are undeniable similarities , not just in the characters’ dark humour, the films’ respective plot beats, and in Margot Robbie and Ryan Reynolds’  determination to produce and star in solo films for their fave under-appreciated characters — but Birds of Prey is a far more complex story.

Harley Quinn Without The Joker?

On both a surface and cheekily meta level, English-Taiwanese writer, Christina Hodson’s Birds of Prey script asks whether Harley Quinn can thrive without the Joker.

Many people throughout the movie remark about (and to) Harley that she’s simply not meant to be without the Joker. Harley in one of her darkest moments even says, “A harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master. And no one gives two f**ks who we are beyond that.”

The film itself acknowledges and interrogates that many people didn’t (and still don’t according to many reviews) believe that Harley can be her own character.

Birds of Prey is a story of a woman trying to overcome her origins, emancipating herself from the toxicity of her own story to create something new for herself, and it’s not an independence that comes cleanly, but with a whole lot of mess, a whole lot of colour and a whole lot of fun.

A Film Made For Women

The first comic book film directed by a woman of colour (Chinese-American, Cathy Yan), Birds of Prey is a superhero film unlike any we’ve seen thus far in this era of super(hero)saturation.

With everything from its rambunctious non-sexualised costume design, to its insistence on complex inner lives for its main cast, the fact that there are barely any scenes with just men — hell, even the film’s dope soundtrack boasts only female artists.

The male gaze is entirely absent from the film’s DNA.

Unlike previous superheroine films, like the MCU’s Captain Marvel, or even DC’s Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey feels like a film made for women rather than a film made about a woman who can still appeal to men.

The film intentionally adopts a female gaze that forefronts, not just women, but their autonomy, their flaws, their strengths and interactions with one another. Meanwhile the men in the story are relegated to the roles of villains, bystanders, or merely complicit by omission to the Birds’ plight.

The main male presence in the film is Ewan McGregor’s violently petulant misogynistic man-child, Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask. To his credit, McGregor simply disgusts in the role, as he tantrums, tortures, and torments from scene to scene, slicing the faces off his victims and schmoozing up to seedy men his club, hurling pillows at his botox guy, to popping popcorn as his right hand man brings a knife to Harley’s neck.

Sionis is the worst of misogyny personified, functioning superbly as the type of man the Joker is, the type of man Harley must emancipate herself from.

A Break Up Film

I mean, break ups are rough — but Birds of Prey’s greatest strength isn’t that it shows Harley’s break-up pains being cured by her forming a girl gang, she’s still a grade-a mess of an asshole with a target on her back when the credits roll.

But it does show Harley’s eventual decision to team up with the Birds to help another young woman, even when it endangers her, as a step towards freeing herself from the isolation, cruelty, and self-preservation the Joker inflicted and brought out in her, and becoming her own person.

Despite what reviews written by men who hate fun may tell you, there is so much to love in this film that it’s difficult to cram it all into a small review. The set design is vibrant, popping with colour, the set pieces unique, off-kilter and detailed.

The film isn’t just set in Gotham, its showcasing Harley’s Gotham, complete with hyper saturated abandoned theme parks, blood red night clubs, and a splashy shoebox apartment complete with Bruce the hyena in his bathtub.

The costuming dazzles, full of character and charisma with vivid velvets, gaudy patterns and textures, and bold pieces that still manage to be practical in a fight. Trends of boring military-esque body suits, or Harley’s grubby daddy’s little monster and booty shorts abandoned for a series of iconic costume pieces that I need in my life, like, now.

Even the action sequences seem uniquely dyed in the sweetly vicious essence of Harley Quinn. Whether Harley is offering Canary a hair tie in the chaotic midst of an abandoned arcade showdown, or setting an assassin’s beard on fire as she’s pinned against the shelves of evidence lockup, or sending water droplets artistically flying as she takes on six guys with a paint gun launcher, the action in Birds Of Prey is as dazzling as it is deliberate in staying true to Harley’s whacky worldview.

Harley And The Birds

Perhaps the most substantial criticism of this fantabulous film I can muster is that there could have been more of the Birds themselves.

The film, despite its title, is more Harley Quinn featuring the Birds of Prey than the reverse as the title suggests. As a woman of colour, I was looking forward to seeing a girl gang film where the majority were women of colour. While the film does a decent job of ensuring every character is key to the sprawling brawling chaos, I selfishly would have liked (and expected) a little more Black Canary, Renee Montoya and Cassandra Cain, beyond their revolution around Harley.

All things being said and done, my heart was beyond full seeing a film directed and written by women of colour, as well as starring so many talented women of colour and women.

Birds of Prey is unapologetic, chockers with talent,  and full of witty criticisms of misogyny, and if you thought the film was nonsense (as if a film about a failed comedian becoming a clown murderer is somehow more logical), than I invite you to perhaps respect the fact that this film wasn’t for you.

The Joker and Harley are DONE. Long live Harley and her Birds.

Birds Of Prey is currently in cinemas.

Merryana Salem is a Lebanese Indigenous Australian masquerading on most social media as @akajustmerry. She’s also a freelance critic and teacher with a podcast called GayV Club where she gushes about lgbt rep in film, but mostly she hopes you ate something nice today.