Yeah I like Marvel a lot, but my favourite characters are in DC.
That’s why I hate Zack Snyder so much, because he ruined what should have been a golden opportunity to build up a titanic franchise. But I digress.
While Disney/Marvel is going for tight continuity and connected storylines, it looks like Warner Brothers/DC is going for an anthology format where stories are told with loose continuity with each other.
So Shazam and Joker may take place in the same universe as Justice League, or they may not. It’s up to you.
Continuity matters…not so much?
I honestly think it works better. Marvel’s characters are suited for the team-up, because they can play off each other. But DC’s characters are icons, with histories so long that you can make a movie focused on different eras, and it will still remain true to the character. For example, you can make a noir-style Batman: Year One movie, or a gritty Dark Knight Returns movie, or a high-octane fun romp set in “modern times”, and they will all be recognisably Batman.
Best of all, this allows different directors to go wild with creative vision without worrying about being bogged down by continuity.
Which brings me to Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn).
Harley is a mess, and that’s ok
This movie is a passion project. Margot Robbie showed that she was not just a pretty face by immediately capitalising on her Wolf of Wall Street and I, Tonya fame by starting her own production company. Now she can produce movies she likes, not just audition for roles. And we’re all fortunate that she genuinely seems to love playing the character of Harley Quinn.
Harley was one of the more memorable parts of Suicide Squad, the weird Frankenstein, hot mess of a movie that had both Carla Delevigne writhing in a CGI storm while Will Smith does Will Smith things. It was weird. But not all bad.
So Birds of Prey has a lot more of Robbie’s influence on the Harley Quinn character, directed very ably by Cathy Yan. And it’s much better! DC finally woke up to the toxic nature of Harley and Joker’s relationship, and in the comics, animated series and movies, are fine with breaking them up cos it was sending the wrong message to way too many young kids.
So Harley is an anti-villain these days, sometimes shading into anti-hero, and Robbie runs with this. Her Harley is a lot more likeable, believable and just plain funnier than she was in Suicide Squad.
She’s devastated about her break-up because hey, we’ve all been there. She lives in a crappy apartment. And she is fully aware that the Joker’s influence was the one thing that made her immune from repercussions in Gotham City, and she exploits this to the fullest, living it up and taking advantage of others.
I loved this portrayal. Why? It wouldn’t be realistic to make Harley Quinn a saint just because she’s no longer with the Joker. Sure she might not be murderous, but she’s still an awful person. And women being allowed to be awful people, i.e. human, is something we need to see more of.
Let women be human
I’ve been reading up on the problem of “Strong Female Characters”, in which movies present women as flawless, badass ass-kickers to course correct previous problematic portrayals as helpless damsels in distress. It’s a step up, but it’s still a problem.
Every character in this movie is fucked up, while still being able to kick ass. Harley is Harley, ditzy, distracted, and morally flexible. The Huntress (played by my absolute favourite Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is humourless, rigid and takes herself way too seriously. Renee Montoya drinks too much and pisses off her colleagues, superiors, and partners. Black Canary literally works for the villain, and only changes her mind when murder’s involved. The kid who’s supposed to be Cassandra Cain is an annoying brat who picks pockets for fun (it’s not as if she’s starving in the streets).
They’re all women who have flaws, they’re not placed on a pedestal, and as a result they feel more real. Ironically, they live in a universe with tame pet hyenas, a chemical factory that doesn’t kill you when you take a dive into one of their bubbling vats and you know, the general implausibility of Batman’s whole deal. But they still feel more like real people than say, Carol Danvers (I’m so sorry Brie, I love you but you know that’s the truth).
Men are trash. Women need to stick together.
Now I’ve seen people complaining that all the men in the movie are portrayed as sexist assholes. But that’s the point! That’s the entire message of the movie, and it’s carried through clearly and consistently throughout.
EVERY male character is a dick. Renee Montoya’s former partner, a black detective, stole credit for her discovery and got promoted to captain over her head. The police all blindly support him. Black Mask’s thugs are men. Victor Zsasz is a mass-murdering psycho. Even the kindly old Asian uncle who rents out a room to Harley betrays her for money. Even the mafia gangster who rescued Helena killed her family in the first place.
In fact, the only guy I can think of who isn’t a dick is the guy who makes Harley her egg sandwiches.
With this in mind, I loved the fact that Ewan McGregor appeared to be playing the murderous, misogynistic Black Mask as a gay man. I’m not 100 per cent sure on this, but I’m not the only viewer who saw him as a gay man. And it was a great message to send. Gay men can also be irredeemable villains. It’s a reminder that in real life, gay men can be just as hateful, oppressive and narrow-minded as straight people.
The movie’s message seems to be: “Whether black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor, powerful or unprivileged, men can be dangerous to women. That’s why women need to stick together, even if women aren’t perfect.”
Now whether or not you disagree with this message, I respect its candour. After all, Trump only won because white women voted for him, despite his moral bankruptcy. If women don’t remain united, it enables terrible men to do terrible things to vulnerable women. That’s why it’s so satisfying to see Black Canary do the right thing and turn on Black Mask. And the movie conveys this message very well.
Birds of Prey is a great addition to DC’s line-up, and I can only hope that Robbie continues to portray Harley Quinn for years to come. And I hope that DC will continue to allow its directors the creative freedom to use its characters to bring their vision to life.