HEAT VISION

How 'Birds of Prey' Is Building Gotham's Future

Margot Robbie's antihero returns in the new trailer, this time to a city without Joker or Batman.

It’s no laughing matter… well, maybe a bit. Warner Bros. has released the long-awaited trailer for Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Although the clown queen of crime gets second billing in the title, she’s the focal point of the latest footage. While plot details are scarce in the footage, what’s made clear, besides the fact that Margot Robbie appears to be having the time of her life, is that Birds of Prey is serving as a quasi-sequel to Suicide Squad (2016), slightly shifting its gaze and aesthetic but still very much existing in the same world. But where Harley Quinn in David Ayer’s film found herself captive and surrounded by male counterparts, Cathy Yan’s pic seems to lean heavily on Harley’s emancipation and discovery of a new identity through female friendships.

Stylish and splashy, Birds of Prey looks like an ambitious tonal balancing act that takes its girl gang seriously while highlighting the fun energy of Harley’s character through costume changes, fist fights, roller skates and what appears to be a musical number. In its apparent mishmash of comic book attributes that have helped define its lead characters over the decades, Birds of Prey looks to be the welcomed comic-book movie equivalent of getting grit under perfectly manicured fingernails

While continuity within the DC movie universe is nebulous from film to film, Birds of Prey hinges on a familiarity with Suicide Squad. And why shouldn’t it? Although Ayer’s pic didn’t land with critics, it made $746.8 million worldwide and won an Oscar for best makeup and hairstyling, securing Harley Quinn’s future in the DC movie universe and making Robbie synonymous with the character. The trailer positions Harley Quinn as a woman on a journey, coming to terms with what her role was and what it can be, and the impact of that arguably means more in context with Ayer’s film. While Jared Leto isn’t reprising his role as the Joker in the pic, the trailer does pay lip-service to his portrayal and Harley’s relationship with him. Although Suicide Squad ended with the two being reunited, they’ve had an ugly breakup in the interim, as evidenced by Harley’s dart game on a picture of Mr. J’s face. When we pick up on Harley’s story, Gotham City is lacking the presence of both the Joker and Batman.

Yan and Robbie’s version of Harley Quinn seems to be borrowing heavily from the 2013 series co-written by Amanda Connor and Jimmy Palmiotti, which saw the character on her own, having broken up with the Joker, and becoming an antihero of sorts, balancing her life, roller derby team, pets and crime-fighting aspirations. Although she has never been a Bird of Prey, at least not until writer Brian Azzarello’s new title begins in February, Harley Quinn has significantly evolved since her debut. It’s hard to believe that she was once the character who helped the Joker kill Commissioner Gordon’s wife in front of dozens of kidnapped babies (Detective Comics No. 741). But the cartoony, optimistic quality of her current solo adventures are a far cry from the darker street-level heroics of her counterparts.

So what about those Birds? Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Rene Montoya (Rosie Perez) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) make up the Birds of Prey. Their team dynamic is said to be largely inspired by Gail Simone’s groundbreaking run, but other elements like Black Canary’s punk-rock look and musical interests seem inspired by Brendan Fletcher and Annie Wu’s run in 2015. All of these characters have serious personalities and character flaws that don’t exactly make Harley Quinn seem like a likely teammate. Especially when she’s tried to kill all of them at one point or another in the comics. Yet, that’s one of the aspects that makes the movie so interesting. While so many comic book films focus on dynamics that we know and expect, Birds of Prey is shaking things up, dropping Harley Quinn in like a bomb to disorganize fan expectations.

Along with that fan expectation comes Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), who has yet to be marketed with his mask on. In the comics, Black Mask’s psychosis and enjoyment of torture sets him on a collision course with Catwoman. But in this film, it seems the character’s attentions have been shifted to Harley Quinn, and much like the Joker, he wants to possess her, with the help of his henchman, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). How the rest of the Birds of Prey fit into his machinations remains to be seen, but despite the fact we don’t get an inkling of the pic’s R rating, things are sure to get ultra-violent.

The biggest takeaway from the Birds of Prey trailer is that it isn’t just one type of movie intent on filling one type of role within the larger DCEU. With its brief flashes of internal reckoning, funhouse antics, musical numbers, fight scenes and prayer services, Birds of Prey has all the makings of a Suicide Squad sequel, a Birds of Prey origin story, a Harley Quinn film and maybe, just maybe, a building block for the future of Gotham City-centric stories.

  • Richard Newby
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