How 'Birds of Prey' Flips the Script

<p><em>Birds of Prey</em></p>   |   Claudette Barius
The film looks rude and vulgar, possessing so many of the traits audiences clap for in male-centric movies.

Wait, did Harley Quinn just inhale cocaine? Indeed she did. The final trailer for Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) has arrived in all of its zany, energetic abundance of costume changes, ultraviolence, and yes, drug use. The film is shaping up to be an R-rated carnival, more in line with Deadpool than the Joker in terms of tone. But the film’s style appears to be uniquely Yan’s, a mix of pop glamour, funhouse disorientation, and a bit of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016) grunge for good measure. The first superhero film release of the new decade, in a year dominated by comic book films directed by women, Birds of Prey looks to break ceilings, smash in a few windows along the way, and of course cause a controversy or two.

The latest trailer features plenty for comic book readers to love. While some fans feared Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) would take a back seat to the more popular Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the film looks like the team-up it was always said to be. Additionally, Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) will be donning his trademarked Black Mask, which we can’t believe was ever a question, and Black Canary will exhibit meta powers with her sonic scream. A recent TV spot for the film even showcased Huntress in a more familiar costume, complete with a mask. Harley’s hyenas, who debuted alongside the character in Batman: The Animated Series, and Bernie the beaver, from Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s run, are also along for the ride. It’s obvious that Yan and writer Christina Hodson went all in on the comic book references while still making a film that doesn’t feel fixed to one specific story or take on the characters. The hemming, hawing and handwringing over comic book accuracy over the last several months was ultimately all for nothing.

But there does appear to be some renewed controversy of the "comics are for kids" and “BOP should be accessible to everyone,” variety. Neither sentiment holds much water though. Comics can be for kids, and many are, but there are many that aren’t. It’s an elastic medium, able to appeal across all age groups of varying levels of literacy. And when it comes to the Big Two, Marvel and DC, many of the characters, even if introduced in order to captivate children, have evolved, and grown up with their fan base, while still able to exist in stories aimed at new, and younger readers. And in terms of accessibility, well it’s not like the vast majority of superhero movies are R. Out of the dozens of comic book movies based on DC and Marvel characters, you can count the R-rated ones on two hands and a couple extra fingers. And the argument for accessibility doesn’t take into account that not even all PG-13 comic books movies are created equally for all audiences. There’s an obvious difference between the PG-13 of The Dark Knight (2008) and that of Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018).

There have even been suggestions and claims amid the ever-unsatisfied mire that makes up social media that films like Deadpool and Logan receiving R-ratings are understandable, but not for Birds of Prey. If we’re being honest, there aren’t any superhero films from Marvel or DC proper that need an R-rating. Comic writers and artists managed just fine keeping language and violence in the teen range over the years, and a lot of that comes down to sales and merchandizing. But even comic creators have found freedom at the Big Two to go darker with Marvel MAX, and the current DC Black Label, which has had a recent run of excellent R-rated Harley Quinn content, including Stjepan Sejic’s Harleen, and Kami Garcia, Michael Mayhew and Mico Suayan’s Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity. Even DC Universe’s recent animated series, Harley Quinn, has gone all in on a mature take. Filmmakers who wish to express their vision for these characters in a way that requires an R-rating isn’t a threat to the medium, but an extension of it, an awareness of the full capabilities of storytelling.

Blood and foul language in comic book films isn’t revolutionary, but Yan and Hodson’s presentation of them feels unique. We’re still in the early days of female-led superhero movies, especially when looking at all the male-led franchises, and there’s still an idea that these characters and their existence under the umbrella term “superhero” begets a kind of politeness, a femininity that is strong and powerful — “badass,” if you will — but never vulgar, or excessive. But Birds of Prey looks excessive in the best kind of way. It looks rude, vulgar, occasionally anachronistic and possessing so many of the traits and actions we clap for and call subversive when male characters do it. Could Birds of Prey have been PG-13? Absolutely. But the film’s point of view on Harley Quinn, whose origin story has always been dark and based around a relationship of abuse, seems to feel more genuine, interesting, and even a little dangerous when driven by a female writer, and director, who are interested in creating a film aimed more so at adults.

Harley Quinn can still adorn lunchboxes, and be a part of the necessary and welcome DC Superhero Girls brand, aimed at younger audiences, but she can also strike a chord with older viewers who are looking to be challenged in some way. The same goes for Huntress, Black Canary, Renee Montoya, and Cassandra Cain as well. All of these characters have stories in the comics that have pushed the boundaries of stories assumed to be aimed at younger audiences, by dealing with abuse, alcoholism, suicide and faith. Yet, all of these characters have also been cartoons, dolls and Halloween costumes. There’s no reason to keep any of these characters, or the richness of their stories, locked within panels and left to fade between the safety of comic book gutters. Birds of Prey provides an opportunity for these characters to break free and hopefully fly beyond our conception of them as only children’s playthings.