Behind the Violence of 'Birds of Prey'

Birds of Prey Costume Image 7 - Publicity - H 2020
<p><em>Birds of Prey</em></p>   |   Claudette Barius
After 'Deadpool' primed audiences for R-rated comic book films, the Margot Robbie spinoff amps up its own source material.

[This story contains spoilers for Birds of Prey]

Not long into Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) breaks a man's legs by jumping on them. Later, the villain Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) orders a man's face cut off (and it's partially shown — not long before his teenage daughter is given the same treatment). And at some point in the movie, the audience sees a man's body blown in two. It's a level of R-rated violence that fits with the wacky, heightened world created by filmmaker Cathy Yan — one that feels right at home in an era in which films such as Deadpool has Kingsman have primed audiences for over-the-the-top violence in their comic book movies.

Yet, it's also not totally in keeping with the comic book canon that inspired Birds of Prey — well … not entirely.

In three of its four primary comic book incarnations to date, DC’s Birds of Prey has been a franchise that certainly offered a lot of action, but action that was closer to a PG-13 rating than anything too graphic. For the first 24 years of the property’s comic book existence, the series was not especially more violent than any other superhero comic book, and far more tame than many when it came to the level of damage felt by the various heroes and villains it featured, despite repeatedly featuring characters whose reputations relied on just how dangerous they reportedly were.

It wasn’t just Black Canary, leading martial artist, who fell into this trap; Lady Shiva, officially the most deadly fighter in DC’s comic book universe, was briefly part of the team, and she also didn’t significantly up the violence quota. That’s not to say that there weren’t moments that would have read as more violent and gory on screen than on the comic book page — the abstraction of artwork allows for someone being shot by a crossbow to read as more sanitized than it might otherwise appear, after all. (Thanks for that, Huntress.)

That said, it would be incorrect to say that Birds of Prey is entirely inconsistent with the characters it features when it comes to the violence on show. Both of the movie’s villains, Black Mask and Victor Zsasz, have particularly violent comic book pasts, at least in terms of implication, and their actions on the page are certainly of a piece with what takes place on the big screen; Black Mask, after all, is the villain who had Catwoman’s sister eat her own husband after he’d been murdered in front of her, making someone’s face being cut off seem almost quaint.

For that matter, a character’s face being cut off may, potentially, be a comic book reference — in the rebooted “New 52” universe of DC’s post-2011 output, the Joker debuted in a story that saw his face sliced off; he later reattached it with hooks and leather straps, because … comics.

Victor Zsasz, meanwhile, is a character whose entire modus operandi is extreme cruelty, so it should come as no surprise that his comic book incarnation has been surprisingly violent, from trying to slash Batgirl’s throat to stabbing Alfred an almost-successful murder attempt. Like Black Mask, his screen character is pretty much in league with the comic book original violence-wise.

The wildcard in any comics-to-movie comparison is Harley Quinn, which only feels appropriate. Harley is, traditionally, a particularly violent character — she doesn’t carry that mallet around just for the visual, no matter how cool it looks — but that violence has been, equally traditionally, outlandish and cartoonish in terms of impact (no pun intended). In that sense, it could be argued that Birds of Prey (the movie) exaggerates Harley’s comic book carnage in the same way that it does the rest of the movie’s heroes — if it wasn’t for the fact that, even in the movie, there remains something over-the-top about what she does.

Fittingly, the best crossover between these differing attitudes towards the characters and their propensity for violence — not to mention, the lasting effects thereof — might be in DC’s new Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey miniseries, launching Feb. 12; released with DC’s “Black Label” rating, the publisher’s “mature readers” label, it’s a comic that has the chance to push the envelope in terms of content in a manner closer to the movie, without losing the appeal of the original comics.

As the latest version of the comic book property, it’s perhaps a sign that the movie will inspire the future of its source material as the franchise heads into the future — and a sign, too, that the future of the comic book property might be more violent than what has come before.