Life-Lessons from Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey is on-track to earn less money than any other DC film, besting (or worsting) the champion before it, Shazam!. This may say a lot more about who doesn’t like it than it says about the film itself. That’s a badge of honor that the typical blockbuster would rather not win, but there is consolation in this movie’s clever pinwheel story-structure, absurdist aesthetic, and multidimensional performances of the most cartoonish characters. So, what have we learned?

Flaws make perfect:

We don’t know what we would do if we were the one committed cop on a corrupt force, or saw our whole family gunned down, or were forced to work for a psychotic mobster, but we know how we’d react — and thankfully, Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya drinks to excess and rants at her superiors; and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Helena Bertinelli/Huntress is great at killing people but at a total loss for making friends or normal conversation; and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Dinah Lance/Black Canary is conflicted and hopeless and quietly raging. This is how we know they understand, and are convinced to follow Montoya in her relentless optimism and Bertinelli in her defiant belief in herself and Lance in her embattled but unbreakable sense of what is right. This movie is a milestone of the unladylike and un-sorry for it, and its exposure of much more psychology than skin may be one reason the market isn’t consuming what it’s serving. And while the long-debated tripwire between cartoon violence and callous disregard is repeatedly jumped as if it were never there, Margot Robbie is a comic genius and her Harley Quinn feels as unbound by moral convention as she is by physical law. When Smollett-Bell lays a smackdown, it’s as if her stored-up grindhouse energy is going to kick a hole through the screen and lead her to a slightly more peaceful reality; Harley may be out to emancipate no one but herself, but as she breaks faces and bones she’s breaking open some doors, too.

One man is worth all your relatives:

It’s interesting how much family dysfunction plays a role in both this and DC’s previous lowest-performing film, Shazam! — the earlier movie centers around a group home for unwanted kids, and this one is littered with bad or dead parents. Dinah resents the superhero mom who gave her own life while leaving her daughter behind; Helena barely survived a massacre of her mob family and was raised by an assassin cult instead (for whom she’s presumably become a disappointing daughter by using her murder-skills for good); Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) spends as much time out of her warring parents’ apartment as she can, preferring the streets and obsessively stealing the expensive possessions of strangers who don’t know what they’ve got ’til it’s gone. The displaced and dispossessed recognize each other like ghosts in the unnoticing city crowds; Dinah passing Cass on the stairwell of their walkup, handing her some money for food and advising her not to go home; Harley later harboring the kid in her padded-cell of an apartment, with an endless TV-binging cereal-eating truant-day in mind. You are on your own in this existence and no one else is your protection, though there’s a chance of you and the other discards being on your own together. It may be that dysfunction in the family structure and societal fabric, realms archetypally associated with the female, just doesn’t sell; male-loner dysfunction on the other hand is as golden as Joker’s award statuettes. Birds of Prey is prepared to go down fighting at least; its big antagonist, the genuinely terrifying Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), is the butt of ridicule from the start for his rich-boy daddy issues and elective estrangement.

We aren’t the champions:

Birds of Prey is remarkable in genre adventure for its absence of even the idea of a savior. I don’t think an action movie has ever been made that is so free of its female characters having any “need” of a man; the exhilaration of this is shadowed by the unlikelihood of any of the women being able to rely on each other. Harley shelters and ransoms Cass as her shifting fortunes seem to dictate; when Dinah intervenes in Harley’s attempted rape we’re not sure how much she’s motivated by sisterhood and how much by the opportunity to just vent on some worthy punching-bags. The movie’s ultraviolence is disclaimed by the degeneracy of all its anti-heroes’ targets; those who would see us harmed are dispatched with us having to care just as little. Indeed, nothing that happens even to any of the protagonists is presented as something they might not have coming anyway (especially mass-murderer Harley, who can dispense brutality at will and receives it at whim). We’re getting more and more convinced that what it takes to beat a bastard is to find a bigger bastard; in Birds of Prey’s climax a criminal army combines to amplify the force of one toxic narcissist, while our heroines reluctantly ally to multiply the fed-up fury of the masses. The impulse to tear down late-stage capitalism before the rest of it can fall on us has become a legendary force since 2016; retaliation rather than restoration may be the only response we have left, though it’s worth remembering that Birds of Prey begins with a poisonous explosion and ends with one woman raising her voice. There may be a day after today even now.

Adam McGovern is a comicbook writer, poet, corporate semiotician and freelance agitator living in New Jersey.