Title: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Cast: Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Pérez, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor
Filmmakers: Cathy Yan (Director), Christina Hodson (Screenwriter), Margot Robbie (Producer)
Release Date: 07 February 2020
Available In: Cinemas
Rating: R (strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material)
It's Valentine's Day today, and the female-led Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (also known as Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey at some cinemas) has now been out for a whole week. While I originally intended to see the film today for the special occasion, I also had a bad day at the office last Thursday (long story) that I told myself I deserved to treat myself to something nice. I therefore decided to watch the film on opening night instead, and as for having a good time, the film does deliver on that front. (I'm actually going to go see it again at the cinema after work tonight.)
Before I address fan concerns about comic book accuracy, let's first talk about the film itself and what it actually does well. If you haven't seen the film and don't want to be spoiled, turn back now, as the rest of this discussion will spoil a couple of things about the film in order to discuss the creative choices that were made and how it all fits together as a whole.
The film opens up with its protagonist, Harley Quinn, recapping her origin story for the audience, and updating us on her status quo following the events of Suicide Squad from 2016. The recapping is short and simple to follow, and helps to contextualise the premise for this film, regardless if you've seen Suicide Squad or not.
The rest of the film follows Harley as she decides to announce her independence from the Joker publicly, which leaves her vulnerable to attack from Detective Renee Montoya from the GCPD and the various enemies she's made throughout Gotham. This unwittingly sets Harley off to cross paths with various people such as Roman Sionis (Black Mask), a crime boss who employs Dinah Laurel Lance (Black Canary) as a singer at his nightclub, and who is out to capture a young orphan girl, Cassandra Cain, who stole the Bertinelli diamond from him.
Where does Harley Quinn fit into the narratives of all these characters? To save her own skin (literally) from Roman Sionis, Harley agrees to do a job for him in which she tracks down Cassandra Cain and brings her (and the Bertinelli diamond she stole) back to him. Her task is simple enough, but Sionis is not willing to let Harley off his hook and decides to give her 'competition. '
In Sionis placing a $500,000 hit on Cassandra Cain, Harley is forced to fight off various hitmen to not only capture Cassandra herself, but even protect the girl from them. Also out to capture Cassandra Cain are Detective Montoya and Dinah Lance, but their objective is to protect the girl from Sionis rather than collect the bounty on her head. Helena Bertinelli is unaware of the bounty on Cassandra, and only comes into Sionis' orbit after she murders his hitman for the role he played in her own family's murder.
The way the film is written, it's very much a Harley Quinn story written in the tone and colour of Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner's Harley Quinn series of the past decade. Various easter eggs from that run (including Bernie the beaver) are peppered throughout the film.
In addition to this film being a Harley Quinn story, it is also an origin story for three other characters: Renee Montoya (who is teased to become the future Question), Dinah Laurel Lance (who is teased to still be the daughter of the original Black Canary, Dinah Drake), and Helena Bertinelli, who gets her Huntress: Year One story told in this film, albeit in a cliff notes version sort of way.
While the film does setup potential spin-off films for The Question and a proper Birds of Prey, it's not presented in a way that breaks the overall flow of the narrative. All of these individual sub-stories do come together in a way that feels organic and builds towards a larger, self-contained story by Christina Hodson.
Content-wise, the humour in the film is smart and witty, and never carries itself at the expense of any of the characters. There are no sexist, ageist, racist, nor ableist jokes throughout the film. The violent content is pretty stylised and cartoony for an R-rated film, though there are scenes where Harley inflicts serious injury to her enemies, many of which involves breaking their bones. Those scenes, however, are never depicted in graphic detail nor achieve the Watchmen-levels of gore.
I would say the more intense violent scenes occur during the massacre of the Bertinelli crime family, and even the way Helena Bertinelli murders her enemies in the film could potentially be too intense for audience members. Throughout the film, she consistently shoots crossbow bolts into the throats of her enemies, which are often accompanied by blood splatters. In a major fight scene, she also does repeatedly stab a man to death with a knife.
The most intense violent scene in the film that made my skin crawl (perhaps literally), however, was a torture scene involving Black Mask and Victor Zsaz, in which they flayed a man's face off while he was still alive. Luckily, this scene is not depicted in graphic detail, but it's still disturbing enough to make a person's stomach churn. (It certainly did mine.) Luckily, this is the only time Black Mask tortures a person in the film and he isn't given anymore opportunities to do his worst.
The performances by all the actors is also very well done. Ewan McGregor excels as the sadistic (and frankly misogynistic) villain of the film, Black Mask, and lead actress Margot Robbie once again brings her A-game to the table. She's very convincing as the titular antihero, Harley Quinn, and does more than portray the character: she literally becomes the character.
From her appearance to her body language, to her facial expressions, right down to the voice and Queens accent, Robbie nails every facet of her character to perfection. A character like Harley who is otherwise too cartoony for a live action film, Robbie pulls off a stellar performance without looking silly, and of course, her stunt double does a great job at capturing Harley's gymnastic style of fighting. When it comes to comic accuracy, a combination of good writing from Hodson and a stellar performance from Robbie successfully brings the character to life from the comic book page.
So now we get to the moment of truth: the other characters both in terms of performance and depiction. When it comes to comic accuracy, the film borrows heavily from post-Crisis and post-Flashpoint source material, and what fans decide is 'comic accurate' is where the mileage may vary.
For example, the Black Canary played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell is a combination of both her post-Crisis and post-Flashpoint incarnations. Like the post-Crisis version of Dinah Laurel Lance, the film version is smart, witty, compassionate, and a highly skilled martial artist. She's also implied in the film to still be the daughter of the original Black Canary, Dinah Drake. Like her post-Flashpoint counterpart, this film version of Dinah is also a highly talented singer and still has her iconic Canary Cry, though that last one is staple to every incarnation of the Black Canary.
In terms of performance, actress Jurnee Smollett-Bell also brings her A-game to the table. Though her Black Canary is depicted as having a more tragic backstory and is a bit more intense, Smollett-Bell still delivers an outstanding performance as her character, and successfully captures every complexity and nuance of her character. Her Dinah is witty when the scene demands her to be, but can also be vulnerable in scenes of emotional intensity, and it shows in her body language, facial expression, and delivery. When it comes to fight scenes, Smollet-Bell performs many of her own stunts and successfully captures Dinah's prowess as a highly skilled street fighter.
Like the other two lead actresses in this film, Pérez also brings her A-game to the table. She successfully captures Montoya's passion for justice, her voice, her body language, and even the character's frustrations and implied alcoholism to a T. Pérez is also intense when the scene demands her character to be, but also has moments of vulnerability, and moments of being a total badass cop, potentially setting her up to become the Question. Her character arc does certainly end on that implication.
The depiction of the Huntress in this film is admittedly where I see a lot of people having mixed reactions, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that everyone experiences this character differently in the comics due to the various interpretations that she's had across four decades.
For some people (like me), the original pre-Crisis Huntress—Helena Wayne—is their first Huntress, and for this group, Helena Wayne set the standard for how the Huntress should be. For other people, the post-Crisis Helena Bertinelli is their first Huntress, and depending on which take they prefer (either the PTSD-driven Bertinelli first seen in the Huntress (1989) series, or the more rage-driven Bertinelli first seen in the Huntress (1994) miniseries), that version set the standard for that group.
Then, of course, there is the current generation who was introduced to both Helena Wayne and Helena Bertinelli as the Huntress post-Flashpoint, but these versions are profoundly different from their original incarnations. The post-Flashpoint Helena Wayne Huntress, for example, is more similar to the post-Crisis Helena Bertinelli, whereas the post-Flashpoint Helena Bertinelli is a woman of colour who is also a former spy before taking on the mantle of the Huntress.
Like her counterpart in Huntress: Year One, the film's version of Helena Bertinelli is also rage-driven, and spends a good 2/3 of the film murdering the people responsible for her family's brutal murder. It's not until the final act of the film where she is afforded a bit more complex characterisation in which she shows that she is socially awkward, and even shows compassion towards Cassandra Cain. The latter actually inspires her to fight on Cassandra's behalf and protect her from Black Mask.
The final act is where Helena Bertinelli starts to show vulnerability in the film, and starts behaving more like the Helena Bertinelli from the Birds of Prey comic, specifically the Gail Simone era. The only idea borrowed from the Huntress (1989) series (by Joey Cavalieri and Joe Staton) is the idea Bertinelli's father had bank accounts (and possibly other resources) rival crime families wanted to get ahold of, leading to the Bertinelli family's brutal murder. The only difference is Bertinelli's father kept a journal with all that information in the comic series, whereas in the film, that information is stored in a diamond.
As far as performance goes, actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead isn't given much to work with for much of her character's Huntress: Year One story arc, most likely due to a lack of screen time compared to the other characters. With the little she's given to work with, Winstead is very convincing in her portrayal of the stone-cold 'Crossbow Killer' she's referred to as for most of her character's appearances. When she's given the opportunity to portray Helena Bertinelli in the third act of the film, she does a great job at showing the character's compassion (most notably toward Cassandra Cain) and social awkwardness.
The last point to address about the Huntress' portrayal in the film is whether or not the character was whitewashed by casting Winstead in the role. This is a question with a more complex answer. On the one hand, the character of Helena Bertinelli that we've had in the comics since 2014 is a black Sicilian woman and has been (to a considerable degree) consistently depicted as such. Since this movie came out in 2020, Warner Bros. did in fact miss an opportunity to capitalise on the black Helena Bertinelli Huntress in a film that is already largely fronted by women of colour.
After the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths merged the DC multiverse into a single shared universe in 1986, the Huntress' original history as Helena Wayne was no longer viable and needed to be reworked in order to make the character functional in the new DC Universe. She was therefore given a new origin as Helena Bertinelli in 1989 and lasted in this incarnation until 2011. After the events of Flashpoint rebooted the DC Universe again in 2011, the post-Crisis Helena Bertinelli was restored back to her original Helena Wayne incarnation, and a new version of Helena Bertinelli was created as an agent of Spyral in 2014. This is the version of Helena Bertinelli that is a black Sicilian woman and became the Huntress again in 2016.
So to answer the question of whether or not Helena Bertinelli was whitewashed in this film, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, because the character is no longer white in the current comics continuity, but also no because the character in the film is entirely based on the very white post-Crisis version, which is the loophole the filmmakers exploited to justify Winstead's casting.
Last but not least, there is Cassandra Cain who's film counterpart is a radical departure from her comic book incarnation that operated as Batgirl in the 2000s. At the very least, there is a small nod to Cassandra Cain's current identity in the post-Flashpoint DC Universe (Orphan), but that's as close to a comic book reference as we get in the film. The rest of Cassandra Cain's depiction in this film is entirely left field from her comic book depiction.
Whereas comic book Cass has notable writing, reading, and speech disabilities as a character, her film counterpart does not possess any of these disabilities and is presented as entirely normal. Whereas comic book Cass is a highly trained assassin and a highly skilled fighter due to having two assassin parents (David Cain and Lady Shiva), the film version possesses none of these skills and is depicted as a pickpocket instead. It's enough to say if you're a fan of Cassandra Cain in the comics, you will most likely be disappointed with the way screenwriter Christina Hodson wrote her in the film. It's enough to say the only way you'll enjoy the character is by thinking of her as an original character created for the film.
As far as performance goes, Ella Jay Basco does a great job with the material she is given. When treated as an original character for the film, Basco is fun to watch as a street-smart kid who is still likeable, and can even fool the adults when she needs to. She especially plays well off of Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn and has great interaction and chemistry with the lead actress.
While Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is not without its flaws and issues, it is still a fun, enjoyable film that tells a coherent story. It follows up on a character from a previous film in a way that's easy for audience members to follow, and even introduces a whole new cast of characters that can potentially be spun off into their own film franchises. The new characters are not introduced in a way that distract from the actual story being told as each of these characters has a reason for being there with story arcs that intersect in a manner that build towards a larger narrative. It's a mostly well-written film with a lot of heart, love, and respect towards the source material, even if some aspects of it may frustrate comic book fans. 4 out of 5 Go see it!
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