Birds of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a candy-colored, cocaine-infused celebration of feminine anger the likes of which we rarely see, if ever, in comic book movies. If Harley was the unsung star of Suicide Squad, she infuses every frame of Birds of Prey with her unhinged personality, creating a star turn for Margot Robbie, ably supported (and then some) by a gang of badass motherfuckers who take as much joy in knee-capping and head-stomping misogynists as we do in watching them do it.
Harley’s backstory is generally well-known, but her arrival here is post-breakup with the Joker (never seen, thank Jesus), and her sudden realization that she no longer enjoys the protection that relationship afforded her. Everyone wants to kill her, for any number of reasons, and now they can because she no longer “belongs” to Gotham’s most feared criminal. But her opponents underestimate her, just as we do, and she does. The Joker isn’t the real power in the relationship; Harley is. She just needs some space to come into her own.
And boy does she. Facing off against Roman Sionis (Ewan MacGregor), a wealthy crime boss who loves humiliating women and throws a fit when he doesn’t get his own way, Harley winds up having to protect herself and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a pickpocket who accidentally steals a priceless diamond from under Sionis’s nose. Cassandra is also sought by Renee (Rosie Perez), a cop who speaks in 1980s catch phrases and is building a case against Sionis, and Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Sionis’s “little bird” and eventual chauffeur. Sionis’s power stems from his wealth and his brutality—he indulges in violence because no one can stop him, accompanied by his bodyguard, Victor Zsaz (Chris Messina), a crazed sadist who peels off faces because he likes that kind of thing. Sionis’s driving force is narcissism coupled with misogyny—Harley angers him because he can’t possess her, and he wants to destroy her as a way of exerting power over her.
It would be a mistake to ignore the very real underpinnings of trauma, manipulation, and abuse within Birds of Prey, turning it from an enjoyable wad of cotton candy to something altogether more flavorful. Female trauma takes many shapes and forms over the course of Birds of Prey, beginning with Harley’s recounting of her relationships (including her father’s attempt to sell her for a six-pack of beer) up to the Joker and the intense, abusive control he exerts over her. Birds of Prey explicitly categorizes the relationship as abusive, a system in which he controls not only her body and desires, but her safety and her psyche. This becomes a stark reminder of how often comic book films trade on female trauma for character development, as Harley and her growing team of women seek ways to enforce their control over their own experiences. The fact that film displaces its depictions of misogyny from the Joker—a well-known figure with too much cinematic and cultural baggage at this point to function as a proper, unambiguous symbol—to Sionis/Black Mask is one of the defter moves of the film. Harley is liberating herself from the Joker, yes, but she and the other women are really liberating themselves from all patriarchal imposition and power.
That director Cathy Yan couches this liberation in a manic, free-flowing, at times surrealist structure is a tribute to how well it works—and how quickly people will misunderstand or dismiss it. Female friendship becomes a focal point, as Harley “adopts” Cassandra, makes frenemies with Dinah, and draws closer to Renee and the (underused) Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). In this film, women protect each other and work together because they understand the pain, fear, and danger of being women, while men look on while women are humiliated, brutalized, or damaged—not necessary enjoying it, but not really caring about it either.
The heart of the film is in its twisted and glittery adoration of the feminine—and a deep, complex understanding of women existing under patriarchy. Harley has been manipulated, abused, and brutalized, but her realization, early in the film, is that she’s been entirely defined by a man and that men will continue to define her if she lets them. All the women of the film exist in isolation, desperately protecting themselves from violence and violation as much as they can, and it’s only when they stretch out for each other—when Dinah refuses to let Harley be abducted, when Harley takes Cassandra home, with Huntress and Rosa agree to partner with their supposed enemies to protect Cassandra and themselves—that they’re able to find friendship and freedom.
Given that the film deals so explicitly with female trauma and violence, it is deeply satisfying that it’s also so funny and manic. We’re used to seeing male characters gleefully indulge in cartoonish violence and extreme acts as a way of expressing aggression for the viewer, but Birds of Prey gives all that space to the women. The final act brings all the disparate elements together in a surging fight sequence that is just…so cathartic.
Bird of Prey is a film by women, about women, and for women. It doesn’t exclude men who want to play, but neither does it insist on their presence. Like Wonder Woman, Charlie’s Angels, Mad Max: Fury Road, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, and others before it, it takes a familiar structure and familiar images to reconstruct a man’s world into a woman’s. If you want to understand the essence of women under patriarchy, in its starkest, funniest, and most extreme, see Birds of Prey, and emancipate the Harley within.