(Warning: Plentiful Birds Of Prey spoilers will be found below.)
For about half of Birds Of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), I imagined how cool it would be if the DCEU made a solo Black Canary movie. My mind was wandering to that degree, yes (not a good sign!), which was disappointing because I looked forward to Harley’s new project. Seriously though, I wanted Warner Bros. to flesh out Dinah Lance’s powers and past to continue the legacy of her late vigilante mother. Jurnee Smollett-Bell made Canary pop onscreen (a feat alongside many literal pops of color). She took out kidnappers, would-be rapists, and a great deal of Black Mask’s hired army with well-executed kicks while pausing, just for a beat, to put her hair up. That could have been a pretty righteous symbol of women helping each other. Yet it evaporated against the rest of the movie’s (aggressively) nonsensical story.
That right there is evidence enough for me (as an admitted fan of Harley Quinn despite her complicated history) that Birds Of Prey missed its mark, although I thought up more reasons for that belief. We’ll talk that out, but right now, it must be noted that Birds Of Prey underperformed to such a degree that Warner Bros. has retitled the film (as Harley Quinn: Birds Of Prey) in an apparent effort to sell more tickets. No matter how enjoyable the movie is, and as much as critics loved it, the quality of a comic book movie doesn’t mean much if people aren’t turning out to theaters. There’s a disconnect with comic book fans. And it’s tragic that it’s happening with a female-fronted action movie. Those are (sadly) more likely to be harshly judged than those with male leads (like Gemini Man, Midway, and the most recent Hellboy, which all flopped in 2019 to mere shrugs).
Hollywood may inevitably conclude that (despite recent Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman successes) audiences aren’t willing to flock to comic book movies that star women. We may see the DCEU spiral into post-Catwoman mode again, where it took over a decade for Warner Bros. to greenlight a female-led comic book movie. Very clearly, Warner Bros. made multiple mistakes with this movie (including releasing on an Oscar weekend that saw Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker command focus). Yet underneath it all, Birds Of Prey (no matter how amazing egg sandwiches are, along with director Cathy Yan’s action/stunt execution), maybe this was the wrong Harley movie to make.
Look, Birds Of Prey wasn’t truly a girl-gang movie. It sort-of became one at the end when Harley’s voiceover actually labeled Huntress, Black Canary, and Renee Montoya as the Birds of Prey, but for most of its runtime, this was a movie that highlighted how much everyone in Gotham hates Harley Quinn. Only in the final act did she and a group of heroes decide to work together at the end to defeat a limp villain. And the ladies don’t even work together because they wanted to do so, but because there was no other option. However, the film had even bigger problems, so let’s get down to business.
1. The “Emancipation” Label Didn’t Fit, And Was The Audience An Afterthought? I was honestly down for this to be a movie about how Harley moves on from the Joker by kicking him to the curb and deciding that she’s better off, building her own identity, and living her best life. Maybe even becoming a genuinely better person! Instead, from the opening moments of the movie, we see Harley sobbing and protesting as Joker kicks her out. She spends much of the movie moping around, and it’s really obvious that she’d beg him to take her back if Warner Bros. had decided to include Jared Leto (thank goodness that didn’t happen). I really didn’t see a lick of emancipation coming from her. Yes, she got the honors of taking out Black Mask (far too easily) at the end of the movie, but only after she’d received assistance from plenty of other people. Throughout, however, everyone and Harley thought of herself as “Joker’s ex-girlfriend.” She was never free from the Joker, not even after burning down the Ace Chemicals Processing plant.
So, those of us who were intrigued by emancipation didn’t get it. And then there were potential viewers who were likely turned off by the emancipation label in the first place. I’m talking about comic book fans who preferred Suicide Squad Harley, the crazy lady friend in hotpants. Overall, the movie’s subtitle was just weird, and it was confusingly explained by Margot Robbie as reflecting “not a very serious movie.” Well yes, maybe “fantabulous” fit that bill, but “emancipation” is pretty serious business. It denotes the throwing off of literal and figurative shackles. Instead, we saw Harley’s bubbly-sociopathic self diving from obstacle to obstacle while trying to uncover a diamond and, yes, an egg sandwich. She wasn’t really a villain or antihero at all, only kind-of an a-hole with an R-rated mouth in a movie that could’ve nabbed a wider PG-13 audience.
2. Gotham City Sirens Would Have Been The Better R-Rated Film: Coming off Suicide Squad, Harley’s incorrigible ways would have been better suited for a triple-supervillainess header that includes herself, Poison Ivy, and Catwoman. The Harley Quinn DC Universe TV show is already exploring Harley’s friendship with Ivy and doing it damn well in animated form. I’m honestly not sure if Warner Bros. didn’t want to dive into the Harley-Ivy dynamic or not. It’s a complex relationship, and Ivy has attempted to help Harley get over Joker for good. Oh, and Harley and Ivy have been romantically linked in the comics. Could that possibly be why Warner Bros. pushed thoughts of Gotham City Sirens aside?
That’d be a silly rationale. Even if that was the case, there are any number of other angles that could have been pursued here, and I’d spend more time going into those options, but it would all be for naught. We probably won’t be seeing a Gotham City Sirens movie, unless James Gunn (who DC is apparently allowing to do anything now) somehow decides to pick up a true gathering of supervillainesses after his The Suicide Squad relaunch. And at this point, I’d be willing to bet that Warner Bros. (while reflecting on how Harley appeared to be the most popular character of 2016’s Suicide Squad) feels somewhat nervous about how Gunn’s 2021 followup shall fare in theaters. All because we somehow got a Birds Of Prey movie that didn’t actually turn into a Birds Of Prey story until the final act. Not only that, but the movie strangely left out Batgirl-Turned-Oracle, which may have helped pull in more nerds, at least.
Instead, it’s no wonder that comic book fans didn’t clamor for this one. Overall, the whole project kind-of feels like a waste of talent, money, and potential. It’s sad, and Gotham City Sirens likely would have included more captivating villainy than the Black Mask character. That’s not a knock on Ewan McGregor. He acted his tush off with what he was given, as did the lead actresses. This was simply a misfired project.
3. Aaand Back To Black Canary: Just to reiterate, Dinah got the shaft on a future after being the most compelling Birds Of Prey (or whatever it’s called now) character. More than any other one else in this movie, Dinah also did the right thing by her fellow females. She intervened when a couple of goons attempted to kidnap and possibly sexually assault a drunk Harley, and we saw her wipe a tear away when Black Mask sexually humiliated a club patron. Black Canary embodied what I believe to be the soul of what a properly executed Birds Of Prey meant to portray, but it all got lost in a project branded as a chaotic Harley Quinn picture. Although this would all be forgivable if Warner Bros. could do better next time, with the next Harley movie, that chance won’t arrive. Because audiences didn’t show up, there won’t be another standalone Harley movie, nor another Birds Of Prey picture or a standalone film about any of the group members. Canary deserved to sing another day, but that’s not in the cards.
By the way, I’m still holding out hope for this year’s other female-led superhero tentpoles, Wonder Woman 1984 and Black Widow. Not only did Diana come out strong in her 2017 movie, but Kevin Feige damn well knows what’s at stake with putting Natasha Romanoff in the driver’s seat. Marvel Studios took their time getting to that project for a reason, and here’s to hoping that 2020 will glow brighter (not to mention “higher, further, [and] faster”) for lady nerds everywhere.