The Fantabulous Emancipation of the Birds of Prey
DC’s “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is a story of a woman’s secession from one half of an infamously abusive relationship to being her own person. Even without knowing the full comic and film history of the relationship between flamboyantly unique Harley Quinn and the disgusting, abusive vermin that is the Joker, you understand the effect of its years of toxicity on Harley within the first few minutes of the film.
Quinn provides a voiceover introduction to her new identity as a newly single woman in Gotham (even hinting at her relationship with queer comic book legend Poison Ivy, a win for the gays!) Her tone, while despondent over losing her one source of security (and by extension, the primary source of her pain and lack of freedom), is exuberantly optimistic about her future. This contradicts beautifully with images of her sobbing uncontrollably and going through the typical break-up rituals of eating copious junk food, getting a tattoo, and cutting her hair. But this is a woman determined to re-write her life in her own image; she joins a roller derby team, attempts to make new friends, and tries her hand at partying without the stifling influence of a man behind her. Her penultimate act to rid herself of the Joker’s influence is blowing up the industrial processing plant where many of their most toxic moments occured. It is as this frame shifts from Harley to the other individual women and their motives for liberation (accompanied by gorgeous introduction title cards) that we realize that “Birds of Prey” is about so much more than just Harley herself. It is not solely a tale of Harley’s empanciation from Joker and public disowning. It is the emancipation of all the individual women in the movie from sexist and racist societal expectations, who decide to establish themselves as a team to combat the evil men of Gotham who controlled their lives in the first place.
One of the most important intentional decisions of the film is establishing each character as individuals in their own right first before they become members of a team. Feminist team camaraderie and the sole image of a band of women is often favored over fleshed-out, respective women characters in team-up movies. Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame” had this insignificant shot to establish a meager sense of group feminism for itself without having to commit to fully realized women characters. This virtually erases the unique and personal motives of each woman. But even by name, “Birds of Prey” establtishes them as distinct entities, not solely defined by their women-ness or their connection to a team.
Next of the birds to be introduced is Renee Montoya, a cop passed up for a promotion by her male former partner who took credit for a huge case that she cracked. She is building a case against Gotham crime lord, Roman Sionis (alter ego: the Black Mask), who is determined to acquire a diamond with the account numbers containing the fortune of the Bertinelli crime family. The sole survivor of the Bertinelli crime family is daughter Helena, who is determined to kill all those responsible for the murder of her family by way of her alterego, the Huntress. Just trying to avoid getting murdered is teenager Cassandra Cain, who stole the diamond from Sionis’ henchman and promptly swallowed it to avoid detection. Also trying to just stay alive and keep her job is Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary, who is reluctantly working for Sionis as his driver while simultaneously trying to keep Cassandra alive. Though they’re distinct characters with different motivations and intentions, they all come together to use their collective hatred of Roman Sionis to combat the chokehold he has on Gotham.
Whereas each of the women are developed to show their originality, Roman Sionis’ character is a representation of the blanket violence perpetrated through toxic masculinity and white supremacy that manifests in a desire to own everything, and everyone, around him. We are clued into Sionis’ elevated sense of self in his first appearance as the man-of-the-party who controls and instills fear in everyone within his sphere of influence. His reliance on his ownership of others is chillingly conveyed when he proudly shows Dinah his collection of tribal masks made of real skin in his living room. He chuckles about their existence as ornaments within his home a thousand years later, as if his possession of them represents a conquering to him, as if he knowingly renders their cultural meaning insignificant by his ownership. The image of a white man owning distinctly cultural objects and gloating about his property is unmistakably reminiscent of the historical white colonization of persons, cultures, and land—a present reality for Sionis, unapologetic in the domination that he imagines in his head.
Sionis throws a temper tantrum when he finds out that he no longer has the diamond and then manipulates every mercenary in the city to oppose Harley’s search for the diamond after he forces her to hunt down Cassandra. He takes pleasure in being the orchestrator of every decision, the commander of every troop. This desire for ownership of property (which he considers people to be) is shown to be a distinctly masculine thing, especially when he forces one of his female party guests up on a table to dance embarrassedly in front of the rest of the club. To finalize his dominance over her, for the sole indiscretion of laughing, he forces her presumed boyfriend to rip off her dress as she shakes in fear and mortification. Sionis is only powerful when he dominates others, and his jurisdiction is only maintained by the curtain of terror that he places over the city.
Although each “Bird of Prey” prefers to fight on her own and despite some not even liking each other, they unite for a common goal of eradicating Sionis’ hold on the city. Sionis doesn’t see any of his victims as individuals (rather as commodities), but the Birds of Prey work as a team because they retain their unique personalities in battling him. Harley uses her quirky affinity for roller derby footwear to skate alongside moving vehicles in a car chase, Helena utilizes her signature crossbow to quickly take out opponents, Renee has her martial arts fighting style, and Dinah’s hypersonic scream is a pinnacle moment in the fight and clears the path for the others to proceed and save Cassandra. It is because they don’t forget their respective capabilities that they succeed in defeating Sionis. Sionis’ downfall is a perfect example of the result of divergent talents combining to build a perfect crew.
The “girl gang” trope is often so tired because of how well the members mesh together. However, this team-up never pretends to be a perfectly selected group, just as its women are allowed to be uniquely messy people. Each of these individual women are all overcoming immense adversities and they don’t always handle everything perfectly (Harley’s god-awful momentary betrayal of Cassandra when she needed her the most rings a bell.) But the film’s appreciation of these sometimes misguided women is true to life and establishes women as purely people at the end of the day— not perfectly curated objects made in the image of a “perfect woman.” This adherence to orderly disorganization is an ode to the complexity and multiplicity of womanhood and the diversity of our skills and endeavors.
By the end of the movie, each woman is given the chance to carve her own place in the world, which was ultimately their collective goal. Harley Quinn recaptures control of her legacy and emerges from the movie still as messy as ever. But this time, she establishes herself apart from the Joker’s ex-girlfriend and Sionis’ enemy. She’s her own person, completed only by the solidarity of her team and the perfect egg sandwich.