‘Birds of Prey’: A unique story made by unique voices

Jackson McMurray, Staff Contributor

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Used to be that asking someone if they were “Marvel or DC” was a pretty benign question. In a culture where comic book superheroes were only just a part of the mainstream, it mostly meant “do you like Batman and Superman or Spider-man and the X-Men?” However now, with both companies seeing enormous box office success multiple times a year, the debate has heated up.

Marvel succeeded by slowly and methodically crafting a universe with a tight, overarching narrative and a steady voice over the span of 23 movies and counting. DC tried to do that, and it didn’t work. So now they’re doing something else. 

Teagan Kimbro

After “Justice League” (2017) crashed and burned, Warner Brothers made a decision. They weren’t going to try and be Marvel anymore. Since then, their films have strong, disparate voices and no interest in multi-film continuity. No film more perfectly encapsulates this new ethos than the quirkily named “Birds of Prey” (2020), the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn, is a title which is really doing a lot of the heavy lifting on the word count of this article.

“Birds of Prey” is a quasi-sequel to pop culture’s favorite punching bag “Suicide Squad” (2016), but you wouldn’t know it by looking at it. “Birds of Prey” works hard to feel separate from its predecessor by being violent, R-rated, and deeply self-aware, while “Suicide Squad” is among he least self-aware movies ever produced. 

The generic could-be-anywhere cityscape of “Suicide Squad”’s Gotham becomes a Los Angeles-inspired, sprawling, sunny city in “Birds of Prey.” “Birds of Prey” also has the good sense to do away with Jared Leto’s Joker before the film even starts, and replace “Suicide Squad’s” cluttered, boring and unreadable action with clean, personal and economic choreography that’s exciting from a mile away. 

While the choreography is clear, the events around it aren’t always so easy to grasp. The movie is, by design, loud, fast, frenetic and stuffed to the gills with exciting new characters, but the script isn’t always clear enough to make that satisfying. It’s tough to follow and there’s at least one character that could be cut out of the movie’s whole cloth without affecting its final result. Its quirky nonlinear structure is a confident stylistic choice, but one that makes the character’s motivations and objectives harder to track. The final set piece of the film is a gloriously colorful ass kicking extravaganza but it’s tainted slightly by the fact that you’re not sure exactly why it’s happening. 

However the practical stakes of this movie are not the most important ones. The real meat of the story comes from Harley Quinn’s titular emancipation. The story, written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan, focuses on the stakes, both emotional and physical, of being a woman with a newfound sense of individuality. “Birds of Prey” is at its heart about the experiences and the dangers of simply being a single woman, and posits that the only way to survive it is by women sticking together and defending each other.

There’s lots to pick at in this movie, my own personal vendetta being that it’s annoyingly insistent on a constant stream of pop song needle drops. Why hire “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018) composer Daniel Pemberton for your movie if you’re not gonna let him do his thing? But at the end of the day the movie still works because it’s confident, exciting, funny and extremely unique. It’s something that could only happen under DC’s weird newfound devil-may-care attitude.

“Birds of Prey” is not a cinematic triumph, nor is it blockbuster perfection, but it is a unique movie made by unique voices, and it works well enough that it will make a lot of people feel seen in ways they’re not used to. “Birds of Prey” will no doubt have a life long after its theatrical release.