Making the Best of It | Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020) Review

Directed by Cathy Yan
Starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez


What has long been said of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, from her early days of horror through her trading insular indies with strange blockbusters, is that she’s the best part. Sometimes this comes from her starring in genre trash like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or a remake of The Thing, but regardless the prestige, she always gives a commanding performance. She speaks with that deep voice and you listen — lest you think I toss off an idiom like “commanding performance,” without charming self-consciousness. The slow arrival of Mary Elizabeth Winstead has made me anxious since I first saw her in Death Proof circa 2011. Not only that she’s too talented to play in genre garbage like The Thing remake, too beautiful to remain overlooked by conventional wisdom, but more broadly, her perpetual square peg to Hollywood’s round hole illustrates one of Hollywood’s woman problems. And it begins with The Thing.

I’m fascinated by Winstead’s choices of roles; she’s flirted with that prestige but hasn’t left her genre roots entirely behind. I mention Death Proof because my first encounter with the actress’s work was timed months before the release of The Thing remake/prequel, and I immediately became lost in it. I’d just graduated high school and needed to put myself out there, not retreat to the comforts of old — I was probably doing myself no favors by being the only person on Earth genuinely excited for yet another ‘80s horror remake. Maybe it isn’t as painfully clear as I imagine and I don’t need to out myself on this account, but Winstead was my most profound celebrity crush, to date. As an introduction to my sensibilities, seeing her blast a body horror alien with fire was a revelation, and one that proved a blessing and a curse. Goddamn, she was so badass, so cool, and it was one time. And plus, you can’t really punch a Thing.

She was left out of the fun in Death Proof, sat by as the trophy in a game of hipsters in Scott Pilgrim, and has been endlessly imperiled/menaced by slashers, abductions, a Die Hard villain and John Goodman. I appreciate there’s strength to each of these characters, that being powerful — regardless of gender — doesn’t end at “physical,” and thinking otherwise has a tremendous erasing effect on survivor narratives. My problem, both a problem of mine and a problem of me, is that women characters’ power rarely begins with physical. Again, I appreciate the argument against the “strong female character,” but I also find the trope largely hypothetical. What I’m missing from Hollywood film is a tradition of forgettable woman-led action cinema, on the level of Seagal, Neeson, American Jet Li, latter day Stallone and Schwarzenegger, non-Crank Statham, whichever Hemsworth brother (turns out, it was always Chris) — granted that, I could fully join in the frustration that “strong female characters” forfeit complexity. In fact, they forfeit nothing — do nothing — because they do not exist. That one of many woman problems revealed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s career so far is that roles are simply not being written for Mary Elizabeth Winstead: scream queen, genre-friend, passionate dramatist, would-be action heroine.

Of course, this is where my claims rely on a faulty forensic accounting of her IMDb profile. I’m only assuming she wants to play action roles, but with The Thing, with appearances in Die Hard sequels and a ‘70s car thriller throwback, she’s always been just stage-left of the action. Scott Pilgrim proved she’s capable, but what a ludicrous stage. It’s a fine movie, but action-comedy tends to be a trap for action heroines (the famous climax of Yes, Madam comes after an hour of pure silliness; even my beloved You’re Next can be dismissed as not a true horror movie). For now, I want to assume that Winstead’s far-ranging interests would not preclude the action genre, which is where she’ll meet the most resistance. So, like water in the desert, she finally arrives at Birds of Prey.

I’m sure Winstead was shortlisted for every Marvel/DC superheroine during the MCU boom as a talented and generally known up-and-comer (she was a contemporary of pre-Captain Marvel Brie Larson, sharing the screen with her twice), so when she eventually secured Huntress in a Birds of Prey movie, I was conflicted. It wouldn’t be a lead role, and it wouldn’t be an especially superpowered one. At the time of the casting announcement, I doubt I anticipated the film would be R-rated, with second unit directing by Chad Stahelski. There’s also the strange note that this is essentially a vanity project for Margot Robbie, though certainly the only kind of vanity project we ever need: understandably dissatisfied with the state of superheroines in film, Robbie dropped her armload of industry awards on the money desks and took charge.

With Birds of Prey, she’s issuing a number of correctives to the industry: hire a non-white non-man director in Cathy Yan, literally emancipate her character Harley Quinn from headscratching origins, and finally do one just for the girls. She’s an absolute trailblazer in this regard, and this narrative behind the scenes of Birds of Prey constitutes a rare victory, a legend providing delicious metatext to the film itself. This is the only way you get an R-rated women-led comic book movie, the only way the Birds of Prey ever grace the big screen — the only way Mary Elizabeth Winstead stabs a man in the throat?

And there it is again, the anxiety, and I see now it remains unresolved. This is, once again, Winstead stage-left. Yes, she is badass, and for the first time her badassness is unapologetic and unqualified. But if every instance of her screentime becomes such precious commodity, the necessary framing of Harley Quinn — the text — is a distraction. Fun enough, but I’ve been waiting nine years for what’s on the margins.

Birds of Prey

Snappy editing and a zigzag plot structure certainly suggest Harley Quinn’s state of mind, spat onto the mean streets of Gotham in search of a compass — first directional, then moral — and also that this mob story needed some spice. A review I read of Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) suggested that for all the typical kerfuffle surrounding the film as cultural object, it was a very frank and relatively simple entry in the burgeoning girl power wing of superhero cinema, complete with the appropriation of a popular song as battle ballad, in this case “Barracuda.” Unfortunately, for all its well-staged (and inventive) action set pieces and eventual girls night out vibe, I do find it leaves little imprint. But even a small statement can seem revolutionary, and the truly unprecedented joys of watching our anarchist anti-heroine parade through the city, turning simple grocery theft into assault or being batted around the environment like a pinball feels fresher than DC’s other attempts at distancing its DCEU from those hypermasculine false starts. Personally, I’m just not a huge fan of Harley Quinn. She’s that sort of deep comic lore transplant whose machinations never rise above the equally exhausting Joker’s, and whose existence hinges on whether or not Batman is around to punch her out. I fucking hate that. Birds of Prey may be a one-time victory lap apart from those two figureheads, but they cast long shadows.

It’s a miracle I was at all able to ignore the cosmic irony that Harley Quinn, laboring under the sword of Damocles that is inevitable justice in an ultimately moral cinematic universe, is the reason we get to see gender parity in the action genre. I’d be lining up day one for any given R-rated action movie directed by a woman and starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Rosie Perez, and indeed I managed to see Birds of Prey day one, but endured more so than enjoyed its DC trappings. I know this is not what Cassandra Cain is supposed to be like, that on sunnier days, she could whup any given Bird of Prey or interloping Harley, who instead take turns here ensuring her safety. At the same time, I understand this is the only way I’m gonna see Mary Elizabeth Winstead score a hefty body count. And as you can see, this film is unfairly weighted by metatext, both inspirational and deeply personal. It’s a fun action spectacle on a par with John Wick: Chapter 2, I’d say, giving it a strong edge over the dreary stillness of Atomic Blonde but stopping short of a true release to excess and exuberance like The Night Comes for Us. For at least one superlative apart from its production history, Birds of Prey does give us an excellent villain death.

I expected to be this movie’s champion, and there’s an obvious underdog spirit cooling any of my objections. To be honest, I feel terrible rendering a qualified judgment — like, who the fuck am I, for starters. It’s the Birds of Prey part I love, but the Birds of Prey exist in a world of infinitely powerful men and a “crazy” Harley Quinn who is, thankfully, eager to share the spotlight. (Seriously, she seems extremely well-adjusted). Unsurprisingly, your evaluation of this film is reliant on your feelings about the character Harley. If you like her, you’re in for a real treat. Birds of Prey, like Punisher: War Zone before it, shatters beyond perfect recall the mythology that women directors can’t do action. I’m just hoping they do so more often (I’ll be there for the unlikely Birds of Prey 2). In the end, I sure am glad Margot Robbie dodged that Ghost in the Shell bullet back at the start of her international career. Can you imagine…?

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