Harley Quinn, Medicine Woman: How Birds of Prey cures the DCEU

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Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (Warner Bros. Pictures)

I never thought Harley Quinn would’ve been the cure for the DC Extended Universe’s ills, but she is a former psychologist, after all. A former asylum psychologist, to be specific, so the analogy is apt considering DC’s cinematic personality disorder. From Man of Steel‘s deconstruction of godhood to Shazam!‘s super-interpretation of Big, DC’s movies have struggled to find a tonal consistency that defines their overall universe. Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn) delivers DC’s bittersweet pill: consistency is overrated!

That isn’t a criticism. In fact, it’s been the secret to Harley’s charm since her debut in Batman: The Animated Series. From kooky hench-woman, to lovestruck foil, to emancipated feminist icon, Harley is both what she’s always been and whatever her fans really want her to be. BoP embraces the many facets of Harley’s character to tell a pretty direct story about her rebound from the Joker. In her case, she doesn’t find comfort in another madman’s arms, but in an unlikely partnership with the other femme fatales of Gotham.

The plot is pretty simple. Young pickpocket Cassandra Cain lifts a valuable diamond from the villainous Black Mask, and Harley agrees to get the bauble back in exchange for protection from Gotham’s underworld, now that she isn’t under the Joker’s protection anymore. Black Mask has a few familiar faces in his employ: Victor Zsasz (who, like in Fox’s Gotham, is denigrated to lackey status, when he’s really a great rogue in his own right), and, of course, Black Canary, whose moniker is really the only “birdy” one of the bunch. Purists may denounce this wayward incarnation of Canary, but a staircase confrontation with Montoya establishes her mother’s heroic legacy in an adequately canonical way. Her path toward superheroics isn’t as clear cut as her comic book counterpart’s, but it’s effective for a mainstream audience that’s really only here for Harley, anyway.

Who, by the way, talks to us! Harley’s Deadpool-esque narration offers the same sardonic charm and may be the secret weapon for R-rated superhero flicks. Perhaps the juxtaposition of real-life cartoon characters using adult language is softened a bit when the audience is hospitably included in the conversation. Overall, the film’s pace is a lot like Suicide Squad’s — a juggernaut of action sequences and nobody-talks-like-this dialogue designed to endure the audience to its anti-heroes pretty quickly, leaving little room for further revelation about their characters beyond their archetypal roles. The difference in BoP is, Harley totally knows that, and the movie delightfully mocks itself accordingly. Renee Montoya is every pulpy cop flick rolled into one jaded detective, and the Huntress practicing her name in the mirror is akin to Dirty Harry meets Darkwing Duck’s, “I am the terror that flaps in the night!” Compared to Henry Cavill’s beard of sadness, these characters revel in everything that makes them detached from reality, making them ironically relatable and extremely entertaining.

This part of the review would be as good a place as any to assuage naysayers that might think BoP has a “girl power” agenda. Never mind that Birds of Prey is a comic book concept with roots in the early ’90s, whose core character wasn’t an easily manipulated, scantily-clad Harley Quinn, but a wheelchair bound, hyper-intellectual Barbara Gordon. Still, with an all female lead cast, this onscreen interpretation doesn’t take time for a “We are woman, hear us roar!” moment (and if any character could do that, Black Canary can). In fact, it seems to delight in how broken its protagonists are, more than in the power they’re “taking back” from any “oppressive patriarchy.” They definitely are not role models in their world, so why should they be role models in ours? They may have a penchant toward saving the day, but they’re still struggling with saving themselves, which is a more human theme than anything else.

Yet, beyond humanity, the most underrated character in BoP is Gotham itself. Yes, another movie review that identifies the setting as a character, but hear me out! In cinema, Gotham is always established as an urban sprawl akin to New York or Chicago, but those wide sweeping skyline shots are always defied by a very narrow view from the street. I mean, does everything in Gotham take place within eye-shot of the Monarch Theater or Wayne Tower? BoP takes you to the backstreets — Gotham’s garment district, and Chinatown. The neon nightclubs and the garish rundown carnival piers still exist, but they’re a part of a whole, now, instead of the whole itself. Even more so than Christopher Nolan’s hyper-realistic take, this is a Gotham I feel like I could visit, and for the first time in a Batman-adjacent story, his absence felt justified, because even the Dark Knight can’t really be omnipresent in a truly big American city.

Also, Ben Affleck’s resignation not withstanding, this universe’s Batman might just be off with the Justice League, anyway. BoP makes small but effective pokes at its place in the DCEU’s continuity, which should please eagle-eyed fans looking for such a thing (like me). Additionally, the end credits list a surprising bevy of original comic book contributors to these characters, including (most importantly, in my opinion) writer Chuck Dixon. I was also touched to see Norm Breyfogle mentioned — my favorite Batman artist, who passed away a short time ago, and whose impact on DC’s success in the ’90s can’t be overstated. For many, this movie may exist on its own, but I enjoy these connections to its comic roots and greater cinematic world.

While Black Canary, Huntress, and Montoya seem supplemental to Harley’s headlining Birds of Prey, the ending leaves them in a position to support a sequel all on their own, which has inadvertently become the formula for the DCEU’s longevity. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice begat Wonder WomanJustice League begat Aquaman, and now Suicide Squad has begat Birds of Prey, wherein Harley has passed her torch. While Marvel’s agenda was to put all of its heroes on camera together, DC’s has become turning its camera from one focus to the next, which is just as effective in proving everything exists side-by-side. After all, Shazam! will soon branch into Black Adam, which may offer a chance to springboard the Justice Society, and so on, and so on. Considering how long many of these characters have been waiting for their onscreen debut, Harley Quinn entertainingly proves, there’s enough fantabulous emancipations to go around.

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About the author

Russ Kazmierczak Jr.

Russ Kazmierczak Jr.

Russ Kazmierczak, Jr. is the creator/self-publisher of Amazing Arizona Comics, and dozens of other minicomics and zines. He was the Phoenix New Times’ Best Storyteller in 2018, and he’s the biggest fan of The Monkees you’ll ever meet. Follow him online on Instagram @amazingazcomics, or on his new Patreon, at https://www.patreon.com/KaraokeFanboy_Press.