Chapter Eight: Birds of Prey and The Chaotic Doubtful Journey of One Film Viewer
Let me transport you back reader to the Summer of 2016 (7th August to be precise).
I had just walked out of a screening of Suicide Squad, I felt infused and injected with a high dosage of adrenaline. The characters larger than life, the action satisfying and a pure piece of escapism that hit my sweet spot – only issue was I was the only one to experience that version of the David Ayer’s much maligned film.
In the days, months and years that would follow – it very much felt like I had briefly walked into another dimension and watched something different. No other film in my life to which I have enjoyed has been as widely mocked, criticised and lambasted over and over and over again. I’ve spent hours watching video essays, reading reviews and having conversations with my friends all trying to enlighten me onto how much of a disaster it was – a travesty of cinema. Every negative autopsy, dissections and rant in circulation I could cast my eyes on, I did.
Though through the tidal wave of condemnation – I could not budge. It was that imperfect piece I still could not turn my back on, even when everyone else had.
Is the plotting suspect? Yes
The characters thin? Yes
The editing very clunky? Yes
The villain unthreatening? Yes
Are Killer Croc’s lines hilarious? Of Course.
What else is there to critique about Suicide Squad that has not already been critiqued to a microscopic level?
I see Squad as symbolically an important date in my life. It was experienced a month before starting University where I would study Film and Screenwriting. My mind would be opened up to a whole new world of storytelling, the ideas and interests of other creators and many other films. I would find new types of films which widely broadened my horizons and tastes, I wrote my own screenplays and worked on sets – wrote essays dissecting narrative and form, whilst simultaneously watching more in the process. By the time I graduated, it made me question my love for Suicide Squad.
If the film had been released on the 5th August 2019, would I have adored it the same? Or would my better developed understanding of cinema radically alter my approach? I would have been the one writing the scathing review, filming that hour video essay on why that opening montage of music videos introducing all the team was lazy uninspired plotting.
And so we reach Birds of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn and once again it was a similar story.
As soon as the first trailer was released there was wide scorn, my friend group exclaiming how terrible it looked whilst I sat excited, awaiting its release.
With all the baggage from Suicide Squad, there was a very real trepidation walking into see Birds of Prey. Not only was there that presumption that maybe my tastes had evolved, but also the idea of going to bat for another piece of work that would be widely lambasted and torn to pieces for years to come. As ridiculous as this sounds, could I go through that again?
In isolation, Cathy Yan’s eye-popping, colour filled, and narratively rebellious piece was a strange experience to behold. My best impression of it whilst it unfolded was it was a (cliché alert) comic-book come to life. But a side issue, a short–but sweet– escapade into the world of Gotham. No world-altering events, no light beam in the sky or skyscrapers to be destroyed here.
Considering this film has been in development since 2015, I wouldn’t be at all surprised If Deadpool had anything to do with its tone and inspiration. The unilinear structure, the voiceover, the fourth wall breaks, and gratuitous violence all transports you to the escapades of Wade Wilson. The best action sequence in Birds of Prey takes place in a Police Station as Harley Quinn, stocked up with colour coordinated smoke and glitter bombs, takes out tons of helpless Cops like a session of Grand Theft Auto that’s quickly veered off track.
The choreography is slick, balletic and flows wonderfully well. Like a video game mission, it has different levels in three distinct sections of the station as Quinn battles her way through it with an objective. The first part cartoonish balls of smoke, the second a grittier duel with sprinklers to add extra splash, and the third – a masterclass on the many ways to violently use a baseball bat.
The action is where Birds of Prey soars, this is John Wick level good and leaves a lasting impression in your memory.
There are Suicide Squadisms in there. The character text intros – in particular Black Mask’s feels like it was taken right from the VFX package used for Will Smith’s Deadshot in 2016. If you didn’t like that stuff, then you will not like it here.
Ewan McGregor’s antagonist is a fun watch and the Scot looks like he’s having a lot of joy in front of screen. He’s camp, childish and sadistic when needed – the shame of it is if would have liked more of Ewan and a fully fleshed out villain to really fear.
That is a problem with everyone not named Harley Quinn.
This is Margot Robbie’s film – a playground for her to showcase how wonderful of an actor she is. I, Tonya (imo Robbie’s best film) has similarities with an unreliable narrator aspect and I like the fact that the film gets us into the psyche of Quinn. Her mind – the erratic, the comedic, the farcical aspects of a mentally deranged character and Robbie has some pinpoint sharp one-liners which are hilarious.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress is the other surprisingly comedic part of the film – the only shame like McGregor is not enough screen time. I’ve been a fan of Winstead’s work for a long time and especially as Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim will always hold a special place in my heart.
Though like Squad, Birds of Prey leaves me with a similar feeling. In truth everything I’ve been told in lectures, wrote about in essays and tried to adhere to in my own storytelling is the antithesis of DC’s latest release. The film lacks subtlety, Quinn’s voiceover explains a lot, there seems to be an endless loop of songs playing like someone has left their playlist on and walked out of the room. Like Squad, there are moments that feel like they need more air, more attention and less cutting. It plays well with its carnival theming and like 'The Good Doctor' Mark Kermode details himself, this makes the film stand out amongst its competition.
Birds of Prey by its titular character’s very nature isn’t here to play by the rules – conform to convention and silently sulk in the corner. Harley is loud, maniacal and rambunctious – so her own movie needs to reflect that.
I know – and have already seen – people despise this film and have already released their full-scale analysis into why it is an abomination – but that’s okay.
When coming to terms with my thoughts on this film, it brings with it the revelation as to why I adore cinema for the wildly unpredictable beast it is. If you want me to sit here and argue why Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey are good films, I won’t – I refuse. I can see and accept their flaws – I’m not in denial, I can see them, they stare me right in the face. Neither film speaks to the human condition nor gives me an enlightening lesson onto something my eyes needed to witness. What are either trying to say? I don’t know, ask someone else.
But in subjectivity comes room for the unmeasured aspects, the unexplained chemical and psychologically reactions we all individually have to stories.
Sometimes in illogical ways, a combination of performance, visuals and narrative combine to create a film that brings us joy. The science of films is that there isn’t a science to film – or filmmaking – or the way we look at things. I vehemently reject the phrase “Objectively this film was bad” because objectivity is where artistry dies and unlikable things like mathematics begin. (Which is probably why I despised so much in school)
Although Birds of Prey won’t likely reach my Top 10 for 2020, it will be a film I re-watch on a rainy day to bring me joy. It is a film many will scream from the rooftops as everything that is wrong with modern filmmaking, I unlike before will not wallow in shame that I enjoyed it.
Sorry not sorry – I can’t change my reactions to things, that’s what it was so deal with it.
Films like Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey might feel like weird outliers in my viewing life, but in truth they exist to remind me as why I adore this medium and crave to not only watch but tell my own stories.
That is the reason they succeed.