‘Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey’ aims unsuccessfully for female empowerment

Jacob Mandel

If you are looking to watch a movie that is unsuccessful in promoting female empowerment and fails to establish emotional connections between the characters and the audience, then sure, “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” is the movie for you. However, if you want a fun, enjoyable movie with entertaining lead performances—the kind of movie to watch when you are at home sick with the flu—then Margot Robbie running around hitting people with bats could not be a more fitting choice.

Quinn laughs as she continues her fight for emancipation

The film follows the eccentric and playful Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, as an actor and producer), who narrates her treacherous journey, all the while trying to outlast the various men who want her killed after she breaks up with the Joker. She is hunted mainly by Roman Sionis, AKA Black Mask (Ewen McGregor), who asserts his pure wickedness early on in the film by cutting off the face of his former business partner and his family—while they hang upside down. It is worth noting that in a movie dominated by female roles, McGregor was highly successful in portraying Sionis, proving to be the most captivating character behind Quinn. McGregor’s performance as Sionis—a ruthless mob boss who has no control over his irrational emotions—was a stand-out, regardless of Sionis’ position as a sadistic and power-hungry villain.

The first 20 minutes of the movie are zany and colorful, with lightning-quick scene cuts and cartoon-ish animation that takes the audience through Quinn’s complicated backstory. This introduction instantly intrigued me; all superhero movies should include scenes like this. As a charismatic narrator, Quinn abandons chronology, jumps all over the timeline and eventually lands back in the present, which was just as captivating as it was fun. After this first introduction, the pace slows and we start meeting other characters. 

Though the four female supporting characters differed in many ways, each woman has been oppressed by a male figure throughout their lives. Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is under the ruthless servitude of Roman Sionis, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) has to deal with her overbearing father, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is forever overlooked and underappreciated by her male police chief and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is seeking revenge on Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), who killed her entire family. Previously controlled by the Joker, Quinn now is a powerful anti-hero immersed in a crime-ridden city run by males, so she is constantly underestimated by her peers. 

Ewen McGregor was perfectly cast as a maniacal self-possessed mob boss

Unfortunately, the fact that I can’t remember a single piece of dialogue from any supporting actress is a testament to their mediocre performances and the script. But I do remember them fighting…a lot. 

Throughout director Cathy Yan’s interpretive sequel to “Suicide Squad” (2016), there are many fight scenes. My apologies, let me rephrase that. There are countless paint-filled, bone-smashing, head-bashing, gun-firing, bullet-dodging and object-exploding fight sequences which, at times, put me in a dizzy spell. However, as mentioned by Yan in an interview with Backstage, the fight scenes were tirelessly choreographed and all stunts were done by the actors themselves. This dedication to choreography was apparent, as the camera weaved its way in and out of the fighting flawlessly in an “Avengers” franchise style. Despite this, once Quinn appeared on-screen punching, shooting or kicking, I found myself dreading yet another fight scene; one after another, the battle sequences became redundant and unnecessary.

Eventually, all these women join forces to defeat Roman Sionis and his mob in an underwhelming climax remembered most by a rollerskating Quinn and a sound vortex created by Black Canary’s powerful scream.

All five of these women represent real female superheroes in the DC Universe. Unfortunately, the only convincing superheroine in “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” was none other than Harley Quinn herself. Despite director Yan’s desire to portray each woman as a superheroine due to their courage and ability to rebel against male authority, Huntress, Renee Montoya, Cassandra Cain and Black Canary exuded no superheroine qualities with frankly unexciting performances. 

Still, colorful and alluringly-edited scenes mixed with interesting dialogue and standout performances from Robbie and McGregor made “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” a worthwhile hour and 49 minutes.