By Sam Osborn
Cathy Yan’s film, Birds of Prey, poses one simple question: what to do when you go through a rough break up. But, for Harley Quinn, everything is more complicated. Quinn’s entire adult life has been defined by her relationship with the Joker, who provided her with an unrivalled degree of protection. Now that he’s no longer in her life, there’s a target on Quinn’s back, and anyone she has ever wronged suddenly has the chance to take revenge. As it turns out, there’s quite the list of people who want Quinn dead - and of course, the police want her behind bars - but she fights all of them off in her signature, zany fashion. Circus acrobatics, acomically enormous mallet taken from a fairground “test your strength” machine, and a confetti cannon are her weapons of choice, so the death count is relatively low for what is essentially a gangster movie. Yet, the film is still graphic at times. In fact, Birds of Prey isn’t just violent, it’s ecstatically violent; part of what makes the film so satisfying is that Quinn delights in dishing out pain, especially to those who are physically stronger than she is.
Birds of Prey made $33.2 million on its first weekend at the box office in the US, but on a budget of only $84.5 million, which is considerably less than other comic book adaptations. This has already garnered some criticism, but whereas Christian Bale’s Ford v Ferrari (budget $97.6m) was praised for ‘dominating the weekend box office with a strong $31 million opening’, according to the same sources Birds of Prey managed only a ‘disappointing’ $33m. Now, I’m not sure whether those who calculated these figures have forgotten how to do basic maths, but the last time I checked, not only is 33 a bigger number than 31, but Birds of Prey had a significantly smaller budget to work with, and still managed to rake in a further $81 million internationally.
Of course, you and I both know that studios are reluctant to make films directed or led by women, especially action or comic book movies, which are typically aimed at men. Fans of Marvel comics have been waiting for years for a standalone “Black Widow” movie. Birds of Prey is something unique in terms of Hollywood movies. Rather than the sprinkles of tokenistic representation we’ve seen in the past (*ahem* that one scene in Infinity War), Birds of Prey effortlessly places women at the centre of the narrative. Where the temptation in the past has been to create cold, unfeeling, “more masculine” women, the Birds unashamedly treat one another with the same enthusiasm as drunk girls in nightclub toilets do. In many ways, aswell as being a breakup story, Birds of Prey is also a love story - albeit platonic love. For the first time since she met the Joker, Quinn finally finds people to truly love her.
What the film really lacks, if anything, is anything, is any definitive representation of queerness. Harley Quinn, the protagonist, and fellow Bird, Renee “The Cop” Montoya, are both bisexual in the original comics, but unfortunately this flies way under the radar. Besides the occasional remark on how one of the other Birds are “so cool”, “powerful” or “beautiful”, this is about as far as the lady-loving goes. Quinn and Montoya join the ranks of comic book characters including Green Lantern, Spiderman, Wonder Woman, and dozens more whose queerness is ignored entirely when their characters are brought to the big screen. Despite four separate adaptations of Spiderman without a single mention of his relationship with Deadpool, many hope that ‘Wonder Woman 1984’ will rectify this problem in June later this year.
The differences between source material and film don’t end there either, but thankfully, this time with a much gayer-looking result. Ewan McGregor plays the film’s primary antagonist, the Black Mask: amaterialistic sociopath with “a penchant for face peeling”, who murdered his family and rose up to become the unchallenged Kingpin of the Gotham City underworld. In the comics, the Black Mask concerns himself less with destroying Batman and much more with Bruce Wayne, his main financial rival, and whose funds pay to clean up the streets of Gotham. In the comics, Black Mask is dark and brooding, cold and calculating. In Birds of Prey, McGregor’s portrayal is something else entirely.
In the film, the Black Mask is a flamboyantly dressed volatile primadonna, frequently flying off the handle when his plans go awry. His right hand man, Mr. Szasz gently talks him off the ledge, often gazing into his eyes and holding him close when they are away from prying eyes. In one scene, Mr. Szasz sits at the Black Mask’s breakfast table, briefing him on the day ahead - so it’s not unreasonable to assume they even live together. As Mr. Szasz could easily overpower or even kill the Black Mask, would it be fair to say Szasz works for him not because he’s being paid but out of love? I’ve been waiting for the Black Mask in a DC film for years, so the fact he could even be read as queer makes me all the more ecstatic.