Warner Birds, bats and Black Mask. Treat yourself to an interesting take on superhero feminism. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
The Case Western Reserve University Film Society screened “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” on Friday, Aug. 28 at Strosacker Auditorium. Originally released February 7 of this year, its opening date’s close proximity to the COVID-19 lockdown is the only thing tragic about this movie. Its witty and timely humor, surreal comic-book stylization and cast of truly awesome women make for two hours well spent.
Stories that focus on female ensembles are rare enough in Hollywood, especially in the superhero genre. Every relevant character in the film is a woman, setting it aside from other female-focused superhero films such as “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel.” The director, Cathy Yan, and screenwriter, Christina Hodson, are both women, and it shows. That being said, it’s difficult to categorize this film as completely feminist, but to ignore its message about women and their perceived roles would be to disregard the narrative entirely.
Our protagonist, Harleen Quinzel, better known as Harley Quinn, spends the film learning to fight for herself and to establish an identity without her ex-boyfriend, The Joker. Margot Robbie’s borderline campy performance brings Quinn to life, complete with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent, a self-destructive attitude and clothes with her own name on them. While her narrative and motivation stem from a breakup with a man, Quinn makes moving points about misogyny. She says to Black Canary, played by Jurnee Smollet, that “a harlequin is nothing without its master to entertain.”
Quinn also analyzes the men she interacts with, including the villain Black Mask, using her Ph.D. in psychiatry to tear apart what traumas and insecurities fuel them. This often adds comedy to a scene, but it also gets at the misogyny she endures; when running through the reasons why Black Mask might hate her, she simply says “has a vagina,” poking fun at how many villains seem to be motivated purely by hatred for women.
The ensemble cast of female characters are also spectacular in their portrayals of women who are jaded from living in a man’s world. However, these characters somewhat muddle the film’s complex relationship with feminism, as the majority of their backstories revolve around men hurting them in some way. While it does speak to the reality of this world and the brutality women are expected to endure from men, it also leaves little room for these women to have their own internal motivations and personalities that aren’t defined solely in opposition to men.
There’s no doubt though that the movie is making a point about misogyny with the main villain, Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor. He’s sadistic, sexist and self-absorbed, with intentional choices made throughout the movie to not only highlight his unstable personality, but also his hatred of women. One example is a scene in which he forces a woman at his club to get on the table and dance, with no music on, and orders a man to cut her dress off. The nearly silent scene shows a man with power humiliating a woman simply because he can, with the entire club as witnesses. Black Canary tries to leave, unable to watch, but Black Mask stops her and makes her promise that she will never betray him. His paranoia and explosive personality are intertwined with obsessive control, particularly of women, making for one misogynistic concoction.
Another equally unsettling scene is one in which we see a room in Black Mask’s home with particularly graphic wallpaper. It features nude women with their legs spread, some of them wearing black masks. Although it fits along with his whole mask theme, there’s something off-putting about depriving a woman of her identity but exposing every other part of her body.
It’s also worth mentioning that Black Mask’s calling card is (spoiler) cutting peoples’ faces off. When coupled with the fact that most of his onscreen victims are women, it raises the question of why he insists on denying an identity to his female victims. This takes us back to the core of Quinn’s plight: She’s trying to survive in a world where men dominate with fear and erase female identity.
While Quinn eventually carves out her own identity separate from her relationship with The Joker, the foundation of her story is focused on their codependency. Although flawed in its approach, “Birds of Prey” is ultimately a story about women finding their power in a male-dominated world. There’s a sense of empowerment and reclamation of self when Quinn declares “she is the one [men] should be afraid of.”
For students interested in seeing a movie at Strosacker, the CWRU Film Society is putting on movies every Friday and Saturday with showtimes at 7 p.m., 9:30 p.m. and 11:59 p.m. You can pre-purchase tickets online through CampusGroups, or pay with CaseCash or credit card when you arrive. All seating is six feet apart, and the seats alternate by row so that no one is directly in front of you.