Claudette Barius/Warner Bros.

How the R-rated, women-powered Birds of Prey flips the bird — and the script — in high-flying style

A newly single Harley Quinn gets herself a girl gang in the 'Suicide Squad' spin-off.
January 23, 2020 at 09:30 AM EST

During one of Birds of Prey’s fight sequences, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) identifies a teammate’s vulnerability and provides a critical assist — by lending her a hair tie.

This small act of sisterhood is as familiar in an everyday context as it is surprising in the DC Extended Universe. It’s one of the many ways that Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) differs from its superhero movie forebears: It not only stars women, it was made by them, too. “There’s more women in front [of] and behind the camera than any movie I’d worked on, which is pretty incredible,” says Robbie, who also produced the film. “It was partly a conscious decision, but it also always felt like the organic, right choice to make.”

Director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) subverts expectations for a superhero flick, in part by creating “a more grounded, tactile quality” to her movie in response “to other films in the genre, where it can get very slick.” The story, too, isn’t a lofty battle between good and evil, but based in down-and-dirty human feeling. “Harley’s never just saving the world for no reason,” says screenwriter Christina Hodson. “There’s always something complicated and messy and sticky and character-driven behind it.”

The messiest — and most universal — of emotions kick off this new chapter: A breakup. Harley’s split from Joker (played by Jared Leto in the DCEU, where he was last seen in 2016’s Suicide Squad) leaves her heartbroken and wondering who she is without him. “I think all of us, in relationships, sometimes mute certain pieces of ourselves,” Hodson says. Post-breakup, “it’s Harley Quinn in her full glory.”

Warner Bros. Pictures /© DC Comics

After a very public, symbolic severing of her emotional ties to Mr. J (hint: It involves a giant explosion), Harley becomes a target for all the Gotham baddies who had left her alone under his protection. Among them is sadistic crime lord Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), who demands, as reparations for his many grievances, that she bring him teenager Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a thief who picked the wrong pocket. Meanwhile, nightclub singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), disgruntled cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and mysterious vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) each have their own beef with Black Mask. When all four women’s paths cross, they join forces to protect Cassandra from him.

This new girl gang is no “perfect, elite sorority” of powerful heroines, says Yan, who looked to the “motley crew of women” from Bridesmaids as a reference. “They’re still aspirational and cool, [but] the characters were drawn to be flawed women,” she says of the Birds. Nothing embodies that balance of relatable and ambitious, or the film’s approach of being both grounded and heightened, so well as the costumes from designer Erin Benach, who pointedly created the wardrobe from a first-person female perspective: “In my dreamiest of dreams, what would I want me and a gang of girlfriends to wear to kick butt?”

With that emphasis on personal taste, joy, and comfort, Benach mashed up street style, high fashion, and — of course — the DC comics in dressing the Birds. “I had never seen that before, that level of understanding of the fashion zeitgeist in a superhero film,” says Yan. “We thought that was a really interesting way to speak to women without being overt. Just saying, ‘We got you,’ you know?”

Claudette Barius/© DC Comics

One of the most showstopping pieces is a dress of Black Canary’s, made from a thick mesh fabric in a nod to the character’s trademark fishnets. “I literally designed it on Jurnee,” Benach says. “It was one of those organic moments. Yan cites Harley’s high-waisted denim cutoffs, which took the place of notoriously less-wearable booty shorts, as a piece that “can speak to women right now.”

In a very telling move, Harley throws away her “J” pendant and wears an edgy, chunky collection of chains throughout the film (fans can even score pieces of Harley’s new hardware from Benach’s jewelry line, Billie Valentine). The designer embraced the character’s “punk-rock anarchy sort of vibe” as well as her DIY ethos, like with a voluminous jacket made partially from strips of caution tape. “She might have taken caution tape away from some sort of crime scene, chopped it up herself, and made this,” Benach says.

Claudette Barius/ © DC Comics

With Harley’s expressive wardrobe and idiosyncratic narration, Birds of Prey makes the historically hypersexualized, newly liberated character its clear subject, not object. “We wanted people to get a taste of what life could be like when you see it from Harley’s point of view,” Robbie says. “It’s just this bright, poppy, heightened, fantastical world.” Her distinctive perspective brings not only rainbow confetti and singsong speech, however, but also an R-rating’s worth of madcap violence.

“She’s very feminine in a very superficial way…At the same time, she’s such a badass,” Yan says. “I liked that tension of it. It was exhilarating to create an unfiltered version of Harley Quinn.” Though lacking a filter, she does have a moral compass, one admittedly as off-kilter as the rest of her worldview. In one scene, as she storms a building to capture Cassandra, she uses only non- fatal weapons (e.g., beanbag gun, glitter bombs) to blast everyone in her way; throughout the film, the truly disturbing, needlessly cruel acts of violence are left to the (male) villains.

But don’t think for a minute that Harley’s gone soft — our pigtailed antiheroine still serves plenty of bone-crunching hits with girlish glee. “I think sometimes we equate femininity with being polite,” Yan observes, “but that’s not the same thing.” You can bet your last hair tie.

Related content:
Harley Quinn dumps Joker for the Birds of Prey in new trailer
Megan Thee Stallion and Normani team up for first single off Birds of Prey soundtrack

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