Behind every criminally successful man dressed like a clown, there is a Harley Quinn. She’s a maniacal genius, a stone-cold chick, and she looks fabulous in white-paste makeup.
Audiences were first introduced to the live-action ‘Harley Quinn’ in 2016, when Suicide Squad hit theaters. Margot Robbie played Quinn brilliantly. With her ability to hit those comedic notes perfectly and execute those action sequences with animation and badass-ness, Robbie made the role of ‘Harley Quinn’ hers, just like Bale did with ‘Batman’ and Downey Jr. did with ‘Iron Man.’
The Harley Quinn you’re introduced to in Suicide Squad is miles behind the new Harley created in Birds of Prey (2020). Not only is she going through a tough break up, but she is also on a war path of self-discovery, and her story is finally being told from the right perspective- the female perspective- both narratively and visually by writer Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yan.
Hodson and Yan are responsible for the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Through Hodson’s writing, the character of Harley Quinn was steered from being just an extension of the Joker storyline and lead down the road to independence. Through Yan’s vision, the attraction of Harley was taken from ass shots and placed primarily on her insanely comical and eccentric personality, while STILL capturing her attractiveness.
The story is narrated through the mind of Harley. In the beginning, the audience is given an animated recap of her life as a young child, getting her PhD, and falling in love with her worst patient, all leading up to present day when her and her ‘pudding’ (Joker) split up. As advertised through most of the films’ trailers, Harley and the Joker are done-zo, and this film is her post-breakup actualization, manifestation, and transformation from the ‘Harlene’ behind the Joker to the ‘Quinn’ of her own destiny. But it takes a little bit of fighting and madness to get there.
I have problems with the pacing of this film, much like I did with Suicide Squad (2016) and Justice League (2017.) The story can feel chaotic, especially due to the lack of a linear timeline at the beginning. There’s still not a single dull moment, however, and once it starts getting on track, the film takes off into a great story.
After Quinn and Joker’s split becomes mainstream news, it’s open season for her since she no longer has the protection of Gotham’s most feared clown. This means that from the beginning of the film, there are multiple people after the main villainess, all with the singular goal of murdering her for some past wrong doing she committed against them. At the top of her shit list, however, is the (second) most dangerous man in town- the eyeliner-wearing Roman “Black Mask” Sionis (played by Ewan McGregor.) Black Mask is another Gotham-made, possessive sociopath who wants to kill Harley and literally peel her face off just because he can. And his best friend/personal face peeler, Victor Zsaz (Chris Messina), is no better. So with all chips stacked against her, Harley has to maneuver, and mostly fight, her way to safety from grudge-bearing goons.
Luckily for Quinn, she is not the only dame in Gotham with a bone to pick with Black Mask and his buddy. Black Canary (played by Jurnee Smollett), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) work alongside Harley to rid Gotham of their main foe and keep a young girl named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) safe. Not only is the casting for these badass women superbly diverse, but they are also a class act of enigmatic performers. Smollett captured every emotional moment she needed to, and she mastered a strong story-arc about moral balance. Perez was the perfect, 80s New York cop and dived head-first into her role. Winstead was the essence of revenge and social awkwardness. I loved it! And the young Ella Jay Basco held every comedic moment in the palms of her thieving hands. She made me laugh when she was being the know-it-all teen, and she touched my heart when she bared the vulnerability of her character.
At this point, can we get a red carpet welcome mat out for Ewan McGregor? After his performances for Doctor Sleep (2019) and now this, I was reminded of how much I missed him. He was so brilliant in the role of this character. He seemed like he truly enjoyed every moment, and he let himself get lost in the eccentricity of it all in a hilarious way.
Yan, Hodson, and the entire production behind this film created a nuance to femininity that you don’t see quite often. Female comic book characters have usually been portrayed in tight bodysuits or something akin to a bathing suit, and while yes, the female form is beautiful and can be shared however a woman wants to share her body, but it is not just for the male gaze, and there is more to femininity than cleavage and red lipstick. Each character captured an essence of that truth in different ways. They felt empowering, fun, and the costume designers of the film emphasized the importance of personal touch and comfort for the actresses behind the characters. The clothing felt natural to each character, and they all looked fashionable through every punch of the film.
The film creates depth and prominence for each of its female characters. Not just with its personalization to the costumes, but also through each of their distinct fighting styles and of course, through Harley’s very own story arc. Each character’s separate fighting technique keeps up the momentum of longer fight sequences so that they don’t feel repetitive and so that you can appreciate each fighter for their own set of skills. The action of this film is some of the most exciting and immersive seen in recent comic book films. With less reliance on CGI, the film truly utilizes the benefits of stunt work and creativity. From baseball bats, clabbers, knives, beanbag guns, and more, I devoured every moment of action this film had to offer. And the music choice was just the icing on top!
Through all the action-packed fun, kickass women, and evil criminals, this film has a singular plot. Its focus is on Harley Quinn and her path to self-realization. It’s a breakup film of the highest confetti-canon caliber. Through past adaptations, and more recently after Suicide Squad, audiences are aware that Harley is in a possessive and abusive relationship with Joker- one that has stripped her of identity and self-worth. It’s not just Joker’s protection that she has lost, but it was his shackles on her mind. And by the end, she has found her worth and her own identity. She becomes a punk-rock butterfly sprouted from her post-breakup chrysalis of depression. Harley Quinn is the one people of Gotham should be afraid of because she doesn’t give a f***, she knows who she is, what she wants, and she can kick your ass.
Starring, Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Chris Messina and more
Written and Directed by, Cathy Yan and Christina Hodson