Before February 7th, you’d be hard-pressed to find an honest-to-God all-female action movie. Once every few years, a Charlie’s Angels or an Ocean’s 8 would come along, but none of the heroines ever got their hands dirty. They were dismissed as chick flicks, ham-handed attempts at shoehorning “girl power” into a man’s industry. The explosions, car chases, and bone-crushing action sequences were reserved for the Tom Cruises and Brad Pitts of the world—tried and true ticket sellers. Even suggesting that women could be teammates at all was absurd. When I pitched an idea centered on female friendship for my high school play, my male teacher said, “Sorry, MJ, but women are just bitches to each other. It’s just not believable.” Shockingly, his female co-director nodded along.
So when I heard that Margot Robbie had signed on to produce and star in Birds of Prey, I almost couldn’t believe it. Harley Quinn was an icon, one of my childhood heroes, and she’d been poorly mistreated in 2016’s Suicide Squad. Her overt sexualization had turned a complicated anti-heroine and abuse survivor into a fetishized Halloween costume. But Robbie had turned in a pitch-perfect performance, and she was willing to fight for Harley’s emancipation. I was excited by the idea of an R-rated girl-gang film, but would Warner Bros really separate her from the Joker? The toxic him-and-I, ride-or-die trend that spawned from Suicide Squad proved that codependence sold. The script would probably get killed before production. So I held my breath and waited for the bad news to roll in.
Instead, four years later, I walked out of the theater in a state of euphoria. I hadn’t had a movie experience like that since I was a kid. It was bouncing in your seat, fist-pumping the air kind of fun; I literally saw it twice in one day. It was two hours of perfect bliss, and it was everything I had never dared to hope for. Cathy Yan’s direction is as punchy, freewheeling, and completely bonkers as Harley herself. This version of Gotham, unlike Batman iterations, is drenched in neon and covered in glitter. It’s the perfect backdrop for the scatterbrained action that ensues: bean-bag shotguns, stunts on roller skates, a particularly effective eulogy for an egg sandwich.
Underneath the zigzag narration and riotous fun lies the throughline that yes, women stick up for themselves and each other, and they have a blast doing it. Harley, Black Canary, Renee Montoya, and Huntress band together to protect a young Cassandra Cain, literally passing her between them as they annihilate her attackers. When two men attempt to rape a drunk Harley, Canary slams their heads through glass. It is glorious, unencumbered catharsis, right down to the moment Quinn screams, “I have a Ph.D., motherfucker!” at a mansplainer and promptly breaks his legs. Birds of Prey does not acknowledge the male gaze so much as take a baseball bat to its knees. The anti-heroines all wear crop tops, leather, and high heels, but there are no lingering camera shots or nasty comments from male heroes. The movie maintains a cheeky self-awareness à la Huntress bluntly complimenting Canary: “I, uh, really liked how you kicked so high in those tight pants.”
For the first time in a long time, I felt like the typical action movie found family was actually realistic. I could see myself and my friends drinking margaritas after fights or cruising around in a hot pink convertible. When both Harley and Renee Montoya were confirmed as queer less than ten minutes in, all I could do was grab my friend’s hand and hold back tears. Even the soundtrack (featuring Doja Cat and Saweetie) made me feel invincible for days. Why had it taken so long for a movie to lift me off my feet like this?
I’m still disappointed in myself for not believing that Birds of Prey would succeed; I placed too much faith in box office numbers and critical reviews, which both skew toward older patriarchal structures. For women to succeed in film, they have to create a magnum opus (and they still don’t get nominated for awards), or they have to create a boundary-crossing call to action like Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel. There’s something to be said for a glittery, wry movie that knows its audience and completely delivers. Writer Christina Hodson has created an initiative to increase the number of women of color in the film industry; hopefully, Birds of Prey is the battering ram that will allow female writers and directors to take the action genre by storm. After all, if Harley Quinn can do everything John Wick can backward in mismatched high heels, then Hollywood is about to face a sparkly reckoning.
By MJ Brown