I’m sure that, like me, you are practicing strict social distancing on your survival-pontoon boat somewhere off Baja. And while you munch on kale chips and Slim Jims, you are scrolling through endless grids of movie titles, looking for something to pass the time until you run out of Slim Jims and have to break into the emergency stash of Chili Cheese Bugles.
That surfeit of time now available to me has prompted a consideration the importance of titles for the marketing of streamed media. It has also given me time to consider a post-apocalyptic snack called Chili Cheese Buggles, which look and taste nothing like their snacky ancestor, but take advantage of a relatively abundant protein source.
In short, names are important.
Thus, any review of the 2020 DC Universe film Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn should start with the title. What? Start with the title? “Derrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr,” you say sardonically. “Great idea, writer-person.”
But I ask you to pause, manually pull your eyes out of their wonted roll, and look again at that title:
Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
You can see it, of course. It’s clear that the studio mistakenly felt this worked as an off-beat alternative to the usual, drab superhero-movie title. You can imagine, as well, that a small gang of PR under-execs agonized over the modifier for “Emancipation“–perhaps considering “supradical” or “chexcellent” before deciding that “Fantabulous” would be a great way to market the movie to women. I assume these studio functionaries have been tossed into the nearest oubliette.
I suppose the title is an off-beat alternative, so we can tick that box, but we can also detect the final reluctance to commit. We can argue the merits of the word “fantabulous” or the adjectival superfluity of “one” before the title character’s name. Several valid criticisms are available against both of those features.
The essential problem–how the title relates to the content and themes of the movie itself–is two-fold. First, the inclusion of “Birds of Prey”: this undermines any gesture toward novelty. The Birds of Prey are a property with fair name recognition amongst the comics/comics-movie crowd. And even if one doesn’t recognize it, it smacks of superhero-istical titling conventions.
Further, the positioning of “Birds of Prey” first in the title signals a subordination of Harley’s fantabulous fucking emancipation to this other property. The tiny type used in the movie poster only amplifies this. I suspect thoughts of launching a sub-franchise. Add to this the abbreviation of the title to “Birds of Prey” for conversation, social media, and shortening blog titles…hell, it’s just a matter of available screen space.
All the things wrong with that title are wrong with the movie. But even so, you can see that the motivations behind both the title and the movie are interesting. And both nearly pull it off, but topple under the weight of ponderous, yet rickety, construction.
There’s so much to like about this movie, starting with Margot Robbie. She has created one of the best characters in the genre–far more relatable than the brooding, boring heroes and villains that the DC universe has hitched its wagon to (Jason Momoa’s Aquaman gets a positive vote here, but Robbie’s Harley is better). She’s got great comedic talent, and she resists the single-cause background that suffuses the motivations of nearly all of superhero/villain-dom.
Harley is the focal point of the movie throughout, and Robbie’s performance makes manifest the difficulties in separating–personally and culturally–Harley from the Joker.
I think that this is where the movie succeeds. The Joker’s appearance in the film, mercifully, lasts only seconds. Harley’s self-emancipation from the uber-villain puts her life in danger. She no longer enjoys the protection of that association, and everyone with a grudge (the nature of which is helpfully displayed on screen) is out to get her.
This all works quite well. The motivations are clear and uncluttered, the character development strong and natural, the action violent and delightful. And the “Birds of Prey” part is fine for what it is–an ancillary and mildly entertaining set of characters (Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and relationships. The villains (Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina) are villainous and fun–a very welcome departure from DC’s usually pointless or over-serious baddies.
So what’s the problem?
Pacing and editing, of course. Marvel has largely figured this out, but DC continues to struggle with the movie part of making movies. Frequent flashbacks, unnecessary backstories, narrative momentum brought to screeching halts by sub-plots and heavy voice-over exposition, needless development of emotional motivations for minor characters, under-use of hyenas.
This movie was not murdered in cold blood by structural incompetence, as was its immediate ancestor, Suicide Squad. But it was definitely dropped into a vat of industrial chemicals and left to die. But it emerges as something lurching and disfigured.
And that’s a shame. What Harley says of herself applies just as well to the film: “I’m just bad.”