I have two wishes for pop culture in 2020. One is that Dev Patel becomes the next James Bond. The other is that we take Birds of Prey as seriously as we’re taking Joker. I want a full Harley Quinn Discourse. I want us to discuss the emotional, romantic, financial, and sexual liberation of women as fervently as we’re discussing disaffected white men’s rage at society. I want point/counter-point debates about whether or not feminine rage expressed on screen is provocative or dangerous. If we’re going to elevate one villainous clown and say that it is somehow more worthy cinema than your average superhero movie, then I fully expect we will also be elevating the other villainous clown for the same. After all, the first trailers for Joker and Birds of Prey aren’t that different. Both feature the protagonist declaring a personal philosophy, both use classic songs, both show violence, both are focused on a Batman antagonist getting their solo spotlight moment, both come from directors of note and have big name stars. Joker and Birds of Prey are cut from the same cloth. They both must command the same level of respect in the cultural discourse. Right?
LOL no, of course not. We’re not going to take Birds of Prey seriously because it’s got bright colors and a bunch of women. But I want everyone to note how similar these first trailers are, and to remember that the Joker and Harley Quinn are a matched set. If we don’t take Harley as seriously as “Mistah J”, it’s because we choose not to. And we should never stop asking why we’re not taking Harley as seriously as the Joker. Because I don’t see much of a difference between Joker and Birds of Prey, besides the obvious tonal difference, and if your whole argument hinges on “dark = serious” then please go away and come back when you’re done growing up.
I dig this first trailer for Birds of Prey, which establishes that Harley Quinn has left the Joker and struck out on her own. We see her acquiring her iconic hyenas, and she’s sporting a less exploitative but no less sexy wardrobe this time around (I am super into her gold overalls). I am also relieved to see Margot Robbie has more to play than “chaotic ditz”. Harley is becoming the leader of her very own girl gang, as we see her hooking up with Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Gotham cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell). They’re uniting to protect Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) from the new villain du jour, Black Mask (Ewan McGregor, who seems to be having a lot of fun).
And though it’s not as dark and gritty as Joker, I really love the tone of this trailer. It’s loud and tacky and has a free-wheeling touch of whimsy, all very suited to the unruly, unpredictable Harley. But there is an underlying sense of dislocation and angst that suits the story of a woman finding herself after an abusive relationship. Harley isn’t the brooding type, but that first scene where she’s drinking her pain is not a laugh riot. Her hurt feels real. I’m interested to see Robbie play that, to peel back a few layers on Harley and look beyond what the Joker turned her into. The best version of Harley in the comics is not the Joker’s sidekick, she’s an antihero in her own right. The movie looks like it is leaning into that, and the “Fabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” is not just an unwieldy subtitle but also a thesis statement. I am fully here for Harley getting her groove back. And I look forward to all the think-pieces about the importance of representing recovery narratives in media and how it impacts society to sympathize with women reclaiming their lives after abuse.