By ABIGAIL WEBER
“Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” recently retitled “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” in theaters, is a very fun movie. Every fight scene is well choreographed with breathtaking stunt work and creative use of the environment. Every actor is clearly enjoying themselves, especially Ewan McGregor, who chews the scenery to a pulp as primary villain Roman Sionis. The pop-heavy soundtrack is perfect for every scene, and every set is lovingly crafted to capture just the right atmosphere.
But the flaws of “Birds of Prey” aren’t in what’s on screen, but what isn’t.
The movie’s greatest strength is its complex yet playful Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Harley Quinn’s problem has always been that her origin and entire shtick is tied to an abusive boyfriend she can’t completely let go of. “Birds of Prey” nails the messy, complicated duality of Harley Quinn perfectly: she’s a powerful, intelligent woman who nevertheless makes foolish, impulsive decisions. For example, the plot kicks off when she drunkenly decides to blow up Ace Chemical, the place where Joker turned her into Harley Quinn, announcing to the world that they broke up–and she’s thus fair game since she isn’t under his protection anymore.
There’s no doubt the movie is Harley’s story, a fact Warner Bros. acknowledged with its post-opening weekend name change. While the rest of the cast has some time to show off their skills, particularly Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), they get nowhere near the well-rounded characterization or arc that Harley gets.
Harley even determines the narrative structure: her narration weaves the story together, skipping back and forth between the past and present and introducing most of the characters via onscreen text that explains their relationship to her. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) isn’t even properly introduced until roughly halfway through the movie, when Harley’s narration interrupts before she can introduce herself to give a long backstory.
This exclusion tends to happen when they’re each working their own individual plot line; they mostly get a chance to shine when sharing the scene with Harley. Getting to see women work together, fight over things other than men, and have actual relationships is incredibly refreshing in the male-dominated action and superhero movie genre. The movie is loaded with scenes of women supporting women– from one character rescuing another from getting in a car with a sketchy guy while inebriated to one character offering another a hair tie in the middle of a fight sequence.
Still, the female camaraderie and representation is undercut by leaving Oracle out of the movie. The DC comic Birds of Prey are led by Oracle, aka Barbara Gordon, a wheelchair-using hacker. Erasing a disabled woman from a movie based on the team she founded and runs is in poor taste if not downright offensive.
“Birds of Prey” further erases disability in the character of Cassandra Cain. The Cassandra Cain of the comics was raised without speech so that she could understand “body language” instead, predicting her opponent’s moves to become the perfect assassin. As a result, Cassandra has difficulty with language, both in reading and writing as well as the physical act of speaking.
The character bearing her name in “Birds of Prey” is a scrappy, snarky pickpocket living in foster care. She’s adorable, an important part of the plot and portrayed well by Ella Jay Basco, but she’s not Cassandra Cain. The erasure of Cassandra’s disability (along with the rest of her character), is perhaps worse than taking Oracle out of her own story. At least Oracle has a chance to get her own movie someday. For many new fans, this will be the only Cassandra they know, and it will likely impact future portrayals.
“Birds of Prey” offered valuable representation for women in many ways, but it let down one of the most chronically underrepresented minorities in cinema. My roommate, who went to “Birds of Prey” with me, has never read the comics. She enjoyed the movie on its own merits, without the weight of what it was trying to adapt dragging her down. In the end, how much you enjoy “Birds of Prey” will likely depend on how faithful you expect it to be to the comics and how much of a deal breaker its disability erasure is for you. It’s a fun movie, and recognizable as an adaptation of some of DC’s greatest ladies (Cassandra Cain’s personality rewrite aside), but an adaptation of “Birds of Prey” without Oracle will never have all of my love or respect.