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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a violent action fantasy based on DC Comics' infamous supervillain "girl gang." It takes place after the events of 2016's Suicide Squad and seems to be aiming to be the female version of Deadpool. The movie's theme is about women standing up to their male oppressors and showing that, when they work together, they're unbeatable. Rape overtones are consistent, but the women aren't harmed sexually. That said, violence is nonstop: Sometimes it's silly fantasy, but many other times it's graphically brutal. The main villain cuts his victims' faces off while they're still alive, and people (including a family with children) are gunned down, with blood splatter. Frequent drinking includes comically downing shots and having margaritas to celebrate sisterhood. One character smokes, and it's implied in one scene that a character gets a sniff of cocaine, giving her a boost of confidence. Characters swear often, using words like "f--k," "s--t," "ass," and more). While main character Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) doesn't quite make it to antihero status -- she's self-absorbed and makes many self-serving decisions -- Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Renee Montoyao (Rosie Perez) consistently put others' needs ahead of their own. Overall, the female characters are diverse in terms of ethnicity, age, and sexual identity, and they're all shown to be clever, tough, and resilient. All of the movie's men, on the other hand, are either bad or disappointing. Themes include female empowerment, friendship, and teamwork.
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What's the story?
In BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN), after breaking up with the Joker, the unstable and volatile Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) joins forces with a squad of other tough female antiheroes -- including Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Renee Montoyao (Rosie Perez) -- to take down the villainous Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
Is it any good?
Like several of the movies in the DC superhero multiverse, Harley Quinn's "bad girl" empowerment film isn't as good as it thinks it is. And, just like the franchise, this villains-as-vigilantes flick is constantly adjusting and trying to find the right tone -- but it never strikes the perfect chord. Unlike Man of Steel, Wonder Woman, and Joker -- which strive to make fully realized and empathetic human beings out of comic book characters -- the villains in Birds of Prey remain ludicrous and over-the-top live-action cartoons that seem like they belong in the 1966 Batman TV series. Harley bebops around Gotham, narrating the story with a sassy wiseacre New York accent, adopting a pet hyena, and creating pandemonium by acting completely on impulse -- she blows up a chemical plant and it shoots off fireworks, just like you might see in one of the Looney Tunes cartoons she watches constantly on VHS. Even the storytelling is chaotic: Harley jumps back and forth in time more often than Marty McFly. Crime lord Roman Sionis/Black Mask is ridiculous, too, with comedy being mined from his narcissism. On a dime, Sionis pivots into a sadistic, gruesome psychopath: He doesn't just kill his enemies, he cuts their faces off. And, yes, viewers see that happen. And when he does it to a kid, the filmmakers try to make it funny rather than horrific. That level of dark irreverence manages to work in Deadpool, but it doesn't here. Maybe we're meant to feel as off-balance as Harley herself, but it certainly creates a longing for the days when Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan were telling Gotham's stories.
As Harley embraces being her own person and releases her attachment to "Mr. J," she encounters women who've been forced by tragedy to be self-sufficient and who are struggling to escape being controlled by men. Most of the movie's song choices are literally describing what’s happening at the moment: The most on the nose is when Black Canary sings "It's a Man's World," which is pretty much the premise of the entire film. The women are empathetic and operate on a sliding scale of good-bad, but all the men are evil, selfish, and/or disappointing. A sexual violence vibe pops up in several scenes, but then it turns out that assault isn't the thug's intent after all. It's a little unclear what that's about -- perhaps to show how some men use sexual discomfort or humiliation to dominate the power dynamic? But when the movie crescendos to a funhouse battle in which the women fight off dozens of faceless, mask-wearing men, it becomes more clear that the last hour and a half has been a metaphor for the sexual and gender assault that many women experience as "life" -- and that they're just swinging and kicking, hoping to live another day. Many teens will see this movie, and -- despite the violence, the unevenness, and the main characters' moral ambiguity -- that might not be a bad thing. Birds of Prey makes clear this unfortunate truth: As a woman, you have to stay on your toes, you have to stay alert, and it's a lot easier to fight off bad men when you're part of a flock.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Birds of Prey's violence. Is violence celebrated in this film? What affect does that have on viewers? Does exposure to violent media desensitize kids to violence?
Birds of Prey takes a character who's usually portrayed as a villain and makes her the main character. How does that affect your feelings toward her? Is she presented as heroic in any way? Aspirational? Is there a danger in making a villain sympathetic?
The Black Mask is portrayed as both funny and sadistic -- is there a danger in making light of heinous acts, or is it clear it's just a movie? Do you think everyone will get that message?
Discuss the moral ambiguity of vigilante justice. Do you consider any of the women a role model? If you're employed by a mass murderer, are you complicit? If you murder those who murder others, are you a murderer? What message does the movie send about the law vs. justice?
- In theaters: February 7, 2020
- On DVD or streaming: March 24, 2020
- Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor
- Director: Cathy Yan
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Action/Adventure
- Topics: Superheroes
- Character strengths: Teamwork
- Run time: 109 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material
- Last updated: May 7, 2020
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