Breakups are never easy. Some people bury their hurt by eating ice cream or playing videogames. Some smash pictures of their exes or cry a lot.
And Harley Quinn? Well, she blows up chemical factories.
ACE Chemicals held a special place in Harley’s heart. After all, that was where Joker forced Quinn to dive into a vat of dangerous, skin-bleaching goo, guaranteeing her a life of tan-averse pasty whiteness. Ah, good times. It cemented the two as Gotham City’s most notorious power couple, and Harley loved every murderous minute of her time with the Joker.
But maybe deep down, Harley knew that she wasn’t the Clown Prince of Crime’s first love. Or second. Or fourteenth. Certainly killing, stealing and playing with those novelty chattering teeth all scored higher on Joker’s love chart. So it was only a matter of time before the two went their separate ways. The separation was so painful that Harley couldn’t even tell anyone they broke up for the longest time.
But finally, after a long night of drinking and vomiting and breaking people’s legs, she made a clean break herself—announcing that she was newly single. Not on Facebook, like normal people do, but in that explosive felony at the chemical factory.
Not that she’d likely be single for long—or, at least, alive to appreciate it. Harley, it seems, made plenty of enemies while under Joker’s wing, and only his reputation protected her from retribution. Now that Joker’s out of the picture, it’s open season on Ms. Quinn. Everyone, it seems, wants to murder the mistress of motley.
No one wants to Harley dead more than Roman Sionis, a nightclub owner/gangster/murderer/supervillain who can’t stand the woman. He mobilizes his underworld army to nab Harley—which they quickly do—and preps the little lady to lose a little face. Literally.
But Harley overhears that Roman’s also trying to track down a 30-carat diamond—one with the secrets to an underworld empire somehow encoded into the gem’s chemical makeup. She promises Roman that she can find that diamond for him—and in so doing, save her pasty skin for another day.
Easy, right? After all, the diamond’s in the hands (or actually, the bowels) of a teen pickpocket named Cassandra Cain. Like taking diamonds from a baby.
But other people are on the hunt for Cassandra, too. Roman puts a half-million-dollar bounty on the girl’s head, ensuring his entire underworld empire is mobilized to track Cassandra down and separate the girl from the diamond. Zsasz, Roman’s head-hunting henchman, seems particularly eager.
But Roman’s driver and sweet-singing lounge act, Dinah Laurel Lance, knows the girl a bit and wants to save her. Tough-as-iron detective Renee Montoya wants the girl—and the diamond—in order to bring Sionis down.
Then there’s this mysterious woman who keeps shooting gangsters down with crossbow bolts. Could she be after the precious gem, too?
Yep, breakups are hard, and often complicated. They can even make you a little crazy at times. But if unhinged Harley wants to survive her breakup with Mr. J, she’ll need all the crazy she can muster.
And maybe a friend or two, as well.
As a child, the free-spirited Harley—then known as Harleen Quinzel—was essentially raised in a Catholic convent. The experience was not a positive one, especially for the nuns. (In an animated flashback, we see Harley smash the nuns’ faces with a big board, sending their teeth flying.) In real time, we see an old picture of the child Harleen stand with a couple of nuns.
A very drunk Harley is nearly abducted by a club-goer with obviously ill intent. He kisses her in an alley when Harley is just barely aware of what’s happening. (She’s rescued before the man and his friends can stuff Harley into a van and drive away.)
Harley and Dinah both sport body-augmenting garb that exposes their stomach and cleavage. Renee dons a bullet-proof bustier, which we briefly see. (Harley quips that it’ll keep her breasts intact.) Roman’s club features a huge piece of art depicting the nude back (and a bit of the side) of a female figure. He also forces a guest to tear off another club-goer’s dress and makes her dance on a table in her underwear. (She covers most of her body with her hands.) His home, too, is festooned with erotic art—especially a larger-than-life-size mural of naked women, some in masks, lounging about. (We see most of the front portion of the stylistically painted bodies.) Harley and some others hide out in an old, deserted carnival attraction called the “Booby Trap,” the double entendre very much intended.
We’re told that Renee’s “ex” is a female psychiatric expert for the police. Harley’s cartoon flashback indicates that she’s had relationships with both boys and girls. Roman dons masquera at his club. Harley offers Cassandra dating advice, telling her, “Nothing gets a guy’s attention like violence.” Speaking of which …
There’s a lot of it.
Want more? All right, we’ll hit the low-lights, but there’s no way we can get to every act of violence we see. Just be cautioned that frenetic fight sequences filled with flying fists and kicks and throws and blood seem like they make up about half of this movie. And while this isn’t necessarily surprising in the context of this superhero female-empowerment fantasy, much of that violence is perpetrated against women.
Zsasz is covered with self-inflicted scars—marks he carved on himself, he brags, for every person he helped usher into the next world. We watch him do some “ushering”: At Roman’s behest, he cuts the face off a Gotham gangster hanging upside down as his wife and child (also hanging upside down) watch. Roman seems ready to let the girl go. But she does something Roman doesn’t like and orders Zsasz to cut off her face, too: We see him begin the operation as we follow Roman out the door. He threatens to cut the faces of others as well.
A mysterious woman (who calls herself the Huntress) kills several bad guys, most noticeably with her crossbow bolts. Several of them hit their marks, digging deep into the necks of her victims. (Blood obviously accompanies these attacks, followed, without exception, by death.) We witness the aftermath of one of her attacks in a restaurant: Four bodies, still in a booth, are bloodied reminders of her presence.
In flashback (repeated twice) an extended family of gangsters (members of which include women and children) is gunned down in their own living room by rival mobsters. Blood flies and lingers on the faces of some victims.
Several legs are snapped or crunched. Harley apparently feeds someone to her pet hyena. (We see the animal chewing on a human leg, still partly covered with clothes.) A man explodes, sending blood and limbs flying. Cars and buildings also blow up, some of which explosions injure or kill others. Harley invades a police station wielding a gun that fires nonlethal but clearly painful rounds. (The “bullets” often explode in paint, smoke and glitter, and sometimes send their targets flying backward because of their impact.) She also uses bats and croquet mallets on many of her adversaries. Dozens of people deal from real bullets, too, sending plenty of folks to the Gotham morgue.
Someone’s beard is set on fire, with painfully predictable results. Roman shows off shrunken heads he has on display. Bad guys contemplate slicing Cassandra open. We see Harley in action in a roller rink-style event, during which she mangles plenty a competitor. We see the Huntress train to become an assassin—a sequence that depicts plenty of violence. Someone gets stabbed in the shoulder with a knife.
More than 80 f-words and another 20 s-words are heard in the movie’s dialogue alone. (Soundtrack songs, playing both during and at the end of the film, boost this profanity count significantly.) We also hear sporadic uses of “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “d–k, “crap” and “h—.” God’s name is misused twice, once with the word “d—n.” Jesus’ name is also abused.
Several middle fingers are flashed. One of Harley’s shirts is covered with the words “Harley,” “Quinn” and a few strategically placed f-words.
“I get all my best ideas drunk,” Harley proudly tells us. And while that statement is highly questionable even in the context of the movie, she certainly is drunk enough to have plenty of time to come up with ideas.
She and others drink to excess, showing plenty of signs of their inebriation. We see wine, beer, cocktails and margaritas poured, held and consumed. During a shootout in Gotham’s massive evidence room, Harley crouches behind a palate of cocaine bundles. As the bullets pierce the cocaine kilos, the powder begins to waft through the air. Harley inhales it greedily, and in the movie’s context it acts almost like a catalyst for superpowers, like Popeye’s spinach.
Harley is drugged with a substance that paralyzes her for a bit, and she stabs the already dead body of one of her enemies repeatedly with that same paralyzing dart.
Children are innocent? Not in this movie. Cassandra, as mentioned, is a pickpocket: She swipes earrings, watches and almost anything else she can get her hands on as she walks by people, including the infamous diamond at the center of this caper. She’s caught with a bevy of stolen goods in her possession, and she tries to stuff the stuff in inconspicuous places. As for the diamond, she swallows it.
Harley spends a great deal of time trying to get Cassandra to pass the stone, as it were: She foists everything from bad burritos to prune juice upon the girl, and she steals several bottles of laxative from a ritzy grocery store (bragging to Cassandra that “paying is for dummies”). She offers Cassandra plenty of other bits of bad advice, too (including reasons why no one should ever pay personal income tax).
A drunk Harley vomits in someone’s handbag. People lie and cheat and betray one another. We hear Cassandra’s father complaining about the kid while Cassandra sits out in the hall. Harley is a terrible, terrible role model.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is meant, on some level, to be a story of emancipation for all of the principle characters here—many of whom have plenty to hold against the (mostly male-dominated) worlds they come from.
For instance, Harley’s old beau, Joker, has been notoriously abusive since Harley’s character came into being on Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. Then there’s Dinah, aka Black Canary, who was picked off the streets by Roman (aka Black Mask), but the relationship between the two feels wildly uneven. Renee never seems to get credit for her own policework (and watches it go to the men in her office instead). And the Huntress … well, let’s just say there’s a reason why she’s killing gangsters one by one.
We could talk a lot about whether the film succeeds or fails in its female empowerment motives, because really, there’s plenty of evidence for both. Strong women stand at the movie’s core, and yet most of them are greatly and sometimes gratuitously sexualized—something the movie itself even winks at when Black Canary is complimented for being able to “kick so high in those tight pants.”
But let’s not make more of this movie than it warrants. For all its underpinnings, Birds of Prey is a pretty shallow flick—full of color and sound and not much substance. It takes on the personality of its central character, showing its yen for glitter and froth and in-the-moment mayhem without giving much of a thought to tomorrow … and what those actions might mean for it.
And that makes the movie’s R-rated content all the more disappointing to me.
Birds of Prey is hardly the first R-rated superhero movie to land in theaters. We saw it with Logan. We saw it again with Joker. But those films were predicated to some extent on grime and gravitas: They had something to say, which made their respective R ratings arguably more understandable, if not completely necessary.
Birds of Prey is a flyaway confection by comparison—a fun, oddball crime caper that, for all its blood and cursing and horrific morality, feels strangely light. Strip away the language, airbrush out the blood, and you’ve got pretty much the same movie, only better. As colorful and clever and darkly whimsical as it is, this movie’s strictly for the birds.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.