How Birds of Prey Shows a Different Side of Gotham City
BIRDS OF PREY is finally in theatres, and the movie takes the DC Comics movie universe in new directions. This guts-and-glitter action thriller focuses on Harley Quinn, played by Margot Robbie, who was last seen in 2016’s SUICIDE SQUAD, alongside Jared Leto’s Joker and Will Smith’s Deadshot. BIRDS OF PREY isn't quite a sequel, however; it takes a unique approach to the superhero movie, and mutates the tried-and-true formula into a slickly-produced girl gang extravaganza.
One of the many surprising elements of BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN), and the one which might be the most revealing, is the movie’s approach to Gotham City. Batman’s hometown is the setting for many films in the DC Extended Universe, but we've never seen it like this.
Women Step Forward
One of the key differences between BIRDS OF PREY and other movies set in Gotham City is that this one is almost entirely focused on women in the city. We begin with Harley Quinn and her makeshift squad: the vengeance-seeking killer Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a lounge singer with a truly powerful voice. We also get to see the lives of Gotham police detectives like Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and her ex-girlfriend, district attorney Ellen Yee (Ali Wong). Then there's the young, Dickensian thief named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who pulls many of the plot threads together.
These characters weave together a rich tapestry of women who make up Gotham's community, and who are often overshadowed by the rich dude in the cape and cowl. Tellingly, this version of the story was chosen over one where Harley teamed up with more famous DC villains like Poison Ivy and Catwoman. BIRDS OF PREY is all the better for that choice. It’s more unique and shows a whole slew of characters mainstream audiences might not be familiar with, alongside a corner of Gotham they’ve never seen on the big screen before.
A Street-Level View
Another thing that makes BIRDS OF PREY special and unexpected is that the story takes place at street level. This isn't a movie about the high-rise towers of downtown Gotham. There are a few big and thrilling action sequences, but they mostly take place inside contained spaces: a nightclub, a police station, or a derelict amusement park. Characters have real human needs, like the desire for a perfect post-hangover bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. And while there are definitely real stakes, the drama involves a stolen diamond and not, say, a giant death ray or a nuclear bomb.
BIRDS OF PREY is about criminals, from killers to pickpockets. The story, however, is totally focused on street-level villainy. So while the criminal actions are often bad — sometimes really bad, as one character peels the faces off of people, for crying out loud — all the events in the movie still fall well below the radar of the Justice League. JOKER, a self-contained outing in the larger super-structure of DC adaptations, was an origin story/character study, but the character still wound up inciting a large-scale revolution. The BIRDS OF PREY keep their feet on the ground, which gives us a different Gotham City experience than any other movie has offered.
This goes along with the street-level view the movie maintains, but the events of BIRDS OF PREY are also outside the scope of Batman's attention. Where is Batman? That's a tantalizing question throughout the entire movie; the credits address the hero's absence in a cheeky way that is very much in keeping with Harley Quinn's personality. (Outside the context of the movie's story there's a greater force at play, which is that the character is getting a big screen reboot with next year’s THE BATMAN.)
Inside the world of BIRDS OF PREY, however, the explanation for Batman's no-show status is that the events of the story are probably too meat-and-potatoes for him. There isn’t a madman holding the entire city for ransom or some deviant psychopath that is threatening the city’s water supply. Instead, it’s a bunch of violent psychopaths running around, hurting each other. While that might be enough to get Batman out of the Batcave, you get the sense that this story — and by implication, a lot of other criminal activity in Gotham — is happening out of his sight.
That might be the ultimate achievement of BIRDS OF PREY and its depiction of Gotham City. This is an exciting story set in the city, without Batman or any of his assorted good guy compatriots — and the new paths explored by BIRDS OF PREY are roads to its success.
BIRDS OF PREY is in theaters now!
All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.