There are ways in which Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is unique among comic book movies. One is that it’s written, produced, directed, and mostly populated by women. Another is that it’s a part of the overall DC Extended Universe franchise yet looks nothing like most of its precursors, including Suicide Squad, from which it’s directly spun off. But it’s also quite a mashup of and response to familiar cinematic ingredients, from its acknowledged influences to its obvious antecedents.
This week’s Movies to Watch After… recognizes the direct and indirect roots of Birds of Prey as I recommend fans go back and learn some film history, become more well-rounded viewers, and enjoy likeminded works of the past, even if it’s the fairly recent past. As always, I try to point you in the easiest direction of where to find each of these highlighted titles.
Sometimes to appreciate the good, you have to appreciate the bad. Or at least be familiar with the bad. I’m not saying Joker is the bad or that Birds of Prey is the good. Maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe they’re both good and bad in their own respective ways. Regardless, they are the yin and yang of DC comic book movies with regards to tone, theme, and style as well as their connective tissue. As multiple reviews have noted (and surely many think pieces to come will analyze), Birds of Prey is a perfect sort of antidote or (less negatively) successor to Joker.
This Oscar-nominated drama offers a version of a character heavily referenced in Birds of Prey as it depicts an origin story of the titular Batman villain. Never mind the Jared Leto incarnation of the Joker whom we’ve seen on screen opposite Margot Robbie‘s Harley Quinn; it’s the latest version of the character that Birds of Prey offers emancipation from. Both movies deal with toxic masculinity in very different ways, with Joker almost seeming aligned with incels and men’s rights activists while Birds of Prey is a starkly feminist film. They’re each other’s antithesis, but they’re also clearly kin. And they both very much reside inside and are filtered through the mind of their main character.
Dead Pigs (2018) and Bumblebee (2018)
One of the great things about little-known, rather new women filmmakers getting a shot at blockbusters like Birds of Prey is that they introduce audiences to these talents’ relatively obscure prior works. I’ll be getting to share such titles by Cate Shortland and Chloe Zhao later this year, too, but for now, I’m getting to recommend Birds of Prey director Cathy Yan‘s feature directorial debut, Dead Pigs. Based on true events, the China-set movie features a varied ensemble of characters (including one played by Joker and Deadpool 2‘s Zazie Beetz) and a ton of pig corpses floating downriver into Shanghai. Unfortunately, it’s still not easily available, but you should look out for it when it does find better distribution.
Bumblebee is not an obscure movie, though it is an underseen and underappreciated prequel within the Transformers franchise, offering viewers a smaller and female-focused entry as a palette cleanser following a lot of bombastic and sometimes misogynistic blockbuster installments. That sounds like what Birds of Prey is for the DC Extended Universe, too, giving Christina Hodson, who wrote both that and Bumblebee a reputation for refreshingly crafting economical and more-acclaimed (yet also less lucrative) additions to tired film properties.
Deadpool 2 (2018)
Many critics have called Birds of Prey “DC’s answer to Deadpool.” Well, they’re both violent R-rated comic book movies led by an antihero character narrating their story to the audience, but Robbie’s Harley doesn’t really break the fourth wall as much or in quite the same way as Deadpool does in his movies. Both are definitely the products of their protagonists’ perspectival storytelling, with Harley’s voiceover and her film being scatterbrained and Deadpool’s voiceover and film being more clownish and irreverent. She’s trying to be genuine and is flawed in her disjointed point of view. He purposefully avoids seriousness and aims to be deconstructive.
Anyway, if we’re to compare Birds of Prey to Deadpool, we really need to be talking about Deadpool 2. The David Leitch-helmed sequel has the titular merc with a mouth (Ryan Reynolds) taking in a kid (Julian Dennison) who is being hunted by the bad guy. This is similar to Harley harboring Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) because she’s being hunted by the bad guy in Birds of Prey. Both young characters even have a nearly identical look with their grey shirts and red jackets. Deadpool 2 also has Deadpool attempting to form a team of uncanny individuals, though he fails more miserably in his collaborative efforts than Harley does with her sleepover-craving team-up with mismatched crimefighters and vigilantes.
John Wick (2014)
If the action in Birds of Prey seems like the action of the John Wick movies, that’s because they’re aided by the director of all three chapters of the John Wick franchise. That’s right, critics who make a note of comparison, don’t act astute or surprised; just do your homework. During the main shoot, Yan worked with the action design company 87eleven, which was started by then-stuntmen David Leitch and Chad Stahelski back in 1997. The movie’s stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio and fight choreographer Jon Valera are both from that production company and previously worked on the John Wick trilogy and Deadpool 2. Later, Stahelski, who helmed the three John Wicks, joined them to help ramp up the action. As Yan told CinemaBlend:
“We had been working with [Stahelski’s] 87eleven from the get-go. That was the style that I wanted for the movie. It just felt right. It was that mix of practical but also heightened, like where it felt really real, but they’re also kind of having fun with it…when it came to reshoots, it was like, ‘Let’s add more action. Let’s lean into this. It’s working. Let’s make it even more cool and badass.’ And at that time, I think, Chad was just available. So it was like, ‘Cool! We got the best of the best.’”
There’s more to her explanation worth checking out over at CinemaBlend, but what I found interesting is how positive Yan makes the experience sound. She sells it as a collaboration and talks of how much she and Stahelski learned from each other. For her first time helming an action blockbuster, Yan could use the assistance and shared experience and will likely be even better equipped for the next time. Other women filmmakers who haven’t done superhero movies before have declined to work on superhero movies because of how they’re told, “Don’t worry about the action scenes.” Sure, there’s a way not to sound like an asshole about it, and it appears Warner Bros. and Yan knew how to handle the situation positively.
Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)
These two movies (yes, two movies) have also been heavily cited in reviews, and the comparison is not accidental. Birds of Prey was shot under the fake name of “Fox Force Five,” which is a reference to the fictional pilot discussed by Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction. As Robbie told MTV News, while working with Quentin Tarantino on Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, she asked the filmmaker for his blessing on the production name and got it. She also notes that Birds of Prey is about five women similar to the concept of that made-up TV show.
Okay, so that’s all about Pulp Fiction, which Yan has also cited as an influence (via Slashfilm: “the structure of the film is a bit like Pulp Fiction meets Rashomon.”). Why do I recommend Tarantino’s Kill Bill instead of his earlier movie? Or even the Tarantino-scripted Natural Born Killers, whose Mallory Knox character (played by Juliette Lewis) seems like an inspiration for Harley? Well, Kill Bill does have a squad of women assassins reminiscent of the concept of the Fox Force Five team, though they’re a broken up group rather than one coming together. Also, Huntress’ origin story is similar to that of the Kill Bill character O-Ren Ishii. Most of the relevance comes through in the (arguably better) Vol. 1, but Kill Bill as a whole has the same anti-patriarchy spirit and understandably has been referenced more in many a review.
Legally Blonde (2001)
At its core, Birds of Prey is a breakup movie, but it’s one that takes place in the aftermath rather than depicting a drawn-out decline of a relationship. To that, it’s kind of like Legally Blonde, which begins with Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) getting dumped by her boyfriend and then follows her empowered enrollment and eventual success at Harvard Law School. Woods is considered a feminist icon for her achievements as well as her attitude. Interestingly enough, while Robbie hasn’t ever mentioned Woods being an inspiration for Harley, she did recently acknowledge watching Legally Blonde and practicing its big monologue in preparation for her performance in Bombshell (a movie relevant to themes of Birds of Prey that I don’t really recommend). Perhaps her being a fan of Legally Blonde also indirectly influenced Birds of Prey, too.