Before Birds of Prey even hit theaters, a certain portion of the audience was already prepared to hate it. Based on the marketing alone, some — predominantly male — “fans” even decided to boycott the movie. Much of this attitude stemmed from a perceived lack of sex appeal in director Cathy Yan’s Suicide Squad spin-off.
Whether one agrees with that criticism or not, Birds of Prey does present a very different version of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) than audiences have seen before. Of course, this wasn’t by accident. Yan, Robbie, and the creative team behind the film chose to take the character in a new direction. Here’s why.
‘Suicide Squad’ introduced Margot Robbie’s live-action Harley Quinn
When audiences meet her in Suicide Squad, Harley is still very much infatuated with the Joker. She’s blinded by this mad love the nefarious duo share. And what’s more, she appears to do just about anything her other half asks or demands her to do. As such, Harley Quinn has very little independence.
But Birds of Prey — as its longer title makes clear — is absolutely centered on Harley’s “emancipation” from Mr. J or anyone else, for that matter. She’s broken free from the romance she knew, that shaped who she is. For the film itself, Birds of Prey breaks Harley free from the male gaze that inescapably accompanied her appearance in Suicide Squad.
Still, despite poor reviews, that film earned nearly $750 million at the worldwide box office. So the studio could have easily chosen to hew incredibly close to what director David Ayer did in that film. Instead, thanks in large part to Robbie’s producing credit and Oscar-nominated clout, the powers that be at DC Films went another way.
‘Birds of Prey’ made a few changes to Harley’s iconic look
When she came on to Birds of Prey, Yan could have faced a laundry list of required tie-ins and pay-offs related to other DC projects. Yet, according to the director, Warner Bros. didn’t make her strictly adhere to any particular rules regarding Harley. In fact, Yan had great freedom, she told The Hollywood Reporter.
[The studio was] pretty supportive and hands-off in terms of that specific thing of having it connect to this film, the next film or anything like that. We paid homage where we felt it was appropriate, and it’s such a cheeky, irreverent movie that breaks the fourth wall. So, there’s a certain self-awareness that this movie could have which allowed for us to do it in very cheeky ways. I also thought it would be very jarring to see Harley Quinn, played by Margot Robbie, in a completely different look.
Yan did include a few callbacks to Suicide Squad in the film, with references to Harley saving the world and also a poster featuring Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang. But since Harley’s arc in Birds of Prey is about cutting ties with the Joker, that gave her look and style some clear direction.
Her wardrobe reflected her newfound independence, as she started dressing for herself. Harley grew her hair out a bit. She even changed her Joker-related tattoos. For instance, a “J” transformed into a mermaid. In essence, Yan didn’t retcon Harley’s look as much as she updated it for her new relationship status and more evolved mindset.
Director Cathy Yan grounded her Harley updates in character
Because all these changes to Harley’s look and attitude grew naturally from her storyline, Yan wasn’t even too worried about switching it up. Moreover, the fact that Birds of Prey was a female-led production — both in front and behind the camera — brought a whole new energy, Yan told THR.
For us, it was very much grounded in character; it starts with a breakup. It’s Harley finding herself and being her own hero in a sense. … So it was always grounded in the story that we were trying to tell, and in that case, it didn’t really scare me. On top of that, I think our approach to her was to still make her feel confident and fun, and it’s still flattering even if it’s a weird, hideous haircut. Margot can pull so much of that off, and it was fun to take those risks. … So it became just a really fun exercise — one that we felt women would understand and also be excited to see.
Truly, Birds of Prey may not have been as well-received as some other female-led comic book films. But the film’s early digital release should allow those who missed it in theaters to catch up with Harley. After all, the character is due for another big-screen appearance in James Gunn’s 2021 release The Suicide Squad. So we can’t wait to see where that story takes her.