The grand factories and complexes that once symbolized the greatness of the city are in decline, painting a backdrop at once bleak and fascinating in its grayscale earth tones and dilapidated city skylines. And yet, from the rubble emerges a colorful and voguish “new” that builds on the city’s history into a post-industrial future. This is an age-old tale for many Midwestern rust belt cities like Toledo, one that has yet to reappropriate its grit into glamour. But that glamour in grit is envisioned vividly in Gotham City in the latest chapter of the DC Extended Universe, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (or, as it has since been rebranded, Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey).
The opening wastes no time in developing post-industrial mise en scѐne: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), having recently broken up with her infamous beau the Joker, decides to wreak havoc on the Ace Chemicals plant, creating impromptu fireworks when she plows a truck into the building. As much as this is a personal act of revenge against an ex-boyfriend (cue Lucille Bluth: “Good for her”), destroying the old to give birth to something new is an old trope that rings true for harsh breakups and perhaps for struggling cityscapes, as well. But how much of “starting fresh” is building from scratch, and how much is really just renewing and recovering something that was there all along? The colorful fireworks that follow the opening would suggest that, whatever the answer is to that question, a bright, bold and loud comeback is set to come.
The film, directed by indie filmmaker Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs, the upcoming Sour Hearts) and anchored by an explosive cast, follows Harley Quinn, a young woman suddenly left in danger without the protection dating the Joker once afforded her. From there, Quinn becomes entangled with mobster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), his right-hand man Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), police officer Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), nightclub singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), young thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) and a mysterious killer stalking the streets of Gotham (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Chaos and jewel heists ensue, all narrated by Quinn in a Deadpool-esque style. As the large cast of characters becomes entangled with each other, the relationships between them quickly become complicated by divided loyalties and the extensive and enduring history of Gotham City criminals.
Slickly choreographed fight scenes and snarky comedy ensue, bringing together a solid entry in the newly-created (or, at least, newly-defined) genre of the R-rated superhero blockbuster.
The breakout character of the film is McGregor’s Sionis, as the actor imbues the villain with both a threatening demeanor and a comedic energy that’s almost endearing (until he does something awful again and snaps back into full-tilt evil). As for supporting roles, Smollett-Bell and Winstead are a joy to watch (and listen to, as in the former’s cover of “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”).
Stylish visuals and bold color choices elevate the look of the film to be fun and visually unique within a genre that gets criticized for its visual stagnancy (think grayscale and the same CGI templates for every film)—taking both the best and the worst sides of urban landscapes and turning them into playgrounds for Yan’s characters and camera to explore. Locales like Sionis’ nightclub and the abandoned Amusement Mile show off lush, chic and colorful production design, while the characters that populate these locations display diverse, fashionable and eye-catching costume design (Harley Quinn’s extravagant jacket of party streamers and caution tape, for instance). These costumes have to be designed to move, too, as high-octane and fairly violent (there’s some gore, but the movie stays mostly on the soft side of its R rating when it comes to violence) action scenes populate the film with slick fight choreography that’s a blast to watch unfold.
On the other hand, the way the action is filmed is not quite as satisfying. As in some of the DCEU’s previous installments, many of the fight scenes’ most intense moments are signaled with punctuating moments of slo-mo that tend to interrupt the action and make for less satisfying moments of impact. These action scenes populate a tried-and-true narrative for the superhero and action genres: the motley crew of characters from different backgrounds with different talents comes together to fight the villain and become heroes. The use of an out-of-order plot structure in the film’s first third or so, however, feels out of place and creates unnecessary confusion in the whirlwind of characters being introduced. Also, with this big of a cast, the sprawling narrative does not always have room enough to develop more than a couple of characters. In fact, the alternate title Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey feels more appropriate (if less fun), because Quinn gets much more development than the rest of her team. Quinn’s dominating presence extends to her voiceover narration, which feels a little bit overwhelming at times. Your mileage may vary on Robbie’s performance, but even those who like her in this role may find the narration to be a bit aggressive, especially once the story is set up and there’s less need for explanation.
But after watching the film, what aspects stay with us beyond the entertainment and excitement of another action-packed installment in the DC Extended Universe? How does it speak to our experiences as Midwesterners, as human beings in a city and world of transition? Gotham may be more akin to New York City, but the way this film explores Quinn’s home hews surprisingly close to the concerns of the post-industrial Midwest. The regrowth of a city like Toledo into something new in the post-industrial age has necessarily been a process predicated on building upon the past. Historical buildings in the Old West End have been transformed into homes for new residents, and former factory buildings downtown have become sites for new businesses and expansion—say, a school or a coffee shop. Building this new Toledo does not mean burning the industrial past to the ground like the Ace Chemicals plant, but it means looking to these “old” spaces to move forward and create something new with reverence—but not necessarily with subservience—towards the past.
Entering Sionis’ nightclub throughout the film, viewers are treated to the delights of the dimly lit club with its stark red walls and avant-garde decor culminating in a stage upon which giant hands and eyes show who’s really in control. This space stands quite obviously in the film for institutional power, but it also holds a place as that emergence of the cutting-edge “new” city, which people like Harley Quinn, Cassandra Cain and the Birds of Prey have had no say in building. These characters may be able to exist in that space, but they only do so with permission from the owners and creators of that space. In fact, many of these women face removal from these locations throughout the film, as Cassandra Cain is homeless and Harley Quinn’s modest living space is invaded after she’s sold out by her quasi-landlord, a Chinese restaurant owner.
It is not until the film moves to places like Amusement Mile and Founders Pier, representing the forgotten past and the honored past respectively, that the Birds of Prey are able to take more control of their individual and communal situations. At Amusement Mile, a dilapidated, faded exterior hides a candy-coated interior that also heavily features hands among its wacky furnishings, although unlike those in Sionis’ club, these hands do not belong to any particular person. Founders Pier, on the other hand, is a murky dock upon which statues of Gotham’s overwhelmingly male founders stand, shadowy and imposing (but ultimately not present and not able to change the city anymore) in the fog. In this eerie place of the past, the birds find new ways forward on their own terms. These new ways, though, are built upon the past into something new. The climactic escape from Amusement Mile, especially, is based on improvisation as the titular team fully comes together for the first time. While the older Amusement Mile is a site of success, it exists as a space reminiscent of the industrial past upon which the new post-industrial can be built anew.
What does an “authentic” future look like? Was Harley Quinn’s destruction necessary for her progress, and how much of her “transformation” was in her all along? Was she made anew, or was she made renewed? Much like Quinn, as our old crutches are gone and the glory days of industry and manufacturing have passed, we must ask ourselves: Who are we now? Our past—the good, the bad and the ugly—remain ingrained in our present, but that doesn’t mean our future won’t look different.
Being a part of the process is the only way to ensure that the future of the region is not always decided by somebody else. And it’s here that I’d be remiss not to mention the importance of the director in this film; Cathy Yan, as a Chinese-American female filmmaker, might sympathize with our identity crisis, creating film in an industry historically dominated by white men. This is especially true in mainstream film and its current epicenter: the superhero blockbuster. But Yan’s background and experiences allow her to create an experience that represents and speaks to the marginalized, one that speaks to the average citizen. Birds of Prey doesn’t always look like previous films of its genre, but the future of film may not look like its past, just as our trajectory seems to shift before our very eyes. Perhaps the question isn’t just what’s old and what’s new, but rather what are we building and for whom?