What price girl-power? Does the positive energy of a female-centric comic book movie—made by women—compensate for the nihilistic, super-violent nature of its content? Is this really a step forward for women, behind the camera and in the audience? That’s the conundrum presented by Birds of Prey (full title Birds of Prey And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)….now re-titled Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.

Harley Quinn, the playfully perverse D.C. character who made her screen debut in Suicide Squad, has a vast following. She is brought to vivid life once more by Margot Robbie. The movie also features four other kick-ass women, one of them an adolescent girl. But these potty-mouthed females engage in the kind of mindless violence that actually hurts to watch. (Spoiler alert: Harley sets a man’s bushy beard on fire, engulfing his face in flames.)

You see, Harley has just broken up with longtime boyfriend Joker and finds herself without a protector, even though she can fend for herself quite well. Her only allies, when all is said and done, are other disaffected women: veteran cop Rosie Perez, who’s been maligned by her own department, awkward, crossbow-wielding Mary Elizabeth Winstead, nightclub singer Jurnee Smollet-Bell, who’s under the thumb of the villain, and young Ella Jay Basco, a resourceful pickpocket who uses her street smarts to survive in an environment where friendship and loyalty don’t seem to matter.

We’re invited to cheer for these unlikely cronies, which is easy to do since all the men we encounter are nasty, led by a slimeball (Ewan McGregor) who sees himself as the kingpin of Gotham City. His broad performance takes its cue from the tonal quality of the movie as a whole.

Loud, garish, and overlong, Birds of Prey marks the Hollywood directing debut of Cathy Yan, whose last film was Sundance pick Dead Pigs. Supported by an army of artists and technicians, she makes the most of an anarchic screenplay by Christina Hodson, who’s already busy with adaptations of The Flash and Batgirl for D.C. It remains to be seen whether they will be anywhere near as grim and gruesome as Birds of Prey. I sincerely hope not.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024