Film & TV

Birds of Prey Flaunts ‘the Female Gaze’

Margot Robbie in Birds of Prey (Warner Bros. Pictures)
But it’s petty, silly, and shallow. Better to return to Zack Snyder and Ava Gardner.

Comic-book villainess-heroine Harley Quinn, who struts through Gotham City as a recombinant killer-thief-cheerleader-hooker, is back on screen with a new pimp — and it’s a woman, Cathy Yan, directing Birds of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. This folderol of unapologetic feminist rage sells itself as a sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad, which introduced psychiatrist-turned-psychopath Quinn (Margo Robbie) as she fell in love (and crime) with her patient The Joker (played by Jared Leto). Their reprobated romance joined the DC comics universe that Zack Snyder raised to pop-art heights, largely through the complex exploration of love-hate relations.

But in this new film, Yan uses Quinn’s origin story for a #MeToo vehicle, negating the male-female romance that moved Suicide Squad to almost-greatness, and substitutes sinister sisterhood. Yan gives Quinn a band of female misandrist miscreants: Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco), Shallow (Sara Montez), The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), plus adversary Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who all hate on men during a generic quest after a stolen diamond (Uncut Gems for the pussyhat crowd).

If easily sold kids and critics find this nonsense of interest, others need only notice its calculation and be appalled. Birds of Prey follows last year’s disastrous feminist slate (The Kitchen, Hustlers, Terminator: Dark Fate — all flops) that sought to teach moviegoers the directive of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 quasi-concession speech, urging her followers to “fight.”

Birds of Prey (the title conflates natural selection with sexual slang) encourages audiences to accept female hostility, irrationality, and moodiness — a Nancy Pelosi special, perfectly timed for this moment of never-ending female distrust, sanctimony, and document-ripping resentment. Aside from the film’s reliance on inhumane violence, its larger offense is the suggestion that women must band against men (like Ewan MacGregor’s crime boss Black Mask) who represent the dreaded patriarchy. So it’s a PMS comic-book movie. Toxic Shock vs. Toxic Masculinity.

When comic-book movies become blatantly political, the genre loses its claim to popular appeal. If Greta Gerwig’s Little Women represents a traditional prestige feminist film — next to Birds of Prey’s shamelessly trashy female activism — the film industry’s feminist brigade had better question its priorities.

This week, a restored 4k print of the 1951 Ava Gardner film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (playing at The Quad) allows us to focus on how Hollywood sexuality stemmed from biblical, Freudian, Jungian foundations. In every scene, the astoundingly gorgeous Gardner embodies all those ideals in contradiction, a figure of Eve, Greek mythology, and 20th-century emancipation.

But Harley Quinn represents the modern perversion of those ideals. She was half of what made Snyder and David Ayer’s Suicide Squad exciting. (The other half being Will Smith and Viola Davis’s career-best explorations of black criminal-justice identity.) Margot Robbie’s quicksilver shifts from gleeful, manic lewdness into serious bad-girl commitment (she was first seen performing a stripper act to Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me”) evoked Zack Snyder’s spectacular rock ’n’ roll feminist screed Sucker Punch (2011). But Birds of Prey cheapens Robbie’s razzle-dazzle characterization by politicizing it; Quinn’s personal passion gets reduced to the childish inanity of out-of-control petulance. It falls short of artistry because, without the Joker love story, Quinn’s complex of ardor, commitment, and vengeance is diminished by a squad of female filmmakers who don’t understand feminine sexuality’s cultural impact beyond exploitation and manipulation of power.

A key scene in Suicide Squad was the lovers’ origin story in an acid bath. It was a liebestod that uses symbolic abstraction to challenge the audience’s moral response: The lovers emerged from rippling circles of red and blue dye, two psychotics molded into porcelain Jeff Koons forms. By contrast, Birds of Prey’s origin story prologue uses stock animation, calling for a juvenile response.

Birds of Prey betrays Zack Snyder’s influence on Suicide Squad — a movie that dug into the mystery of evil seduction and then engaged with the battle between love and trust, with the complexity of human feeling made deeper and higher than law and crime. Birds of Prey is so trite and patronizing it already seems old. But Suicide Squad’s best moments have aged remarkably well.

So has Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Director-writer Albert Lewin’s updated Flying Dutchman legend occupies a hidden cubbyhole of film history — not mainstream, or camp, or avant-garde, yet uniquely compelling. Lewin plays out the male obsession with feminine allure through Pandora’s impact on four different men. This forerunner to Jean Renoir’s masterpiece The Golden Coach revolves around the fatal projection of erotic imagination that film scholarship has reduced to a catch-phrase: “the male gaze.” Birds of Prey suggests that Hollywood’s putative “female gaze” offers no advantages. Harley Quinn’s girliness is no match for Ava Gardner’s womanhood. And Warner Brothers’ continued degradation of Zack Snyder’s DC vision is doomed.

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