There were 11 people in the theater for the IMAX experience of HARLEY QUINN: BIRDS OF PREY (which was previously titled from BIRDS OF PREY: THE FABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN but was changed due to poor performance at the box office (a better title for this film would’ve been NEOLIBERALISM: THE MOVIE)). Of the 11 people, three duos were present, and two of the duos appeared to be male-female couples. Heading into the third act of the film, the two women in the theater were asleep. Save for two of them, the men I could see looked bored or tired. I was just frustrated.
I try to avoid superhero films whenever possible. It’s not even that I think superhero movies are the worst made movies around (see: any movie with Kevin James)… it’s that I find them to be so painfully average and safe. They’re films that feel like they’re made on an assembly line by guys in suits and their sole purpose is to make a billion dollars and have nothing of substance to say. They’re just long toy commercials. I liked (or was indifferent towards) a few of the films from the MCU alright. I like THE DARK KNIGHT franchise, but don’t consider those to be superhero films. I do enjoy the first two Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN films.
I think what those Sam Raimi films accomplished back then is what superhero films nowadays are missing. Is Tobey McGuire objectively the best Peter Parker or the most faithful adaptation to the comics? No. Are the movies corny and too overly earnest at times? Sure. But in a time when superhero movies were barely being made (you’d maybe get a new movie featuring a superhero every year), those Raimi films did something that superhero movies made today completely fail to do… They recognize that they have nothing of legitimate value to say about life, society, or anything, and simply focus on trying to tell a goofy/fun story where superheroes save people, which is what comics have always been.
There is an absurd amount of self-importance that reeks off of every superhero movie that comes out today when, ultimately, all these movies truly have to say is that with teamwork, you can beat the big purple computer-animated monster. And I don’t need my movies to say anything if they’re fun, but the minute you lie and tell me your film is important and has something to say when it doesn’t, it instantly becomes grating and lame. Which brings us to HARLEY QUINN: BIRDS OF PREY, which maybe could have been a fun movie if it didn’t think it was so damn important and didn’t so badly want to be liked by everybody.
The SUICIDE SQUAD spin-off (???), which has been released four years after the critically-panned previous disaster-of-a-movie was released, is not very good. It isn’t TERRIBLE, though, but truthfully, at least if it was awful, it could’ve been entertaining. This movie isn’t a bad movie because it’s a movie about women… It’s a bad movie because it’s boring and has nothing to say and unfortunately, thinks it has a lot to say.
Margot Robbie acts fine as the title character, but fails to be even slightly impressive because the screenplay gives her character no real depth and no real motivation to work with. People complained about her lack of use in Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD, but in that film, she was wonderfully charming and glowing, mostly because she didn’t have a screenwriter who was a hack helming her project.
The film is billed as a comedy, but unfortunately is almost never funny. I chuckled twice during the movie: One time came when Harley’s narration (which is especially awful in this film) proclaimed she voted for Bernie (this may have only been funny to me because the people who will champion this movie as “important feminist art” definitely voted for Clinton in the 2016 primaries) and the other time came when a villain was blown up in an overly comical way. But the runtime was 109 minutes… It was a comedy. I also was the only person in the theater who ever audibly laughed. That’s a problem.
The action set-pieces are all well-shot and impressive, but who cares? Good action with poorly written characters make for a bad movie. Movies should have some tension to be effective. Oftentimes, action sequences are a great place to create tension. Tension is derived when the audience cares about the characters partaking in the action, but none of these characters were interesting or mattered at all, and ultimately, there was never even any real danger or fear that the characters we were following would ever lose their fights, so why would an audience ever be excited or on the edge of their seats watching the choreography?
Ewan McGregor is the most enjoyable part of the movie, and I do hate saying that in a film that’s being labeled as a feminist work, but it’s true. This isn’t because his character is likable (he is awful), but because McGregor clearly is the only actor who doesn’t take the script or anything in the movie seriously and thus, his performance is campy and almost enjoyable to watch (though, there is one scene in his club that features a woman and a table that is unpleasant in a way that doesn’t feel purposeful to the plot of the film at all). I think Ewan must have lost a bet in the late 90s that forbid him from ever being able to be in any movie with a good screenplay, outside of the TRAINSPOTTING sequel and maybe MOULIN ROUGE. At least he’s rich, right?
People on the internet continue to complain that the reason nobody is seeing this movie is because it’s a superhero movie about women and because of the feministic message it has. There is definitely some truth to that statement, and the men boycotting it are probably the same people who thought JOKER should’ve won Best Picture and who cry at STAR WARS teaser trailers. Those people are misogynistic and harmful and should never be who filmmakers cater their movies to. But this is also basically the same thing the cast and crew of the 2016 GHOSTBUSTERS “film” had to say. Perhaps, that film and this one also aren’t being seen because they just aren’t very good (and this one is being seen, to be fair). And that isn’t to say that this film is nearly as bad as that GHOSTBUSTERS film was, but the same idea can be applied.
Unfortunately, most people who make this proclamation are the same type of people who have missed out on seeing and supporting some wonderful female-led films from the past couple of years, such as: LITTLE WOMEN, KNIVES OUT, MIDSOMMAR, HUSTLERS, READY OR NOT, US, THE FAREWELL, THE FAVOURITE, HEREDITARY, ROMA, ANNIHILATION, THE SHAPE OF WATER, LADY BIRD, I, TONYA, THOROUGHBREDS, FLOWER, BEATRIZ AT DINNER, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, ROOM, ARRIVAL, and so on.
After 11 days of being in theaters, HARLEY QUINN: BIRDS OF PREY has already grossed more than all of those films (145m), save for four. 11 days. In the end, it’s likely that it grosses more than all of those films, provided it can top KNIVES OUT at 302 million. It’s already grossed 100 million more than most every film on that list… in 11 days.
This brings up a larger issue of people getting on the internet and acting like superhero or STAR WARS movies matter and that if they don’t make a billion dollars, it’s because of some secret agenda rather than critically thinking about what flaws the movies they like might have and why people may not want to see them. Or people thinking that the studios behind these films actually care about representation and inclusivity, when really, they only care about what will better help them make more money. And then they get on twitter and complain that nobody sees these bad movies, all for retweets so that people know they’re “woke”, rather than actually seeing art created by/or about people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, or in this case, women. This brings me to the other film I saw, THE ASSISTANT, which is both written and directed by Kitty Green and stars Julia Garner.
THE ASSISTANT is a very good film that is as harrowing as it is subtle and reserved. It follows Jane (Julia Garner) through her day working as an assistant to a powerful executive in a production company. While it isn’t billed as a horror film (google claims it is a “drama”), the film is genuinely chilling. There were eight people in the theater when I saw it: five women and three men. By the end of the screening, the women I could see looked exhausted (yet, not phased) and the men looked shocked at what they witnessed.
THE ASSISTANT is one of the first in what will be a long line of #MeToo-inspired films, and it feels especially vital, given how it follows the female experience in a workplace environment of a production company headed by a monstrously bad executive (a la Weinstein). The thing that was most alarming about THE ASSISTANT, though, was just how truly NORMAL it all felt. There was nothing in the film that I ever found particularly shocking, given what I know about the world and what I’ve seen in the various jobs I’ve worked, and if it didn’t feel shocking to me, it’s unimaginable how normal it must feel viewing it as a woman.
Kitty Green provides deftness with her camerawork, especially in the opening ten minutes of the film, which are mostly shot without any dialogue. There’s a workman like quality to the filmmaking, which becomes extremely effective when pairing it with what is being shot (namely, Jane setting up and ensuring that the entire office is ready to go early in the morning as she works tirelessly at a thankless job). There isn’t ever a moment wasted with a superfluous camera angle or shot, either (the runtime is only 87 minutes).
Her screenplay is just as effective. Her characters never really share any dialogue onscreen that is truly noteworthy (save for one scene). Garner as Jane shares a space with two men, who chide her or tease her and contribute to the misogynistic tendencies in the workplace, but they never really talk to her. They may speak to her, but they speak less TO her and more AT her, beckoning out commands or wants and needs. They don’t ever speak to Jane as if she is a real human, deserving of empathy or kindness. The sad part is that these characters, like so many men in real life, probably don’t even realize what they’re doing or how harmful they’re being.
Garner gives an impressive performance with her eyes. Since the film lacks dialogue, she’s asked to burden the heavy role of selling and expressing everything with her eyes, whether it be her anguish as she is scolded by her boss, her internal struggle as she tries to make everybody’s day (save for her own) easier, or her deep resentment and disgust as she grows more and more aware of what is happening at the company she works for.
We as an audience are subjected to watching Jane experience indignity after indignity, whether it be following after all the men wherever they go, discarding their trash and cleaning their dishes, babysitting the executive’s kids, being harshly verbally assaulted by said powerful executive when she isn’t perfect, etc, etc. It’s thrilling, enthralling, and heartbreaking, and Garner, an Emmy award-winning actress for her work on OZARK, was more than capable of delivering a powerfully quiet performance.
The climax of the movie comes when Jane attempts to report what she suspects is sexual misconduct from her boss to her company’s HR department. Matthew Macfadyen (most notably Tom in HBO’s original drama, SUCCESION, which is the best show on television) is “Wilcock” here, the head of HR, and is featured in the film briefly, but is necessary for driving the whole point of the film home. He’s extraordinarily disarming of Jane, reducing her concerns and qualms to nothing worth “causing a fuss over” and possibly losing her job over. The threats are veiled, but Garner’s Jane is more than able to read the room and understand that if she continues to pursue justice, it won’t end well for her career. Jane has aspirations and goals and in this scene, we ultimately see her sacrifice her morals as a means of self-preservation so she can continue to get ahead. It’s sickening and sad and unfortunately, helps to add understanding as to how somebody like Weinstein or any powerful man gets away with these crimes for so long. People turn a blind eye, because they know if they’re the ones to raise hell, they’ll suffer more than the men from the blowback.
THE ASSISTANT is the film BOMBSHELL (an insulting film from 2019) wishes it were and purports the messages that HARLEY QUINN: BIRDS OF PREY so desperately wishes it did but could never dream of doing. It wasn’t a perfect movie, but it featured a legitimately excellent lead performance and was deserving of having its message be heard, all while managing to tell a powerful story about women BY women.
It was only released in 25 theaters and has grossed under a million dollars after being in theaters for 19 days.
Studios probably saw the box office numbers from a film like ROOM (a movie about sexual assault starring Brie Larson in the performance of her life, which garnered her an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role) and realized it wasn’t financially viable to release it in more locations. But if audiences want to complain about representation in film, the only way to actually continue having films with representation get made is to go out and support those films… But I suppose people can keep complaining about the 250+ million dollars that HARLEY QUINN: BIRDS OF PREY will make as opposed to supporting small, gripping films like THE ASSISTANT. After all, everybody is an activist on Twitter.
BIRDS OF PREY: 2/5, THE ASSISTANT: 4/5