Review: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn

Birds of Prey is a movie I have wanted to see for a very, very long time. I think we are way overdue for an action movie led by a female cast and I’m thrilled that it is as good as it ought to be. The film has a scrappy, can-do vibe populated by vivid characters who are very well cast. The action scenes, and there are plenty, are a lot of fun and I didn’t really feel like there was a wasted moment. I love this movie.

Margot Robbie returns as the Joker’s ex-flame Harley Quinn who, after breaking up with her psychotic boyfriend, discovers the only reason nobody tried to kill her before was because of fear of the Joker’s reprisals. Now that she is on her own, she finds she has a huge target on her back. Ewan MacGregor plays crime boss Ramon Sionis, aka Black Mask, who is especially interested in killing Quinn until she makes a deal to get him a diamond he is anxious to possess but has been stolen by street thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Also in the mix are Rosie Perez as Detective Renee Montoya, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Valerie Bertinelli/Huntress and Jurnee Smollet-Bell as Dinah Lance/Black Canary, plus Chris Messina in a surprising turn as Sionis’ sadistic henchman, Mr. Zsasz.

The storyline, narrated by Harley Quinn, jumps back and forth in time, breaking up a straightforward McGuffin-hunt into entertaining sections that give each character enough backstory for us to actually care about them and understand their motivations (a rare thing in superhero movies). Christina Hodson’s script is very ably brought to life by Cathy Yan’s direction and the actors are all great. I thought everyone was terrific in their roles, especially MacGregor who threatens to steal every scene he is in. Jurnee Smollet-Bell was a real discovery here for me; I thought she did a great job with Dinah Lance/Black Canary. I also loved Mary Elizabeth Winstead and her super-seriousness which everyone makes fun of.

This movie, along with Joker, Shazam! and Wonder Woman, is a great example of why I prefer DC to Marvel. DC has had more than their share of missteps, but I appreciate the unpredictability of their movies over the tedious formula used over and over by Marvel. Birds of Prey is definitely for mature audiences, not only for the frequent salty language but also the bone-crunching and bloody violence on display. It also treats its sexual politics with a knowingly serious but deftly light touch, which I really appreciated.

Birds of Prey is the first movie of 2020 I was seriously looking forward to and it did not disappoint. The production design is colourful yet gritty, the characters well-served by a good script and great casting and the action is a lot of fun to watch. I found myself laughing more than I expected and, although it does get a bit silly in places, it’s no different from other films in the superhero genre in that regard. I never felt insulted by what I was watching and I will certainly be seeing it again.

Bravo!

Trailer

Film Review: Spider-Man – Into the Spiderverse

Best Spider-Man movie since Spider-Man 2

Sony Animation has produced this slick piece of eye-popping animation that is a lot of fun to watch. I found it to be tremendously entertaining, fun and funny but with emotional weight where it needed it. I think it is the best Spider-Man movie since 2004’s Spider-Man 2.

One of the many things I loved about this film was how progressive and positive it was. The whole film really captures the essence of Spider-Man in ways that pretty much every other film in the past 14 years has failed to do, and Spidey is a relentlessly positive, optimistic character despite his tragic origins and his outsider status. This movie captures the correct tone to convey that spirit while also being a lot of colourful fun, just like the title character.

The story here centers on young Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a New York teenager who somehow gets bitten by the same (or similar) spider as the one that bit Peter Parker. The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is the main villain of the piece whose experimental particle collider creates a crossover of parallel universes that delivers different versions of Spider-Man from those worlds into ours before it is damaged in a fight that kills our resident Spider-Man (Chris Pine). The multiple versions of Spider-Man have to work together to find a way to get back to their own universes and then destroy the collider before it destroys everything. Along the way, Miles faces challenges and comes to terms with the responsibility of being Spider-Man.

First and foremost, I loved the animation. That was the principle thing that got me interested, because I am very unimpressed by most animation for its lack of novelty. Rarely does an animated film present a style that I haven’t seen before, but I really think this movie did show me something new. I loved the characterizations of everyone, particularly Miles, but I also really liked Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) and Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) as his peer support. I thought Nic Cage was an unexpected pleasure as Spider-Man Noir from a hard-boiled 1930s universe and I have always loved Spider-Ham, who I was afraid would be just a sight gag but turned out to be a fun side-character.

In a lot of ways the movie reminded me of the Lego Batman Movie. It has a very similar sensibility of reverence as well as humour about the legacy of the character. I think Spider-Man’s appeal is in his misfit status and the total anonymity of the suit – anybody could be under the red and blue spandex, and that is what a lot of the movie’s underlying substance is about. It’s part of the reason why the film has so many different versions of the character and gives us the lesser-known Miles Morales as our central protagonist instead of the familiar Peter Parker. I found the story quite soulful in its presentation of what it means to be a hero – it’s not the suit, its the person wearing it and the choices he or she makes. I found the movie unexpectedly moving in parts, much like Spider-Man 2, and its closing coda by Stan Lee about heroism was very touching in light of the man’s passing earlier this year.

If there is anything negative to say about the film, it has to do with the presentation in 2D. I haven’t seen Into the Spiderverse in 3D but I would like to despite my overall misgivings about the medium. I think the cityscapes and web-swinging could be enhanced by the 3D, but what bugged me about 2D was that a lot of backgrounds had a blurry look like I was watching a 3D movie without glasses (except the foreground characters were clear), almost as if the studio did a half-assed job of making a 2D version.

I really loved Spider-Man – Into the Spiderverse a lot more than I tought I would. I laughed out loud many times and I appreciated its sense of Spider-Man lore, not just in the easter eggs sprinkled throughout for hardcore fans to giggle over, but for its authentic understanding of what the character means and stands for across multiple interpretations. An amazing movie.

Harley Quinn #50

Harley Quinn #50

I was delighted with the 50th issue of Harley Quinn, a double-sized issue with a boatload of guest artists working from a script by Sam Humphries. It’s fun, it’s wild and it has an unexpectedly sweet center that made me catch my breath at the end.

The story is a hoot, with Harley being chased by Jonni DC – Continuity Cop for constantly breaking continuity, resulting in chaos everywhere. Meanwhile, Harley is on a quest to find a way to bring her mom back after she turned vanished in a cloud of flower petals.

I loved the irreverent tone of the story, which is a mainstay of the comic in general. I just think it’s funny that Jonni DC – Continuity Cop is even a character but she’s used to great comic effect here. The central event of Harley’s mom disappearing and the subsequent effort to bring her back has a really heart-warming ring to it that ends beautifully, a sweetness that plays well off the comedy all around it.

I also loved the art. I read comics primarily for the art and you get a great variety of visual styles when you have over a dozen artists on the book at the same time. John Timms is the series regular and does the introductory pages, but as Jonni DC pursues our heroine through shifting universes each one gets a distinct spin from the guest artist assigned to those pages. It’s a wild ride and a lot of fun to see the device of multiple artists used so effectively.

Great issue. I loved it so much I bought an extra copy and sent it to my sister.

 

DC versus Marvel

I like comics books. I generally love visual storytelling, so it’s a natural. I’ve never been an obsessive fan, but I’ve been buying on and off since I was eleven. Super-heroes are what comics are best known for, of course, and both DC and Marvel have legions of fans. I have a more casual interest and am not exclusively devoted to one or the other. However, on balance I would have to say I lean toward DC more.

I have loved Spider-Man for as long as I can remember – the Ralph Bakshi cartoon was my gateway when I was too young to read. I was crazy about the Hulk tv show with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno when it was on the air. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was flying high in the movies, but my first exposure to super-hero comics was issues of Amazing Spider-Man my brother had lying around. It wasn’t until I was eleven that I bought my own: a copy of issue #281, October 1986. I was an avid reader for the next 4 years but lost interest after Todd MacFarlane’s run as artist ended.

I drifted in and out of comics for a while after that, guided by the principle of buying them solely for their art because I had a very low opinion of the writing (except for Alan Moore who was light years ahead of everyone else with Watchmen). What really drew me back in was the Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee team-up on Batman with the “Hush” storyline in 2002. It blew me away. I felt the writing was compelling and the art was spectacular. I began buying comics regularly again and have stayed fairly faithful ever since, but Spider-Man and the X-Men are the only Marvel properties I’ve ever really related to. I loved the Hulk tv show as a kid, but for some reason the comics just never kept me engaged. DC, for me, just has a more interesting pantheon of heroes who seem somehow more iconic.

Really, however, the biggest reason I prefer DC is simple: better female characters. I’m too old and too straight to be looking at men in tight costumes, for one thing, but I’m also more interested in different perspectives. I already have a good idea of the value system of male characters because I am male and even though the writers of female characters tend to be male, I usually read comics primarily for the art and want to look at somebody unlike me. Outside of the X-Men, it’s not as easy to name a half dozen major characters who are also female as it is when you look at DC.

Being a movie buff, I can’t help mention the state of the competition there. Obviously, Marvel Studios is killing DC in terms of box office. Wonder Woman has been the only real victory for DC since they launched their cinematic universe with Man of Steel in 2013 (so that disqualifies the superior Dark Knight trilogy which concluded in 2012). However, I’m personally not that keen on Marvel’s movies either; the only one I loved without reservation was Doctor Strange in 2017. I quite like some of the X-Men movies, but technically they belong to 20th Century Fox, not Marvel Studios. I am a very hard audience to please when it comes to film.