How Birds of Prey Breaks the Superhero Movie Mold

We visited the Birds of Prey set to talk to Harley Quinn herself, Margot Robbie, about the future of the DCU.

In this age of superhero movie storytelling, the lone (male) protagonist continues to rule. While we’ve begun to see the occasional outlier from the “Chosen One” template that makes up a disproportionate amount of Hollywood’s tentpole storytelling, it’s still quite rare to find a mainstream movie that goes with a truly ensemble story rather than something more individualistic in its cinematic philosophy.

In a culture so saturated with that mindset, it can be difficult to articulate what this norm looks like or to imagine other kinds of storytelling, but it’s my job to try! For a superhero film (a term used here to describe all comic book movie adaptations from fictional worlds that include superheroes) to truly defy the “Chosen One” structure, there can’t be a sense of destiny to its characters’ arcs. Any progress they make must not be a result of something inherent in their specific nature, but rather something that anyone could do under the “right” circumstances.

(This is why the Avengers films, though ensemble-driven, are still firmly in the “Chosen One” narrative category. There may not be one, central protagonist, but every one of its many protagonists has a sense of inherent destiny about them—they are beholden to the the “Chosen One”-esque origin story films on which the MCU has built its narrative foundation to exist in any other way. We’ll call this the “Chosen Many” film.)

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This break from the “Chosen One”/“Chosen Many” structure to something so ensemble is one of the reasons why the upcoming Birds of Prey film is so damn interesting. When Margot Robbie, who portrayed the Harley Quinn character in 2016’s Suicide Squad, was inspired to develop a spinoff with her character at the center, superhero movie precedent dictated she should have chosen to make a Harley-centric film to complement the ensemble nature of Suicide Squad. This is the pattern Marvel has laid out and that DC hasn’t strayed too far from: single character-centric standalones to ensemble and back again (or vice versa), building the narrative structure of the cinematic world into something greater.

But there are other ways to weave a narrative tapestry, and Robbie seemingly wasn’t interested in doing what had come before. Instead, she decided to make a “girl gang” film—a choice that feels inextricably related to the female-driven nature of this project that exists both in front of and behind the camera.

“When I first pitched the idea, it was really because, in everyday life, I am always surrounded by a group of women, whether that’s friendship groups or people I strive to work with,” Robbie says to a group of reporters including Den of Geek gathered on the Birds of Prey set last March. “It was crazy to me that I hadn’t really gotten to be a part of a female ensemble on screen. I thought you would get to see the best sides of Harley’s personality in a group of girls, as well.”

Gender diversity in film has been a slow progression that hasn’t always, you know, progressed. While we’ve gotten our first female-centric superhero films of this era in recent years in the form of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, both movies see their woman superheroes spending most of their screen time with male characters. Even in those aforementioned films, our hero is too often the Smurfette. This will always be the case for film worlds that treat “male” as the default and anything else as the occasional, often essentialized outlier. It only matters to a certain point how great the character work on your female and/or non-binary characters are if they are treated as an “other,” which will always be the case for screen worlds populated predominately by men.

This is decidedly not true for Birds of Prey, which boasts a main cast of women characters of various ages and ethnicities. In addition to Harley, we have Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), all teaming up to save Casandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) from Gotham City crime lord Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).

Producer Sue Kroll says the various female characters’ stories “echo each other,” adding: “[Harley] doesn’t necessarily make friends with the other women, but they come together, and, through that, they all emancipate themselves throughout the film.”

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Director Cathy Yan says the ensemble nature of the film was something that initially drew her to the script. 

“I love that it isn’t really like ‘The Harley Quinn Movie,'” Yan tells us. “It much broader than that. We check in with all these women …. It’s truly an ensemble film. It’s not even a team, you see them as a team right now, but we really spend time with each of these women and they’re very much the protagonists in the film. I joke that … we have two villains and five protagonists and … they all feel like leads.”

read more: The Year of Harley Quinn & Birds of Prey

With this kind of narrative set-up, Robbie’s Harley Quinn doesn’t have to represent all women or appear as one of a few female outliers to the male norm. To put it in MCU terms, it’d be like if that one scene in Endgame with all of the main female characters on screen together at the same time instead of sequestered to their respective mostly male-populated universes were actually its own, entire movie instead of just one scene in a three-hour film. (Peter Parker can be in it as the requisite Smurf.)

This lack of gender diversity in front of the screen when it comes to superhero storytelling (and beyond) is inextricably related to the lack of gender diversity in positions of creative control behind the camera, which has seen even slower progress than diversity in front of the camera. This is why it’s so heartening that Birds of Prey has a woman director in Yan, a woman screenwriter in Christina Hodson, and women, including Robbie herself, in several of the executive producer roles. None of these women have to be Smurfettes behind the camera.

“We’ve been having a lot of fun on set,” says Yan of the experience of working with many women. “It’s amazing having Christina Hodson, our screenwriter, on set as well, and we joke that we share a similar brain. It’s been great to just be able to explore that. We’ll have the women ad-lib and add lines and we’re always playing around with it, and they really take it upon themselves to add these little extra bits of personality details.”

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Freed from being the sole or few representatives of their gender, the creative decision-makers behind this film and the main characters in its world don’t have to play the Smurfette. I am eager to see how that rare kind of freedom will play out. At the very least, this “girl gang” of women both in front of and behind the camera will no doubt lead to a more diverse representation of womenhood in Birds of Prey.

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“I like that [ensemble] story. I think it hasn’t really been told in that way,” says Yan. “Because I think we play around with [the idea that] there isn’t really one villain or one savior and life is not so black-and-white, and we’re just trying to do something a little different here. Harley herself is an anti-hero, so sometimes she’s really good and very heroic, and sometimes she’s terrible and irresponsible, and can do a lot of harm. She’s such a complicated character, so all of the characters in the film are too.”

While Robbie echoes Yan’s thoughts that this ensemble is filled with characters using “their own set of ethics,” the actress and executive producer notes that the element connecting them all is setting-specific community—another element that rarely has narrative value in “Chosen One” stories.

“You know what everyone has in common?” says Robbie. “They’re all from Gotham, this part of Gotham.” This part of Gotham being the outskirts. “If Gotham is New York, we’re not in Manhattan. We’re in Queens or Brooklyn,” she clarifies.

“There is a smaller community and everyone’s in it and everyone kind of has their roots in this part of town and therefore wants to fight for it,” Robbie says, “So I think that’s what they have in common. Whether they place priority on upholding the law [or not] … it’s home for them and they’re fighting for their community in some way.”

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The producers of the film seemed wary of categorizing this film as anything too message-oriented, perhaps falling into the trap of thinking that a movie cannot be subversive and fun at the same time (a misconception that, Knives Outrecently, delightfully debunked). But Birds of Prey is already taking “risks” that other, male-driven films are usually uninterested in taking and/or or too afraid to take.

For example, much like Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in TimeBirds of Prey isn’t afraid to embrace a vibrant, “girly” color palette. Reminiscent of the Lisa Frank aesthetic, visually, Birds of Prey isn’t quite like any other comic book adaptation we’ve seen before—both in terms of the film itself and the marketing surrounding it. This sense of girlish fun is imbued in everything this movie is aiming to do, making the bold claim that something can be girlish and gritty at the same time—or that female characters themselves can be silly and fun without losing their narrative power.

We’ll have to wait and see what Birds of Prey makes of the too rare privilege of having women centered both in front of and behind the camera for a big-budget Hollywood film. Whatever the result, both in terms of creative and commerical success, one thing is for sure: in an industry that is historically slow to change, Birds of Prey is something new.

Birds of Prey hits theaters on February 7th. You can find out more about the film here.

Kayti Burt is a staff editor covering books, TV, movies, and fan culture at Den of Geek. Read more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @kaytiburt.