Birds of Prey (Review & Commentary)
Transcribed directly from an audio recording
I had a chance to check out Birds of Prey a few weekends ago. Given this, I thought this would be a perfect time to review the film as well as my thoughts on the DC Extended Universe in general. On a side note, never watch a film at 1:30 pm on a Saturday afternoon in a family-friendly community. You are bound to run into people arriving incredibly late for the viewing, obnoxious cell phone users, cinema talkers, as well as mothers who bring their toddlers and young kids to an R rated feature. I’m going to keep my review of the film quite short as this is indicative of my overall feeling of the film. Bottom line, the film looks absolutely beautiful and the choreography and action are on point, better than most films out these days. There are several cool locations and cool concepts that link the film back to DC comics, which is a nice touch. Overall, it’s flashy, fun, and shot well, and that’s the credit I can give it. Story-wise, it’s pretty much the same fodder we’ve seen countless times before in comic book films. Essentially, the bad guy is preparing for a city-wide takeover and needs said MacGuffin to make it happen. The unlikely hero comes to the rescue for various reasons. Hero then teams up with unlikely friends/misfits to save the day. If you watched Venom, you’ve basically have seen this film. It’s too bad that the story lacks any creativity and doesn’t try to break the formula in any way. There was a lot of potential with this film. In particular, the chance to do something outside of the box and interesting. The filmmaker chose to make this film into an R rated feature with basically secondary characters in the Batman universe. Lots could have been done given this context. Margot Robbie does a decent job as Harley Quinn and although she isn’t necessarily reminiscent of Batman: The Animated Series or the comic books, she really makes the role her own. She is much more comfortable this time around versus her performance in Suicide Squad several years ago. She certainly has carved out this character for herself and although I’m not the biggest Margot Robbie fan, fans seem to like her as Harley Quinn and I can at least agree she’s right for the role. She wouldn’t be my first pick for the role but given that she’s now appeared twice as the character, I am more than fine to go along with her in the role moving forward. For me personally, I probably would have cast Jennifer Lawrence or alternatively a no-name actress, or even Juno Temple as Harley Quinn. Chris Messina does a pretty decent job at portraying Victor Zsasz but Ewan McGregor is less than perfect as Roman Sionis. His American accent is over-the-top and he is simply a generic villain with a been-there-done-that personality. Everyone else in the film is decent enough, but again, nothing really stands out in this film except for its beauty and choreography. This film doesn’t feel funky, fresh, or original in any way. It’s a basic rehash of what we’ve seen many times before. Like I told my viewing partner, this probably would have been an excellent film in the nineties but in 2020, it’s all been done before. Similar to my thoughts on Venom, it’s simply not good enough for this era of comic book films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and even Joker have risen the bar and after a heavy saturation of comic book films in the past decade, filmmakers need to try something new if they are going to stay in the comic book space. My other point of contention with this film is the fact that the team only gathers in the last moments of the film which is severely misleading. The trailers make it seem that the team will unite early in the film and will continue on with the adventure from there. Similar to Suicide Squad with the marketing of the Joker character, this film makes the same mistake of misleading audiences to its actual content.
The inherent issue with the DCEU is the fact that it seems like an afterthought. It simply wasn’t prepared or planned well from the get-go and was destined to fail. With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from the get-go, they had an overarching producer, Kevin Feige, who was responsible for ensuring the general continuity and vision for the films. Even though different directors would spearhead the individual films in the MCU, there were mandated rules that they had to abide by. The general continuity, vibe, and overarching message all had to be similar. When you watch an MCU film, you know you’re watching an MCU film. The other thing Marvel did well was that they gave each hero their own introduction film before putting them into a team-up film together. This allowed each character to establish a solid foundation, an origin story, and more importantly, a fan base. We had several films out in the MCU before we had The Avengers. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has some minor challenges, but overall, they have been abundantly successful, and generally speaking, the continuity of the franchise is pretty solid. In fact, nine of the top twenty-five highest-grossing films of all-time are in the MCU.
With the DCEU, it all started with Man of Steel. Warner Brothers then said, “hey, let’s make a shared universe” and the next film became Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice which was a huge critical failure, which was then followed by Suicide Squad, another critical failure. This set the whole shared universe off on the wrong foot. We didn’t have any time to establish these characters. In fact, in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we are told that Batman has already existed in this universe for over twenty years, which we never were able to see. The first three films felt like a rushed attempt to start a shared universe. In 2017, we had Justice League which again felt like a rushed attempt at getting a team-up film together. The film is the vision of two directors and a studio which is abundantly obvious. It is not a good film, bottom line. It is, at best, a child-friendly Saturday afternoon film. Justice League had so much potential but failed primarily due to the fact that it was put together before producing any individual character’s film. Cyborg, Aquaman, The Flash, and even Batman were all included in the film without having an origin film. Again, Justice League felt like a rushed attempt to capitalize on a team-up film similar to The Avengers without building a strong foundation or even producing any film previously that featured each character independently. The DCEU ultimately feels like an afterthought as I’m sure the studio wasn’t planning or preparing a shared universe after Man of Steel at the time. I genuinely think the studio saw the success Marvel was having and tried to duplicate it on their side without truly understanding what made the MCU great to begin with.
The DCEU started to look up slightly with Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam! which are all relatively decent comic book films. They all hold high scores on Rotten Tomatoes and were financially successful, at the time. The key to these films is that they explored their primary character without many connections to the overall shared universe. Each film had time to develop the main hero and ultimately, had these films been made before Justice League, I truly think that Justice League would have been a much better film. Each film only had minor references to the overall shared universe, which I’m sure was mandated by the studio after the critical failures of previous films in the shared universe. Birds of Prey is very similar in that it only has minor references to the overall shared universe, generally speaking. Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Shazam!, and Birds of Prey all feel like stand-alone films which ultimately does them well.
Suffice it to say, the DCEU is a fucking mess, bottom line. I’m not surprised in any way however, as it was destined to fail from the get-go. For successful share universes to exist, you need three things. Number one: general continuity rules or at least general coherency rules. The example would be in the Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman films. There weren’t any outright superpowers present in the films in any way. As in, Superman would never or could never appear in the films. The trilogy is predicated on a real-life scenario and setting for the Batman characters. Number two: the style and themes of the films need consistency. As in, you can’t have an R rated film mixed in with a child-friendly film like Justice League. Can you imagine if Thor: Ragnarok was filled with obscenities and nudity? It wouldn’t fit into the MCU. Number three: you need to have an executive or a producer that is ultimately in charge of the entire franchise including its themes, consistency, coherency and vision. Without this, a shared universe will fail. Having different directors with different styles and visions will kill a shared universe. Recently, we’ve seen this in the new Star Wars sequel trilogy. J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson had completely different visions, stories and takes on what they wanted to do. The trilogy is an inconsistent mess with conflicting themes and continuity. In the MCU, Kevin Fiege has continually shown his aptitude for handling consistency. He has even let certain directors go that haven’t abided by the vision set out by the group at Marvel. Bottom line, when you go to make an MCU film, you know what you’re making. What you’re not making is a “Bob Smith” special. You are making a film that needs to coincide with twenty other films without causing plot holes and continuity errors. Above and beyond, these films have to typically set up the next round of films as well. In summary, Marvel has done extremely well with their shared universe. DC has not.
We have Wonder Woman 1984 coming out later this year as well as The Suicide Squad and The Batman coming out in 2021. Black Adam is also in development with a couple of sequels for Shazam! and Aquaman due out in a couple of years as well. The Flash is also getting his own film, finally. I’m incredibly curious to see if Warner Brothers will continue with the idea of a loosely tied together shared universe. I suspect that The Suicide Squad and The Batman will attempt to reinvigorate the shared universe and even attempt to reboot or reconfigure the universe in some way. It’s too bad because after eight films released, what is one supposed to do? Start over? Reconfigure? The present shared universe is an absolute mess and it’s an incredibly daunting task trying to figure out how to take it from here. I’m honestly not sure what I would do. I’d probably do exactly what they are currently doing which is to mandate that all future films hold only loose connections to the grander universe and attempt to reboot the universe with The Batman and The Suicide Squad. I will say this, some of these films have been incredibly successful both financially and critically which adds further complication. If all eight films were bombs both critically and financially, the choice would be obvious. As fans, all we can do is wait. I’ll be seeing each of these films either way and I will probably enjoy a majority of them. I sincerely hope that with James Gunn at the helm of The Suicide Squad and Matt Reeves at the helm of The Batman, we get spectacular films that both filmmakers are known for. I’m especially excited about the cast in The Batman, in particular Robert Pattinson. I wasn’t overly keen when he was announced, but since then, I’ve seen more of his work and I honestly understand why he was cast and I fully support him in the role. I think he will do an excellent job as both Bruce Wayne and Batman.