The Last Film I Saw in Theaters: A 2020 Story

This is not destined to be a hot-take on what a colossal brain-bleed of a year this was. Nor am I going to try to mitigate the death, economic instability, and racial unrest this year left in its wake. No, I’m gonna side-step all that. I’m tired of hating the last nine months. Instead, I want to focus on what was, by default, my favorite thing about 2020: DC’s Birds of Prey.

This was the last film I saw in theaters before the world began it’s decent into Thunderdome. I remember sitting in my seat, next to my sister-in-law and brother, watching this candy-colored masterpiece unfold. I kept thinking, “Oh, so this is what Suicide Squad was supposed to be”. It had a delightfully unreliable narrator and a cool ensemble cast that I couldn’t wait to see again. I enjoyed every single second of this movie. When the credits rolled and the lights came up, I fully expected to see my own rapture mirrored in the faces of my family.

You know where this was going, right? They hated it. Like, hated it.

My brother and I generally agree on which films we like and which we don’t. We like irreverent humor (check), and superhero movies (check), and movies with clear artistic direction and sense of style (double check). So I couldn’t understand where his apathy was coming from.

Come to find out, he wasn’t the only one. The internet as a whole seemed to pan this entire film, for reasons that were baffling to me. But because I was in the minority, it seemed that everyone saw flaws in Birds of Prey that I couldn’t. So I just let it go. I didn’t talk about it, or gush over it because I felt stupid for allowing myself to like it.

Oh, don’t worry, we’ll get to that later.

I bought the movie when it was digitally released, and shame-watched it over and over. And with each successive viewing, I liked it more and more. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. Then I stumbled onto something that changed my whole outlook. On YouTube, no less.

The YouTube algorithm knows what I like. When it repeatedly recommended a channel called Cold Crash Pictures, I took the hint. And wouldn’t you know it, the first video on the feed happened to be called “It Has Come To My Attention You Don’t All Love Birds Of Prey“.

Never has another person been able to sum up my frustrations so succinctly. It made me realize that I wasn’t stupid for seeing the value of something that others can’t (or won’t).

Don’t worry, we’ll get to that, too.

So let’s dissect this. Everyone has had plenty of time to enumerate the ways this movie sucks. I’d like to take this opportunity to show how and where and why they can shove it. (I don’t mean that, it just felt good to write. Let’s do this!)

  1. Apparently, Birds of Prey isn’t funny. I’m not going to waste a lot of time on this one. Been there, done that. If you felt this way, it’s evident that we were not watching the same movie. You were probably watching an Animal Planet special, because I was watching one of the funniest movies of the year.

I think I’ve made my point.

2. Where are all the butt shots??? This was a real criticism that floated up from the darkest reaches of the internet, like the funk of forty thousand… incels. Apparently, the internet’s most abused (wordplay) population collectively decided to take a break from pursuing their interests (I’m guessing online henti porn and avoiding nutrient dense foods?) long enough to type up their outrage in some very enlightening tweets. I’ll let you peruse the steady decline of the human race at your leisure.

It’s true, this movie is almost actively working against the male gaze. The main characters all appear to dress for comfort, or utility, or (in Harley’s case) personal preference. You know, like most male characters on screen. I wish I could say that this was just incel propaganda, but I’m not so sure. We went from this…

To this…

(Guys, she’s dressed like a bird. She’s supposed to look like a bird. It’s thematically relevant.)

The major difference between the two being that one looks like it was chosen by a horny film producer and the other looks like something Harley would choose for herself. That’s the whole point of the film, Harley gaining her autonomy, learning to make her own choices, learning to spread her wings. And yet, Fanboys the world over will argue that in Suicide Squad, Harley was a badass who takes charge of her body and her sexuality. In Birds of Prey, she’s weird and unsexy. Apparently, audiences like to see a woman make her own choices, only when it lines up with what they want to see. Anything else is…

3. Boys, boys, boys. In the video, Cold Crash Pictures makes the point that the general male reaction to this movie is sort of… interesting. A lot of male critics almost went out of their way to find reasons to hate it. The reason given by CCP is the exact same realization I came to after leaving the theater after my first viewing: there are no cool guys in this movie.

There are only two notable male characters in Birds of Prey, Ewan McGregor’s Roman and Chris Messina’s Zsasz. Both of these men are dangerous, and predatory, and complex. Neither of them are, and this is important, cool. They’re powerful, but they’re not intimidating. This isevidenced by the way they are treated by every single other character in the film. They have to buy their influence, and it’s clear that no one actually respects them.

When they do trying to flex their bad boy muscles, it’s not titillating or exciting. It makes your stomach turn. There’s a scene where Roman forces a woman in his club to dance on a table at gunpoint. Then he orders another man to cut her dress off her body with a steak knife. There’s no ominous music playing, or exploitative shots of the disrobed, crying woman on the table. It’s played for what it is: sexual assault. Moreover, sexual assault through the eyes of a victim.

Even Doc, the restaurant owner Harley describes as “the only person who truly cares about me” ends up betraying her, unapologetically, for totally self-serving reasons.

I’m not saying that all men aren’t capable of liking a movie without a cool dude to identify with, but it’s a question worth exploring. I’ve written about this before. Growing up, I was never guaranteed a strong female role model on screen. I had to learn to see myself in people who didn’t look like me. In short, I had to learn empathy. I’m not sure that the majority of male movie-goers ever had that same opportunity, with so many strong male characters to choose from. It’s not their fault.

But it does explain why a movie like this, particularly within the superhero genre, might be jarring for male viewers. It might make them uncomfortable. I get it. I don’t think it justifies dismissing, out of hand, what has become one of my favorite films of all time, but I get it.

4. “It’s mindless violence sets women back”. This is an almost direct quote from a Leonard Maltin review of the movie. I’m not going to link to the actual review, because I consider it trash. Suffice it to say, his stance is that the “loud, garish, and overlong” comic adaptation “made by women” is hurting the women’s movement as a whole. Gosh, I’m glad he said something. We’ve gotten fourth wave feminism all wrong.

For the record, the violence is not mindless. When the Birds engage in violence, it’s typically in response to verbal or physical aggression directed at themselves or another person. Very rarely is it unprovoked, or “mindless”.

Story time: I’m currently in California on a travel nursing assignment. The hospital has a teeny-weeny physical therapy building that staff can use as a gym during off-hours. The building is situated next to a trailer where traveling doctors are housed while on duty. While alone in the gym one night, running on the treadmill, I looked out the window to see someone standing on the trailer porch, waving at me. It was a doctor in his mid-seventies that has, um, something of a pervy reputation. I have no idea how long he was standing out there in the dark, watching me run.

If you can’t fathom why women might, at times, feel driven to mindless acts of violence, I’d say where have you been?

————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

I’ll be honest, I started writing this post for my brother. I just so badly wanted him to agree with me. And maybe I felt that if he threw up his hands and said, “You’re right! I love it!” I would feel validated in some way.

Which flies in the face of the exact point the movie was trying to make.

I love this movie because I love it. It makes me happy. I love all of the female leads, because they are compelling and funny, and I see bits of myself in them. I love that whenever the movie has an opportunity to pit these women against each other (with some narratively necessary exceptions), it pivots the other way. There’s no competitiveness, no bickering over who gets to be in charge; when these women decide to be a team, they are a team. I especially love the moments when they openly admire each other, which isn’t something you see female characters do very often on screen. When Huntress, the (ironically) easiest mark of the group, does something weird or dorky, the other women’s reaction is-

I don’t need someone else’s opinion to validate my love for this movie. And to the undersexed-Aristotle-of-our-time that posed this important philisophical question…

They made it for me, sh*t-for-brains.

-Whitney

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