The action in Birds of Prey kicks off with a literal bang. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and her clown killer lover Joker (played by Jared Leto in David Ayers’ Suicide Squad), have broken up, and she’s obliterating traces of him from her life, starting with the Ace Chemical plant, birthplace of their love and her life of crime.
Directed by Cathy Yan from a script by Christina Hodson, and produced by Robbie’s LuckyChap shingle, the film carefully omits any straight visuals of Joker. You’ll glimpse an animated cartoon version of him as Harley brings us up to speed on her story since her on-screen debut in Suicide Squad. You’ll feel his sheer power crushing down on his former paramour as she tries to free herself from him — but no greasy green hair in sight.
Still, his presence is felt, especially at the beginning, when Harley, nursing her broken heart, is trying to figure out who she is without her partner in life and crime. It’s all there in the title: The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. We’re watching the journey of a woman trying to free herself from a man and a system that has underestimated her and kept her down.
But we’re also watching the emancipation of Harley Quinn the solo icon, as well as this particular iteration of the character. Since her creation by Paul Dini and Bruce Trimm in 1992, she’s been known mostly in relation to the Joker. His arrival as a patient at Arkham Asylum, where Harleen Frances Quinzel is training as a psychologist, is the catalyst for her transformation in Harley Quinn. Comic book lore has her falling helplessly in love with him, and following his lead as an agent of mischief and mayhem. Joker’s predominance in Harley Quinn’s narrative is evident in the way the cast, writer, and director of Birds of Prey keeps getting asked about him, despite his absence in the film.
“That's what's so fun about comic book characters,” director Cathy Yan said in a recent interview at Refinery29’s downtown Manhattan offices. “They share DNA, but they're very, very adaptable. She's getting past him, and the story and movie get past that relationship quite quickly. Of course there are repercussions [from] the breakup, but it's not about Joker.”
While there have been many versions of Joker and Harley Quinn both on-screen and in comics, the two currently dominating the zeitgeist represent two parallel cultural conversations. It’s an ironic and entirely fitting twist of fate that Birds of Prey comes on the heels of Todd Philipps’ Joker, nominated for 11 Academy Awards at the Oscars on Sunday, including a Best Actor nod for Joaquin Phoenix, which at this point feels like a sure win. The character may exist in both movies, backed by the same studio (Warner Bros), and are part of the larger DC universe, but his narrative role couldn’t be more different. And though some of that may come down to the nature of Joker as an origin story (we’re seeing Arthur Fleck become Joker, rather than the solidified villain of Gotham Harley Quinn meets later), that’s not the only explanation.
Robbie has emphasized one aspect of the contrast in interviews. “Our world in Birds of Prey is very different — the aesthetic, the tone,” she told Variety. “Very, very different. Ours is certainly a heightened reality. There’s a clear distinction between real life and what you’re experiencing on the screen. I feel like the ‘Joker’ film was much more grounded. Ours is different.”
It’s true: Birds of Prey explodes with color and confetti where Joker dwelled in the bleak corners of a city drowning in garbage. Even its villain, Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) is playfully psychotic, dressed in decadent, over-the-top Miami Vice suits and loud tropical patterns.
But there’s more to the rift between the two movies than visuals. Joker is a story about a white man who feels he’s been left behind. As Arthur Fleck, Joaquin Phoenix’s quiet strangeness belies an inner rage at a world that he sees owing him more than what it’s dealt out. In other words, Arthur is the underdog of the Joker universe. For him, betrayal is everywhere, in every aspect of his life: He’s part of the city’s poor underclass, oppressed by rich tycoons like Thomas Wayne, father of Bruce. He's a son who has been abused and lied to by his mother his entire life. He’s a loyal fan betrayed by his icon, talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro). He’s a patient who has been let down by the system.. He’s a man who has been rejected by the woman he’d like to date. Even strangers, like a woman on the bus who won’t let him goof around with her child, are out to get him. The comedy club audience witnessing his pitiful attempt at stand-up is brutal. Director Todd Philipps frames Arthur as a symbol for the downtrodden, disenfranchised, and powerless people of Gotham.
It’s a perception of the world that many have criticized as leaning into a strain of white male rage at a world in which they are no longer on top. And yet, Birds of Prey proves that is not the case. In that movie, Joker is the establishment. The symbolism of Harley finally removing her heavy “J” chain necklace — styled not unlike a dog collar — after her breakup is a powerful one. It’s clear from the get-go that nothing happens in the Gotham crime underbelly without his say-so, and that an association with him means a free pass. As soon as word gets out that Harley and “Mr. J” are dunzo, enemies past and future come crawling out of the woodwork, ready to take advantage of a woman they see as helpless and hapless.
It’s in that context that Harley ends up teaming up with the people who will eventually make up the group known as the Birds of Prey: Hard-boiled Gotham detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez); thief-in-training Cassandra Caine (Ella Jay Basco); shadowy revenge killer Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Sionis-backed singer who packs a mean punch Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), otherwise known as Black Canary.
These women make for unlikely allies — in fact, they don’t really even like each other. But tired of charging at a glass ceiling that appears to be bulletproof, they realize that their strength lies in numbers. In this movie, as in the real world, women, and more specifically women of color, are those marginalized by their society — not white men.
Birds of Prey doesn’t need to show us Joker for us to understand that he’s part of the problem. Instead, his absence allows Harley Quinn to form her own legend, and watch his slowly fade away. “A harlequin’s nothing without a master,” a drunk Harley philosophizes early on in the movie. Part of the treat of Birds of Prey is to watch her realize just how wrong she is.