I don’t begrudge any artist having a point of view, or even attempting to express that point of view. Art is all about communication between the artist and audience. The sticking point comes not in the fact of a work of art having a message, but in how that message is expressed. The same goes for film. Film critic Roger Ebert was known to say, “A movie isn’t what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it.” I agree. A film’s tone not only heightens its story, but can actually undercut it, as well. This is certainly the case with Cathy Yan’s “Birds of Prey,” DC’s latest offering in its increasingly-disjointed cinematic universe.
It’s clear from the beginning that the film is attempting to overtly incorporate a feminist message into its story. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. The message itself is artistically neutral. Some great movies have been feminist in nature, released as recently as Greta Gerwig’s charming and clear-eyed “Little Women” and Patty Jenkins’ inspirational “Wonder Woman.” Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, the ideological goals of “Birds of Prey” begin to cloud the narrative execution, resulting in a film that is so intent on getting its message across that it hits the viewer over the head, not unlike Harley Quinn with her trademark mallet.
While the performers all do their best to breathe life into these stock characters, and the production design is appropriately off-kilter, the film is thematically shallow. In its attempt to champion its female protagonists, it ends up denigrating every last one of its male characters. From the cops to the criminals, and every man in between, this vision of Gotham City is one teeming with misogyny and oppression. Not only do the men of Gotham take credit for women’s achievements, but they are often incompetent and predatory while they’re doing it.
This would be fine if our protagonists were equally flawed – suggesting perhaps that Gotham inevitably corrupts and distorts everybody that inhabits it – but this is not the case. While the men are undeniable monsters, our five female heroes have an inherent purity to them, both in their motives and their methods. What minor flaws they do have are seen as delightful character quirks, meant to endear them to the audience. Consequently, any violence they enact upon their oppressors is clearly seen as justified.
Strange as it may sound, I’m reminded of Harold Cronk’s 2014 faith-based film “God’s Not Dead.” In it, a Christian college student butts heads with his atheist professor. The film was a big hit, but many were frustrated with the depiction of the professor, and of atheists in general. They felt that the character was a straw man, a loathsome antagonist meant to make our main character – and Christians – look better by comparison. I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment and cite it as the film’s primary weakness among many. “God’s Not Dead” attempts to make its protagonist likable not through character development and specificity, but by confronting him with a villain so unabashedly antagonistic and one dimensional that the audience has no choice but to root for him.
It’s the same with “Birds of Prey.” In its desire to get the audience cheering for its female protagonists, it goes the easy – and safe – route of simply surrounding them with male characters so depraved, so selfish, so bumbling that the audience couldn’t possibly see our heroes as anything less than saintly.
Messaging is one thing, but lazy messaging is another. Even the plainest truths contain complexity and nuance. To shave those off in order to more effectively guide the audience toward a theme is to undercut the goal itself. Just as Sigourney Weaver’s “All women are superheroes” comment at the Oscars fails to acknowledge the truly despicable women in the world – and tacitly dismiss genuinely heroic men – so too does “Birds of Prey” choose to go the easy, broad route of making generalized statements, free of subtlety and nuance, ultimately deflating its themes to the point of irrelevance.