There’s a scene in Birds of Prey that is either totally brilliant or completely inappropriate. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), DC’s acrobatic, Ph.D.-holding villainess, moves into a tiny apartment above a Taiwanese chef’s shop. Harley adores the chef — Doc (Dana Lee) — because he remembers her order (Mongolian beef, extra chillies) and calls her “lotus flower.”
Harley trusts Doc as a landlord with the same energy as white girls who think the ultimate form of “wokeness” is when their local bodega owners remember their name. It’s a pretty big trust fall, since Harley’s a wanted woman after her breakup with the Joker. “Being Joker’s girl gave me immunity,” Harley narrates. And now almost every bad guy in Gotham City is out for revenge for a number of reasons. For example, one guy whose penis she cut off (presumably — all the movie shows is an eggplant emoji with a red circle and line through it) blows up her apartment out of revenge.
“Doc!” Harley screams, running out of her blistering home. Across the street, Doc is packing up his van, and the truth settles in. Doc betrayed Harley for several reasons: It’s hard harboring someone who’s wanted by the police and all the city’s villains when you have little financial or social power of your own; there’s a lot of money on Harley’s head — enough to give Doc a new business and a fresh start.
“It’s just business,” Doc says to Harley, apologizing. Which is true. This scene is meant to be a pivot point for Harley, a second heartbreak that pushes her to make a difficult decision about Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a foster kid who’s swallowed a diamond that’s a lot more valuable than its appearance suggests.
But it’s also something else. When Doc was first introduced, I thought he was a goner. Doc represents the kind of people big movies love to kill off: a working class person of color with little characterization purposes beyond showing off an antihero’s sense of morality. Their deaths are meant to drive sympathy for their white protagonists; their futures are almost always cut short, sacrificed for the sake of the plot.
But Doc survives. You might feel conflicted about his decision to sell Harley out, but Doc is granted agency that exists outside of giving Harley Orientalist nicknames. That almost redeems the aforementioned eye-roll-inducing moments. Granted, sparing a minor character’s life isn’t “generous” by any means. It’s just an example of how Birds of Prey — which the studio has tried to rename, post-release, as Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey for better search engine optimization (yes, really) — continuously subverts the tropes that the story was already built into. The movie, directed by Cathy Yan, has all your archetypes: the haunted hero, the sidelined cop. And then you’ve got Harley’s snarky narration skewering them all. “If you’ve watched any cop movie ever, you know this is when shit gets real,” Harley says, right after a tense confrontation with officer Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) at the police station. Later: “That is childhood trauma right there,” said in reference to Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a haunted, vengeful archer who is simultaneously cool and socially awkward. (Multitudes!)
Birds of Prey’s snarky self-parodying can sometimes feel a little insufficient. It would’ve been great to get a bigger glimpse into Harley Quinn’s interiority, something that’s revealed when Harley drops psychology knowledge and a random “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” musical interlude, one that made me briefly fearful that Birds of Prey was going to turn into Glee. But Birds of Prey — and Harley Quinn — has a lot of history that can be both a burden and a blessing, one that Harley’s narration, her constant plot shaping, is trying to reconcile.
So much of the movie feels like an intentional reminder of that problematic legacy, and how sometimes the only way of dealing with that is with an anti-hero who just doesn’t give a shit about convention. The movie flips back and forth in time with no real pattern — Harley is our storyteller, and chronology isn’t at the top of her list. Hate it or love it, it doesn’t matter. It’s Harley freakin’ Quinn, and she’ll do whatever the fuck she wants.
Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at email@example.com.