Batman Cinematic Universe Retrospective: Joker/Birds of Prey

This retrospective article is going to be quite different from the previous ones in this series.

For a start, both of these movies, Joker (review here) and Birds of Prey (review here) don’t even feature the Caped Crusader. The best we get in Joker is another version of the traumatic event that let the bat into young Bruce Wayne’s psyche, and, in Birds of Prey, the best we get is a hyena named after Bruce. It’s clear what has happened here.

After the critical failure of Suicide Squad and the critical and commercial catastrophe of Justice League, Warner Bros had to admit that Batman wasn’t the draw or automatic success that he’s so long been believed to be, and they went back to the drawing board – leading to a standalone Joker origin story, a sort of sequel to Suicide Squad led by the only popular character from that movie, and, just in case there was some meat in the old horse yet, yet another reboot of Batman from War for the Planet of the apes director Matt Reeves.

So, why talk about these two movies instead of giving them an article each? The answer is simple – both films seemed to spring for a similar place of expanding Batman universe mythos. But the reactions to the two couldn’t be more different.

Joker, directed by Todd Phillips and starring Joaquin Phoenix as the titular clown prince of crime, is the most profitable comic book movie of all time. It was nominated for a dumb amount of Oscars:, including Best Picture, Director and Actor, for which Phoenix won, and has had an immediate cultural impact that for better and for worse. Birds of Prey, on the other hand, has none of those things. While it has a higher Rotten Tomatoes score than Joker, it has flopped financially, been re-branded while still in cinemas in an attempt to bring in more viewers, and, despite critical success, hasn’t received any of the awards buzz that Joker did.

In order to compare and contrast, these movies I thought about many approaches, whether they be sexism, tribalism, studio interference and mismanagement, but everyone has written about those angles already. Instead, I’m going to use the lens I’ve always used for this series: are Joker and Birds of Prey good Batman films?

Sympathy for Mr J

The answer for Joker is remarkably simple: no. I gave a mostly positive review of this move when it came out, but my opinion on it has changed in the following months. There are aspects of the movie that are undeniably great – Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is the top of that list, of course, and rightly so. It was only through this performance that I felt like Joker got anywhere near a great Batman universe story.

And the main reason for its failure in this regard is that Todd Philips didn’t care about the comic book roots of Batman or his greatest rival. Joker is a psychological drama dressed in a comic book suit that barely hides the obvious Scorsese influence. It disheartens me to see how any people have been duped by this movie’s empty philosophy. It’s seen as a game-changer, and with the money it made that probably will be true. In terms of a Batman movie it’s nothing, but as a Joker movie it’s worse than that.

Arthur Fleck is an interesting well-performed character who has little to no agency in his own story. He’s also one of the poorest representations of mental illness seen in a popular movie I’ve seen in recent years, and trust me, I pay attention to this stuff. Arthur’s illness is not named, neither is any of the multiple medications he is on, or the reason for his previous hospital admission. Who care, it’s the Joker, he’s mad! This is not just a bad representation of mental illness – and an innately lazy one, too – but just fundamentally poor storytelling.

More than anything though, Arthur is a terrible Joker. Don’t misunderstand, Arthur’s transformation is powerful, and the chaos he accidentally causes Gotham has a sick humor to it, but c’mon, he”s a rubbish villain. Can you really imagine this guy poisoning the Gotham water supply, gassing the citizens, or chasing after Gotham’s District Attorney? Arthur is mostly reacting to the bad hand he has been dealt. He isn’t in control, whereas, until Batman stops him, the Joker is always in control.

The success of Joker is not a shock, through a careful advertising campaign Warner Bros managed to stoke both fear and a sort of Spartacus-level empathy for the character. It’s the kind of movie that has me saying things like “it’s been out a week and there haven’t been any mass shootings” like that’s good for the movie, instead of a reaction to the ghoulish place this character currently inhabits. Joker is fast becoming the Fight Club of this era – but it’s just a shame that it’s nowhere near as good.

The Woman behind the Clown

Birds of Prey has been screwed.

Whether it’s the marketing, the release date, the R rating (great for the movie but limits the audience), Birds of Prey never had a shot at being a successful release. Which is a shame because the movie just so happens to be fucking excellent. In my humble opinion, it is the best DCEU movie to date as, unlike Wonder Woman, it held up through the third act, and unlike Aquaman, its tone is consistent and its plot far less convoluted. Is it a better movie than Joker? They’re not comparable: Joker was trying something different within the genre, whereas Birds of Prey is just a great example of a joyful, inventive, and dedicated comic book movie.

While Birds of Prey is struggling to break even at the box office, it is still something of a miracle. For one, it’s a brilliant Batman movie without Batman. Gotham feels real and alive, Black Mask, who is a second-tier comic villain, is a great threat played with gusto by Ewan McGregor, and the titular all-female team of Harley Quinn, Black Canary, Renee Montoya, and Huntress are all fantastic. This really does feel like a Batman spin-off, and the fact that its spinning off an unpopular version of the Batman universe it’s all the more impressive.

Yet the most impressive thing is how Birds of Prey is how it rose out of the disaster that was Suicide Squad. It does two important things extremely well: – it shows the potential of a female team-up movie by using an original female team rather than a female version of a male-led franchise, and it took all the lessons Suicide Squad should have taken from Guardians of the Galaxy and put its own spin on it.

The real praise should go to director Cathy Yan and star Margot Robbie – these two have created a star vehicle for a villainess that is every bit as exciting and chaotic as Harley Quinn’s thought process. Robbie puts a Ledger-tier mark on the character as she anchors this movie in a way that also lets her co-stars shine. Yan’s cinematically-literate, strikingly beautiful direction, inventive action, and breakneck pacing are a joy to behold, and the movie is never afraid to just take its hands off the wheel and have a little fun for a change.

While Joker is a middling  attempt to push comic book movies into more dramatic directions, and an uninspired and often lacking movie outside of those notions, (though the Dark Knight Trilogy has already showed us how to have our bat cake and eat it too), Birds of Prey feels like what the comics in which they were formed: they show that Gotham is more than one man’s quest for justice, or another’s insanity. Sometimes, it’s about a really good sandwich and a pickpocketing teen shitting out a diamond.

If you enjoyed this article, please check out the rest of our Batman retrospectiveright here. You can also take a look at our other cinematic universe retrospectives, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Jurassic Park movies! And, as ever, if you enjoyed this and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon.

By Kevin Boyle

(header image via IMDB)

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