Reviews

Birds of Prey Review: Harley Quinn’s Mythic Journey

In Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn transforms from Joker’s love interest to self-realised Loki-style spreader of upheaval and mischief. And it’s one hell of a ride all the way.

From the Golden Age onward, with a few notable exceptions (eg Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Poison Ivy), female comic book characters have too often suffered from being less powerful copies of male originals.

Supergirl (actually the older cousin of Superman) was made younger than Kal-El by a freak of Einsteinian relativity. Spiderwoman, She-Hulk, Batgirl and many others appeared to be created with little originality as cheap enticements to a female readership, or to titillate the boys – or both.

Harley Quinn is in a similar position. Her origin story – she was the Joker’s psychiatrist who fell for him and turned to evil – is an echo of the old stereotype that women are driven by emotions to do bad things at the behest of males – a narrative as ancient as Eve and the Serpent. She’s all too easy to view as the impish, psychotic diminutive version of Mr J.

So, the question is, in a comic book world now burgeoning with fully-realised, powerful female characters, how does Harley Quinn claim an identity for herself away from associations with the Joker?

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) deals with that problem head on. The original title, which has been shortened in theatres to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is far more accurate because at its heart, this movie is about freedom and self discovery.

Its celebration of breaking out from societal constraint is a subversive, radical, deviant message for our times. Oh. And it rocks, too.

It’s also given an original setting. Though tales of slave revolt are nothing new, this one is given a fresh comic book context, when a group of women rebel against the dominance of their various male overlords.

For the journey to begin, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has to sink to rock bottom, enduring post-break-up grief over splitting with her mentor and tormentor the Joker. She’s a complete mess, living on the borrowed fear the Joker instils in the hoodlums of Gotham.

She expresses her fucked-up, emotionally dependent state to Black Canary, another woman under a man’s thumb:

“You know what a Harlequin is? A Harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master, and no-one gives two shits who we are, beyond that.”

And so her journey of self-actualisation begins, with a grandiose and potentially suicidal declaration of independence.

The scrapes that follow stem directly from her escaping the Joker’s protective orbit. Because an awful lot of people have a truckload of grievances with Harlene Quinzel they’ve been too afraid to act on.

In the movie’s early stages, a drunk, grieving and fucked-up Quinn is at times vulnerable and so out of control she’s in danger of being raped or horribly murdered – all because she’s now a woman on her own.

“It’s a man’s world,” Black Canary pointedly sings. In that masculine violent hoodlum’s world, she needs to create a space of her own – and it’s not going to be a tiny apartment above a cheap takeaway for long.

Quinn isn’t alone on her journey. Finding her story echoed by each of the main characters, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), she observes: “…turns out, I wasn’t the only dame in Gotham looking for emancipation.” Nor is she the only person seeking it in the world, either.

Just like Eve in the Genesis myth, she is the cause of everything that follows from her first act of rebellion against male domination. Unlike Eve, in this story, there’s no-one to judge her nor anyone strong enough to punish her. She acts according to her own lights. Beyond good and evil, she is pure self-serving elemental force. She’s what English Romantic poet William Blake once said Satan stood for – energy.

Harley Quinn is a trickster figure, the Loki of Norse mythology (not the Marvel one), who MAKES THINGS HAPPEN. She’s the driving motor at the movie’s centre, while all the other main characters are fellow travellers, each on journeys of self-realisation.

As with all great tricksters, she’s lucky and cunning in equal measure. And just like Loki, she operates by her own code outside of conventional morality .

Harley Quinn is most definitely not one of the good guys. She is a fighter and a survivor. By the end, she finds her own way by her own rules – no matter how impermanent and nebulous those rules may be. She has her own inner life, and is no longer “Pudding’s” (the Joker’s) distorted reflection.

Harley Quinn is, in many ways, any ambitious person seeking to create their identity in the world. It’s just that she also happens to be a devious, brilliant, witty, funny, remorselessly violent, scatterbrained and totally nuts supervillain.

That’s why she’s able to declare at the end:

“I’m the one they should be scared of. Not you, not Mr J, because I’m Harley freaking Quinn.”

That’s her hero’s journey. What a journey it is. And it’s worth following all the way to its explosive conclusion.

Birds of Prey is at the front line of the culture war, and it’s a crying shame.

The culture war is here again, just as it always is when a female-centred movie appears on the scene.

From some predictable quarters, criticism of the movie has been damning, with a kind of self-satisfied “told you so” coming out of the more insecure, scared and genuinely obnoxious parts of the anti-woman breeding pits of the internet, where some of its least sanitary keyboardistas moulder in their own (unsurprising) celibacy.

Some hostile reviews have basically ballached that movies that don’t include men in their rightful places as kings of a universe in which scantily-clad females prepare themselves for mating in a lardaceous teenager’s fantasy harem are somehow a Marxist attack on Western culture. A quick check of their posting times shows a whole raft of this type of negative review came out before or just as the film was released. No gender agenda here, then.

I do have to wonder what goes on in the minds of fellow males so bereft of self-knowledge and with such fragile egos that they can’t accept a movie in which women are the main drivers of the action.

A search down the twitter feed of many critics, and of their blogs, reveals that (surprise, surprise) many of these same voices attacked previous female-centred movies with exactly the same arguments. It is instructive to see how many now critiquing Birds of Prey by saying it doesn’t have the integrity of Captain Marvel (whom some now hold up as a kind of ideal female-led movie), were in fact dissing the very same Captain Marvel at exactly this period in its release and had predicted failure because the lead was a woman. It’s almost like you’d think they wanted female-led movies to fail or something? Shurrrrly not?!?!

(For those who can’t read this:
“She doesn’t change, grow, or develop… She’s still the same destructive, immature, selfish arsehole she was at the beginning…” – – yep, sounds like a feminist all right.
The replies are equally as insightful.)

Some more philosophical critics attempt to draw a deeper moral lesson with the slogan “get woke, go broke” from any movies that don’t chime with their limited world view. (Remember, that’s a world view in which women submit to their every whim while looking like porn pros with spray-on clothes about to do a spring break shoot.)

No Kyle, the bat is to beat people with, not beat off to.

The moral such critics want to extrapolate is that “woke” movies won’t make money because that is not what the public want. Similar critics also described Black Panther, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel as “woke” but then had to change their minds after their success. Which means, obviously, only a weak box office is an indicator of “wokeness”, not the other way round. Such inverted logic is like saying “trees being uprooted causes hurricanes.” Viewed like that, it’s quite amazing how accurate prediction of past events can be.

It’s true BoP has underperformed* – but it’s got nothing to do with the “wokeness” or otherwise of the movie. It is to do with not getting the marketing, messaging and even title of the movie right, rather than people the world over suddenly hating powerful women-led films that don’t revolve around men, as incels would have us believe. Manboys are just wonderfully sensitive to having their world view questioned, it seems, and basically get very bitchy and whiny when presented with something that does exactly that.

Anyway, with the incels dismissed, we then have supposedly pro-BoP lunacy.

BoP-heads are so enamoured of the movie, so the narrative goes, they are attacking its next rival, Sonic the Hedgehog with complaints of blasphemy and swearing (as if the R-rated BoP doesn’t salt itself with “fuck” all the way through) and advising families to ditch the digital woodpig for the blonde psycho with a mallet (as if that’s going to happen).

And this is where the twitterverse gets weirder. Because Sonic the Hedgehog is not actually out on full theatrical release in the US until 14th February, which means there’s been a whole week of people tweeting how they stormed out of it to watch Birds of Prey… and you figure that one out.

It’s enough to make you paranoid. Are we in the midst of social media psy-ops in which the spreading of contradictory information is designed to destabilise an entire generation of feminists and comic book nerds? Is some nefarious criminal hoping that the lack of narrative will thus become its own narrative of chaos that will bring down the West? Mwahahahaha!

It’s like a comic book.

A closer look at some of these hardcore BoP-stan profiles reveals a definite lack of right-on politics, or that they are such extreme SJWs they must be parody accounts pretending to be “woke” in order to troll… Maybe… And if not, they should be. I mean they are right out there on the fringes of the known universe, with their incel counterparts.

And so, what’s actually going on? Chaos reigns is one answer – which would suit Harley Quinn down to the ground. As to who is posting what, really? Who knows… Because by this point there is no grown-up debate to be had about what went wrong. The twitterverse is having a fit. Birds of Prey has become the kickaround for anyone in the culture war with an axe to grind, and this point right here is where it all descends into madness about who the fuck is tweeting about what and why…

Enough!

My advice to anyone seeing all this twitter crap is, unsee it, now.

Because it’s a crying shame. The movie is not anti-men, or about to collapse the world order in some cataclysmic femocalypse as some would have you believe. (I’m not sure a movie can do that anyway. It’s just a movie.) Nope. Birds of Prey is massive fun from explosive beginning to nutcracking end.

So, if you’re looking for a fun night out and you aren’t in that disproportionately vociferous minority of guys terrified of the women who don’t prostrate themselves before their throbbing maleness, give Birds of Prey a whirl. And if you’re a woman undecided – well, really – what’s to lose? The set design is brilliant, the cinematography pops with vibrant colours and the comedy really works.

That, for me, was the big surprise. It’s a comedy – a violent, raucous comedy about people standing up for themselves after being abused and bullied. That’s a universal message, and just because it happens to be women doing it this time round doesn’t mean it’s the end of the universe, or that us guys’ dicks will fall off when we step into the cinema or there won’t be movies with men as main characters ever again. Honestly, the fragile nature of psychologically-stunted boys who demand the world must be a kind of fantasy porn game in which they are treated with the same respect as the engorged member of Conan the Barbarian, is sad to behold.

Birds of Prey is a violent, joyous funny, movie with shades of the old 1960s camp Batman movie about it. What’s not to like?

Get out there and enjoy it.

*********

*Since writing this piece, I have reviewed the figures for Birds of Prey. As they stand at the end of the second weekend, it looks like word is spreading about what a good film it is.

US take now stands at $61.673m+, while the international take is currently $83.6m, making a global Box Office of $145m+.

These figures mean the whole “flop” narrative is going to have to be challenged. It’s an R-rated movie with a groundbreaking ensemble and none of the “big” characters such as Joker and Wonder Woman, or huge CGI budgets that led to wins for Aquaman and Black Panther.

This is a respectable take as we start Week 2. So, even the assertion that it has failed is wrong. I bought into that, like most others did.

The power of social media, eh?

Why does Matthew Bourne’s Romeo and Juliet have nothing to do with Romeo and Juliet?

WARNING: SPOILERS.

I watched Matthew Bourne’s adaptation of Romeo and Juliet at the cinema last night. It was great. Some great dancing to Prokofiev’s score.

And yet, you do have to ask the question, when does something stop being an “interpretation” or “adaptation” and just become a new thing?

That’s certainly a valid question for this piece. It is not the classic reviewers’ phrase “a stark reimagining” of the story. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Shakespeare tale, and here is why:

This show is set in a kind of asylum for ill-behaved children.

There was no clear sense of “two houses divided”, of rival Montagus and Capulets.

Tybalt was a prison guard who continually rapes Juliet before Romeo turns up.

The rape of Juliet is irrelevant to the unwinding of the story.

Juliet and Romeo strangle Tybalt to death.

The tragedy that comes from the trick of fake suicide and is followed by a double suicide is at the very heart of the story. It was replaced by manslaughter and a remorseful suicide.

So, weighed up, the whole thing was NOTHING AT ALL to do with Romeo and Juliet.

It was more like the show should have been called:

“Matthew Bourne’s troupe dance to the music of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet but have nothing to do with the story.”

But I guess that is less catchy.

The Last Jedi – Reviewed by a Star Wars sceptic

Star Wars, The Last Jedi

I’m going to make a confession. I really don’t like Star Wars.

It’s been a complicated relationship. When I first heard of Star Wars, I loved the sound of it. At school, I got swept along swapping the Star Wars bubble gum cards, I devoured the novel adaptation and collected the comics. I was seriously into Star Wars. I loved the idea of it.

But going to the cinema wasn’t something our family did very often, and I have to confess that during all the Star Wars mania that I joined in, I never once went to see it at the movies.

So, when it premiered on BBC tv in the early ’80s, I was intrigued. I really wanted to see what I hadn’t seen when I was a kid. Sadly, I had grown up, and the film was… well… boring. It was plagued with long, slow establishing scenes, by unsophisticated dialogue, and by jumping between story arcs in a mechanical way that felt like it was simply story-telling by numbers. Basically, the Star Wars in my imagination was better than the one on the small screen that Christmas. What a let-down!

I did watch The Empire Strikes Back at the cinema, and I liked it – though I’d already read the novelisation by the time I saw it, and the book was better… and then came the third one, whose name I’ve forgotten. The one with Jabba. And by then, I’d lost interest.

The thing that I felt let the series down was muppets. Yoda was a muppet, the stupid jazz band at the Mos Eisley canteen were (sort of) muppets, bits I saw of that third (yes, I know, sixth) movie had muppets. And boy, did I hate Yoda. Everything about him from his stupid Fozzy Bear voice and Kermit face, to his bad grammar and his faux spiritual insights made my blood boil.

Yet, like a massochist, when Phantom Menace came out, I thought, I’ll give it a shot. It’s a new take on the old series – a fresh start. Maybe things will be better.

That’s when I encountered Jar Jar Binks. Oh, boy. We’d gone beyond muppets to racial stereotypes in CGI. I squirmed in embarrassment at the cinema. I skipped a couple, catching them later online. Pretty much the same dull storytelling. I caught up with that third (sixth) one whose name I’ve forgotten – the Jabba one – and noticed how there wasn’t really a story. And as for the terribly portrayed dilemma Darth Vader has in finally saving Luke – that just took FOREVER to unwind. Man. The series was a no-hoper. Lame.

Yet, I still hoped. I hoped that Lucasfilms would turn out something smarter than it was doing at the moment – which was creating kids’ space operas.

So I continued to watch the films, like a spectator watching a car crash through the gaps in his fingers.

Rogue One was better, I thought, though still with its problems. The Force Awakens not great, and basically a re-run of the first one (the fourth one – that numbering issue also pisses me off).

And so, like a penitent going to church to confess his sins, I went to watch The Last Jedi – once again expecting to be disappointed, but somehow, hoping against hope that this movie would hit the right bases to make me love it.

And, despite all my scepticism, it did it! This movie actually worked. The storyline is tight, the arcs within it layered, with plenty of different emotional truths. It even manages to look at the life behind the continual warfare between Rebels and Empire / First Order to those who profit from it. It was more mature than I expected, and the characters felt real – conflicted, smart.

I’m not going to go into detail and give spoilers – but I’m going to say, if this jaded, anti-Star Wars viewer would be happy to watch it again, then the show is doing something right. Great work. This movie is a recommend.

Even despite the muppet.

I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai – Matt Wingett Book Review.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban

I’ve just finished reading I Am Malala, The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By The Taliban, and I’m far more moved than I expected.

This is partially because of the excellent skill of the co-writer who has interviewed and put together this powerful account of a young girl’s life in the Swat Valley in Pakistan – but it’s more than that. It’s also a story of great personal suffering as the result of simply wanting to do something we take for granted in our lives – the chance to learn to read and write, and from there to learn more things.

There is something deeply authentic about the way Malala’s story unfolds. From her early life she faces the deep conservatism of the Pashtun tribal system which does not celebrate the birth of a girl and fetes the birth of a boy. As their first child, her parents are deeply proud of her and her father is aggrieved when his father won’t bring gifts to celebrate her birth. Since Malala’s grandfather didn’t acknowledge her birth, he prevents the grandfather from then celebrating the births of the boys who came after. Radical thinking for Swat Valley.

Thus Malala grows up supported by a father who is an educationalist, living at first in utter poverty as he borrows money to try to start a school – and several times being flooded out by unexpected deluges. But slowly his reputation grows, and the school he sets up becomes well attended. Scenes of village life and the beauty of the Swat Valley are lingered over in the book, with idyllic scenes of the girls playing among the ruins of the Stupas of the former Buddhist religion that fell into disrepair over a thousand years before.
This section is rich and powerful, and the structuring of her slow rise to becoming a renowned local speaker as a schoolgirl, all the while encouraged by her father who has a strong belief in girls’ education is brilliantly evoked.

Then come the Taliban, as part of the overspill of the war in Afghanistan. The political background to their rise in the Swat Valley is clearly explained. Malala describes how, in order to bolster previous governments, former dictator-presidents had made Pakistan a Muslim state – encouraging a hardline Muslim attitude to life in contrast to the everyday Islam that Malala and her classmates enjoyed at their enlightened school. Thus, the arrival of the Taliban is sanctioned at least tacitly by central government and the Pakistani secret service.

The Taliban’s rise to power has a chilling lesson for anyone concerned with freedom. A self-appointed Talib, or teacher, a man called Fazlullah starts a radio station, apparently deeply pious and benign in intent. In natural disasters, it is always the Taliban who arrive on scene first to help, while Fazlullah’s pronouncements on the radio are approved of by the populace, who see his observations about the length of a man’s beard or whether women should go out covered up or not as wholly in keeping with the Qur’an’s holy message.

But over time, as Fazlullah’s influence spreads, the message hardens until he has turned the population in such a way that it accepts the whipping of people in the streets, and shrugs at the murder of those they disapprove of. All videos and CDs are handed in and burned. No ideas other than Fazlullah’s ideas are allowed. And slowly some of the population begin to wake up to what has happened, despite many also approving of his hardline message.

In many ways my blood ran cold with this. Because although the techniques are different in the West, I see the same creeping doctrine of Far Right organisations in the West mirroring this rise. Brexiteers spread division through lies about Europe, while suggesting that Britain in some way has a special place in the world – a playing to the myths and the hankerings of the general populace, whilst hiding their Far Right agenda. The same happened with Trump in America – normalising extremism and demonising the enemy. It is extraordinary how the techniques of misinformation are echoed in this story.

That Malala reports all this in anonymous reports for the BBC makes her secret alter ego a natural target for the Taliban.

The upheaval and displacement that comes for Malala and her family is well reported – but eventually the secret of her identity comes out.

The final section of the book deals with the revenge of the Taliban. The personal suffering her shooting causes is brilliantly handled, and the reality and colour of the lives of the family are truly vibrant. I confess, I cried.

This is a great book.

It’s available here.

Justice League, short review. (contains spoilers)

I watched Justice League yesterday afternoon. Probably a mistake to go on a Sunday, day. Very badly behaved group behind me, which meant I relocated in the cinema three times. First to get away from noise, but then, after sitting at the front, being interrupted repeatedly by people leaving to go to the loo / get a drink. I never realised just how much traffic there was – it was incessant. So I moved again.
 
The film is a vast improvement on previous DC offers, Wonder Woman aside. It has learned that the dark mood that worked for Batman didn’t work for its other hero movies, and so it has lightened up, with a degree of piss-taking going on between the central characters.
 
They do have a problem with the Amazons. It was great to see them again, but they are seriously underpowered. In Wonder Woman, they are mowed down by invading Germans with guns – in JL they are fighting a creature that’s far more powerful, and they simply haven’t got the strength to put up a fight. The problem is that in the comics, the Amazons have an advanced technology that is cloaked in Bronze Age robes. In the new films, the Amazons have Bronze Age technology. Firing arrows at an invading superpowered villain looks stupid.
 
Wonder Woman was, once again, a star turn. I teared up as soon as she came on screen. She is for me a kind of singularity of heroism and grace. The implied love interest with Bruce Wayne was a surprise.
 
The League’s teamwork was also good, and well worked out in the fights, which, although there were extended fight scenes, weren’t too long, and this helped the story move on.
 
There is one other problem, and it’s been one I’ve thought for a long time. The problem with Superman is that he is too powerful. Basically, without Superman, the DC universe is interesting. With him, there doesn’t seem to be much point in having any other superheroes. This has been the case since Superman developed the ability to fly in the late 40s, early 50s. No more was he just a tough, strong man with tough skin, but a god. That’s a problem, and I don’t know how DC gets round it.
 
But all in all a fun film. Not as sublime as Wonder Woman, which is the best superhero movie for a long time, but good, nevertheless, and sees the DC Universe starting to find its feet.

Review: Black Earth, A Field Guide To The Slavic Otherworld

Andrew L Paciorek’s Black Earth, A Field Guide To The Slavic Otherworld is two wonderful things at once.

Firstly, it is an entry point into a mythology largely unknown in Western Europe. Secondly, it is beautiful.

On the first point, Paciorek’s one-page descriptions of specific gods, spirits and folk horror entities found in the Slavic pantheon are concise, intriguing and well researched.

Perun, the king of the gods, is a thunder deity we are told, who can transform into an eagle and hurl exploding apples. Veles, the serpentine god of the underworld is a deity of sickness and also, interestingly, of cattle. These two gods, Perun and Veles are in eternal warfare – thus symbolising the seasonal cycle…

The mythological stories are laid out without labouring the point, but with enough to reveal the logic behind the myths. In this way we begin our journey into the mysterious Slavic otherworld.

But wait a minute. What constitutes the Slavic world? Paciorek culturally and geographically orients us in the introduction, pointing to Russians, Ukrainians, Poles and those living in former Yugoslvia, among others. This means Paciorek’s Black Earth draws on the rich and strange folk world that produced, on the one hand, Baba Yaga with her house on chicken legs, and Stravinsky’s Firebird on the other.

Along the way we meet spirits of water, forest, mountain and field, sorcerers, witches and hags, shape-shifters and demons, and entirely new classes of vampire, of which there are surprisingly many. Through Dhampirs, Lampirs, Upior, Nelapsi, Nachzeherer and Eretiks (the last being undead heretics) one enters into a whole other world full of possibilities and potentials.

As a writer, these creatures and entities are invaluable. I am sure some of them will surface in my storytelling at some point in the future. For providing a valuable entry point into an alien mythology, Paciorek should be commended.

There is also another aspect to this book that gives real delight. The artwork in these pages is just wonderful. The line art style, bold and exquisitely executed, gives an earthy life to the text. They powerfully boost the overall effect. Pictures of gods grappling with dragons, and three-headed, five-headed and six-headed forest gods, spirits and superhumans fill the book with a sense of otherworldliness that fires the imagination.

In all, this book is a recommend for anyone interested in the strange and the beautiful, in mythology and in folk horror. Great stuff!

Black Earth is available from: http://www.blurb.com/user/andypaciorek, £10 for paperback, £20 for hardback with either printed cover or dustjacket.