‘Birds of Prey’ Is the Dawn of Justice For Joel Schumacher’s Batman
The following post contains minor SPOILERS for Birds of Prey, and also the 1995 motion picture Batman Forever.
It doesn’t take an advanced degree in film studies to recognize most of the cinematic influences on Birds of Prey. The newest DC Comics superhero team-up is pretty clearly in the style of Fox’s Deadpool movies; snarky, aggressive, violent, with plenty of foul-mouthed humor in winking bad taste. The clever fight sequences, which take advantage of props and set decorations in locations like a police evidence locker, recall the inventive action in Jackie Chan films. And there are a lot of visual and tonal parallels with Suicide Squad — as there should be, since the new film spins off one of its characters into a new adventure.
As I watched Birds of Prey, none of those elements shocked me. But I was a little bit surprised by one of the other influences that keeps creeping around the edges of Birds of Prey, mostly because these specific films has been treated like a punchline by comic-book fans — not to mention been all but verboten within the DC movie universe themselves — for decades. Out of nowhere, Birds of Prey takes all kinds of stuff from the Joel Schumacher Batman movies — and maybe for the first time, even makes them cool.
Schumacher replaced Tim Burton as the director of the ’90s Bat-franchise with 1995’s Batman Forever, and then returned to make Batman & Robin two years later. Schumacher took everything Burton brought to the series — Gothic production design, over-the-top villains, rubbery Bat-muscles — and amplified them even further. The sets transformed from a German expressionist dreamscape to a monstrous wonderland of towering statues. Jack Nicholson’s preening Joker begat Jim Carrey’s motor-mouthed Riddler. The Batsuit sprouted bigger nipples and codpieces. It was a surreal, hyper-colorful, and darkly funny time in Gotham City. Fans may not want to admit it because Schumacher’s movies remain wildly unpopular, but Birds of Prey bears all of those touchstones too.
Pretty much every DC movie that followed Schumacher pivoted away from outlandish comic-book landscapes and tried to set their stories in “real” places. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy might have taken place in fictional Gotham City, but Nolan shot much of his Batman movies in places like Chicago and Pittsburgh. That continued into the DC Extended Universe that began in the DC films of Zach Snyder, which were shot in places like Detroit. In the Marvel movies released at the same time, things have become even more concrete; these movies take place in New York City and apart from the occasional apperance of Avengers Tower, it pretty much looks exactly like the one in our world.
Birds of Prey’s Gotham City is different. Ewan McGregor’s villainous Black Mask hangs out in a gaudy nightclub with a stage flanked by giant fingers covering a pair of enormous eyes. Harley Quinn hangs out in an apartment covered with brightly colored quilts munching fruity cereal next to her pet hyena. And the film climaxes in an abandoned amusement park (and its funhouse, “The Booby Trap”) that could have come straight out of Batman & Robin. The adjacent “Founders Pier,” dotted with enormous statues of what I assume are Gotham residents past, would make Schumacher particularly happy.
The costumes in Birds of Prey aren’t quite as vulcanized or anatomically pronounced as the ones in Batman & Robin, but the big lapels and especially the bold, bright colors are a 180-degree turn from the design aesthetic first laid out by Nolan and then by Snyder’s early DCEU films. Snyder even went so far as to remove the bright red trunks from Superman’s iconic suit for Man of Steel. The initial promo photo of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman made her costume appear to be composed of different shades of bronze. When you put that still along side any image of Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn from Birds of Prey it’s hard to believe these two characters exist in the same fictional universe.
Robbie’s Harley did appear in Suicide Squad, but her fashion sense seems unleashed here in a way it never was in that movie, where she spent the entire story in a T-shirt and shorts. (Plus almost every scene was set at night and covered in a layer of grime.) In Birds of Prey, Harley wears an outrageous jacket fringed with crime-scene tape and later beats up baddies in shimmering gold overalls. I’m not sure this Harley Quinn would fit in Schumacher’s Bat-movies — but I fully believe she would be a big fan of them.
I personally wouldn’t claim Batman Forever or Batman & Robin are masterpieces, or even that Schumacher’s lurid vision of Gotham City was ahead of its time. But Schumacher’s Batmen are definitely better than their reputations. Batman & Robin is maybe as universally disliked as any blockbuster in my life time and yet ... I find myself compelled to rewatch it every two or three years? (At this point, I’ve watched it more times than any of Christopher Nolan’s superior trilogy.) There’s something about its gee-whiz energy, absurd humor, and epic production design I find very charming. Also, I like ice puns.
Obviously, Schumacher’s Batman is not for everyone. But I do think that the Batman movies made after them got so unrelentingly grim — first under Nolan and then under Snyder — that, to paraphrase This Is Spinal Tap, one does eventually ask how much more dark can this be? And the answer is none; none more dark. And the only way to react to that is to go in the opposite direction, which eventually leads you back towards Schumacher territory.
Birds of Prey didn’t have the greatest opening weekend in theaters; Batman Forever grossed more in its opening weekend 25 years ago. But it also has a higher Rotten Tomatoes score than both of Schumacher’s Batman movies combined. That feels like a key step towards acknowledging that for all their flaws, Batman Forever and Batman & Robin also have some very enjoyable elements. Let’s not forget that Schumacher’s primary villainess was Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy — who is comic-book Harley Quinn’s on-again-off-again girlfriend. Is a crossover in order in Birds of Prey 2?
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