DC Excels When it Puts People Above a Universe

Birds of Prey shows DC has gotten its priorities straight.

When I sat down to watch Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), one of my hopes was that, among all the crime-related antics of Harley Quinn, the formation of a new supergroup, and the blessing that was the absence of Jared Leto’s Joker, there would be a reference to Green Arrow, my favorite superhero who has, up to this point, not shown up in the DC Extended Universe.

Those versed in DC Comics and other media will know that Dinah Lance, the singer with a sonic-powered scream known as the Black Canary, is romantically involved with the emerald archer in most continuities. While Oliver Queen isn’t picking up his bow in the DCEU any time soon, just a quick mention of Dinah heading to Star City or referencing some sassy pain-in-the-ass archer she knows upon seeing Huntress use a crossbow would have been enough to satiate my desire for even a casual hint that Green Arrow is a living, breathing hero in these movies.

But it never came. And despite my initial disappointment of that fact, I also felt a sense of relief realizing I wouldn’t have to see months to years of theorycrafting around Green Arrow’s eventual debut on the big screen. Once I let those two thoughts pass through my head, I reflected on a movie that I enjoyed a great deal. Harley Quinn achieves that emancipation the title was talking about and establishes Margot Robbie’s version of the character as a strong dissection and subversion of her dependence on The Joker. Black Canary makes an explosive and memorable entrance into this universe. And DC has a Deadpool analogue now that can bring a meta-style levity to its historically broody and joyless movie universe. 

The movie was good. And I’m more happy that I can say that than I would have been if I could say it hinted at a world that was bigger than the one that was on the screen.

Birds of Prey isn’t entirely removed from the rest of the DC Extended Universe, as Robbie’s Harley is the same one seen in Suicide Squad, and she even references that time where she was forced to be a hero at least once in the movie’s runtime. But in general, DC seems to be doing the most it can within reason to divorce itself from its planned shared universe. It’s been just under two years since Justice League came out and, along with inciting an entire movement of fans rallying for a do-over, brought together DC’s most iconic heroes. Since then it’s felt like these movies have been doing their utmost to both ignore that it happened while also doing other reboots and re-castings that might make that coming together of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg completely inconsequential. 

In general, the DC Extended Universe has tripped and stumbled over itself to recreate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It didn’t fail because its source material wasn’t capable of establishing itself in that same way. On the contrary, DC’s TV universe has actually done a pretty respectable job of creating a shared world for all its heroes to play in and then crossover from time to time with the Arrowverse, comprised of its own versions of The Flash, Superman, and with hints of Wonder Woman and Batman scattered about. Where the DCEU failed was in a lack of patience. Rather than establishing characters, these movies have been more preoccupied with establishing a universe.

The second film of the bunch was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which attempted to introduce its versions of Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince as major players in this world, let them team up with Superman while also shoving in references to The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg in there for good measure. All of this taking place in a roughly two-and-a-half hour movie when all that anyone had seen of this continuity at this point was one Superman movie. Suicide Squad had the same problem, attempting to introduce some of the most prominent DC villains in one movie, including ones like Harley Quinn and the Joker who typically occupy a headlining role in Batman’s world.

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In between all this nonsense came Wonder Woman, which sits at the top of these movies in terms of Rotten Tomatoes ranking. It’s an origin story that should have been audiences’ first introduction to its main character. It establishes personal stakes for her in a way Batman v. Superman simply didn’t have the time or focus to do. Its very existence is why Wonder Woman is one of the few characters in Justice League to feel like a person rather than an idea. 

Aquaman got his own solo film almost a year after Justice League dragged him through the shallowest of his characterization and gave him a chance to swim in the depths of his character. Five months later Shazam! introduced Billy Batson, the pre-teen with the ability to turn into a superhero all by saying his name. Even with the references to Batman and Superman, Billy’s story isn’t a piecemeal of a grander story about the world’s greatest heroes. It’s just a story about him finding a family he never had, all with a superhero backdrop. 

Birds of Prey is for Harley Quinn what Aquaman and Wonder Woman were for their titular heroes. It’s a second chance for her to exist in a movie that cares more about her than the world she exists in. In the next three years, DC only has movies dedicated to characters it’s already introduced on the docket. Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam are all getting sequels, The Flash will finally have his own movie, and whatever route Batman is going will be out next year too. Black Adam is the one outlier among these, as its main character will be a new character, but one that will be tying into Shazam’s story in a meaningful way. 

Whatever it is DC has in store in the far off future, at the very least the company appears to have learned to stop making leaps it hasn’t set the foundation to reach. Birds of Prey is just the latest example of how if you make people care about the people, the investment in the world beyond them will come. It might not have been in a Green Arrow reference, but at the very least I want to see what Harley’s life looks like in The Suicide Squad next year.

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Kenneth Shepard

Kenneth is a Georgia-based writer who still periodically cries about the Mass Effect trilogy years after it concluded.

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