Until Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel broke barriers by placing women both behind and in front of the camera, the modern superhero genre hadn't exactly been female-friendly. But 2020 is set to be the year where women take over.
We have Black Widow in May, directed by Cate Shortland. We have Wonder Woman 1984 in June, directed by a returning Patty Jenkins. Eternals in November is headed up by Chloé Zhao. These are important, blockbuster movies starring and directed by women.
But before all that, Birds of Prey, directed by Cathy Yan, opens on Feb. 7.
This sequel to 2016's Suicide Squad allows Margot Robbie to reinhabit the often broken but always entertaining mind of Harley Quinn. In Birds of Prey, the irreverent and rakish Queen has just broken up with the Joker and is trying to define herself as an emancipated woman. Robbie, who also has a producer credit, shares the screen with Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Jurnee Smollet-Bell as Black Canary, Rosie Perez as veteran Gotham City Police detective Renee Montoya and newcomer Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain.
That's a huge female roster, but you won't miss any of the action/superhero tropes we're used to seeing in big tentpoles.
"It's a real fallacy that action movies are for boys and men. I grew up loving action movies, as did Margot [Robbie]," Birds of Prey's screenwriter Christina Hodson tells me over the phone from London. She and Robbie developed the movie together after bonding over pizza and mimosas during their first business meeting.
"We really saw eye to eye, and the fun we had on that first meeting kind of played into the development of the movie," Hodson recalls.
The future new normal
"The more we change the statistics behind the scenes, the more shift of what will be on the screen so that we don't always see things through the male lens," Hodson explains. "By having more female writers, you'll see more female characters in action movies. ... We're all looking forward to the day when it's not a topic of conversation because it's completely normal."
Perez couldn't agree more. She's been working in films made by women for more than 30 years: "What's different now, it's just that the spotlight is on them."
Like Hodson, Perez still thinks it's important to point out this is a movie with female leads in front of and behind the cameras. "There's a necessity to continue to talk about it until it becomes the norm, which it has not."
Birds of Prey isn't just about female representation, it's also about empowerment. As with any superhero movie, there are heists to pull off and villains to fight. For her role as Renee Montoya, Perez endured arduous training that allowed her to do most of her own stunts. That process inspired her to keep hitting the boxing gym after shooting ended, and she hopes her character inspires women of a certain age to get back in shape.
"If I've taken anything away from this movie, it was the emancipation of knowing that I have the ability to do it, the ability to kick ass," Perez says.
Bonding on set
Hard work aside, the set of Birds of Prey sounds like the kind of place where the cast and crew were encouraged to bond. Or at least they were encouraged to drink. A lot. Hodson talks about their theme Fridays -- Hawaiian shirts was her favorite -- and the "pretty dangerously strong cocktails" that Perez made. There are also stories about the piña coladas Robbie herself would prepare.
Both Hodson and Perez agree about emphasizing Robbie's leadership abilities. "She's a fantastic powerhouse young woman without ego, and that's very rare," Perez says.
As for Hodson, after hitting it off with Robbie during that first work meeting and developing Birds of Prey, the pair launched a female-driven action movie initiative, the Lucky Exports Pitch Program. They hope to train a new crop of female filmmakers so more women can write big action movies.
"I'm looking forward to the day when Patty Jenkins is directing a male superhero," says Hodson.
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Originally published Feb. 7, 12 a.m. PT.