"It's a standalone movie. It's not connected to Suicide Squad. It's not a sequel. It's not a continuation of that story."
The wide world of DC superhero movies under Warner Bros. has never been more confusing than it is right now, with various incarnations of Batman and the Joker existing near-simultaneously, James Gunn's not-Suicide-Squad-2 being called a "total reboot" despite sharing several of the same actors with the original, and fun side adventures like Aquaman and Shazam just trying their best to get by. But the producers of Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) want to make one thing crystal clear: Birds of Prey is not related to Suicide Squad in any way, despite both movies featuring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.
This doesn't exactly come as news, but on a recent trip to Birds of Prey's set on a backlot in Los Angeles, those involved with the movie's creation drove the point home.
"It's a standalone movie. It's not connected to Suicide Squad. It's not a sequel. It's not a continuation of that story," said Birds of Prey producer Sue Kroll.
In Suicide Squad, Joker broke Harley out of prison, but in Birds of Prey, the two are broken up--as we glimpsed in its first trailer recently. And the movie won't explain what happened in between those two events. "It has nothing to do with the breaking out of prison," Kroll described. "We've been very upfront: This is about her emancipation. She and Joker have broken up and this is her personal journey of discovery with these women. It's not related at all, so don't try to apply, like, linear logic to how the two go [together], because they don't."
That idea seems simple in concept, but reality is far more complicated, and it's difficult to wrap one's head around the idea of multiple movies that feature the same actors in the same roles but supposedly aren't related to one another whatsoever. That's worked historically for action franchises like the Bond movies, but even then, it was a high-wire balancing act. And besides, even Bond has continuity between films in the modern, Daniel Craig era.
But the lack of narrative connective tissue isn't the only thing setting Birds of Prey apart from Suicide Squad. Throughout the set visit, we spoke with those involved with Birds of Prey's creation and saw firsthand how it will stand out from the DC movies that have come before it.
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Margot Robbie, who stars once again as Harley Quinn and has a producer credit on the film, pitched the idea for Birds of Prey as something different from your standard superhero fare. "I think that there are so many films coming out now that the bar has been lifted," she said. "There's just too much competition. You can't really get by with just a big explosion--that's not going to satisfy people. Audiences are very smart and audiences do have high expectations. So it's not enough just to say, 'Here's a really cool CG effect.'
"Plus, I don't want to spend years of my life working on something if that's all we're aiming to do, you know?"
Crucially, we got the impression that Birds of Prey's story won't involve bombastic, world-ending stakes like most superhero movies--and even supervillain movies like Suicide Squad--tend to have. The plot involves Harley teaming up with Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) to save Cassie Cain (Ella Jay Basco) from crime boss Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). As far as we're aware, there are no schemes to blow up Gotham City, world-destroying aliens, or other large-scale threats--and that might prove refreshing.
"It's more contained, for sure," Robbie said. "That was one of the few criteria that I started off with--when I first pitched it, I was like, 'I'm just so desensitized to seeing a world, a city, being flattened, it doesn't register.' I've seen it so many times on screen by this point. And VFX is so advanced at this point, it can't even shock me with the realism of it anymore. I was like, 'I just don't want to see stakes that big, because I'm kind of numb to it.'"
"My initial pitch was it should be no bigger than mafia level or gang level," she continued. "It should all exist in a very small geographical vicinity, and the stakes should feel very personal, and feel life or death, but not the life or death of thousands of people, just the people that we spend time with onscreen."
Director Cathy Yan, whose only previous feature directing credit is the 2018 Sundance darling Dead Pigs, seems like she could be the right person for this job, explaining during our set visit that she hopes to bring her "indie sensibility of just being a little more grounded" to the DC movie universe.
"I think I focus on the characters, and trying to make it about the characters and their development, making sure everyone has an arc, that they're compelling and interesting and dynamic and complicated. That's more important to me than just blowing the whole world up," the director said. "And aesthetically, too, I'm really excited by what we are able to do. The sets that we've built, the costumes, working with [production designer] K.K. Barrett and [director of photography] Matthew Libatique and [costume designer] Erin Benach. They're incredible and inspiring. [We're] really trying to push the envelope on that and create a new, aesthetic world that we haven't really seen before for Gotham."
Yan also said her lack of experience with big CG visual effects "might come in handy with a film like this as well." They're shooting Birds of Prey "more of the old school way, everything in-camera," which could potentially help it stand out.
Robbie said Yan was the perfect director to pull all this off. "Truthfully, she just came in and blew our minds with her pitch for the film and her understanding of what she was going to bring to it, kind of automatically built off of all the ideas that we were excited about," the actress said. "She came in and spoke about them in a way that was going to elevate them to a whole new level. That's kind of like your dream scenario. You care about a project so much that you want someone to come in and understand it, and also feel as passionate about it as you do, and she did. She came in and we're all like, 'Oh my God, we found the person for this. Thank God.'"
If there's another common criticism that's often leveled against superhero movies, it's that many of them feature one-dimensional villains that serve mainly as punching bags for the heroes. According to those we spoke with, Birds of Prey avoids that problem with its bad guys, McGregor's Roman Sionis (alias Black Mask) and Chris Messina's Victor Zsasz.
"They were incredibly well-drawn characters from [screenwriter Christina Hodson]," said producer Bryan Unkeless. "She really pushed to make them singular. It's so easy to kind of fall into the familiar villainous tropes, and she just refused, over and over and over again, to settle for that, which you have to respect a lot."
Unkeless and Kroll praised McGregor's portrayal of Black Mask, saying they've been surprised by his performance.
"In a way, we didn't go for the traditional heavy," Unkeless continued. "You look at Ewan's career in particular, and how much variety of performances he's given, how much depth he has, and he brings that humanity to your villain."
Kroll said the villains do "loathsome things, but in the most interesting way...and they have great chemistry together. You never know what's going to happen. Watching the two of them together is so much fun."
Of course, there are plenty of fans who enjoyed Suicide Squad just fine, and none of this is meant to cast shade on that film. Personal opinions aside, it's simply clear that with Birds of Prey, the filmmakers are going for something very different.
"All you can do is really find the truth in the story that you are telling, and tell it to the best of your ability, I suppose," Robbie said. "I feel like if you keep trying to cater to the audience too much, ultimately you disappoint them. It's tricky with something like this, where you know there is already a fanbase and there's already people you want to please so badly. It's hard to not try and play for the laughs, or play for the spectacle, but really find the truth in the situation."
Kroll said Robbie's Harley Quinn is the character who "popped out" in the original Suicide Squad cast, and that's what Birds of Prey is all about. "All the amazing things that people embrace about Harley are in our movie, and then some," the producer said. "We have this unique opportunity, right? We have this two-hours-or-whatever-it-will-end-up-being opportunity to [explore] and add dimension and context around what is, I think, arguably one of the world's favorite characters out of the DC universe."
Birds of Prey hits theaters February 7, 2020.