How ‘The Suicide Squad’ and ‘Birds of Prey’ Are Shaking Up the DCEU

The state of the DC Extended Universe in 2019 was, to put it delicately, messy. The reception to their newer films was better than Batman v. Superman but the DCEU still wasn’t viewed very favorably overall. The grimdark tone of the DC films of the early 2010s, like Man of Steel, was not jiving with audiences as it had with The Dark Knight trilogy but the attempt to course-correct with the quirkiness of Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder’s Frankenstein-ed Justice League left an even worse taste in people’s mouths. It seemed the end was nigh for this attempt at a DC cinematic universe. That was until Cathy Yan and James Gunn.

When Birds of Prey hit theaters in February 2020, it didn’t make much of a splash and by March there were bigger worries on everyone’s mind than if the newest DC feature was good or bad. But this film played the crucial role of reconstructing the character that’s become one of the pillars holding up the DCEU: Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). 2016’s Suicide Squad was a veritable mess in nearly every aspect and Birds of Prey aimed to fix the wrongs it did to Harley’s character in particular. In reconstructing her character they were able to find the particular brand of zaniness that would become the lifeblood of this new DCEU.


Rather than the lackluster characterization she’d received in her film debut, Birds of Prey‘s Harley was quick-witted, quick-tempered, and already (somewhat) self-actualized from the very beginning. She’s boisterous and fights in a way that she finds fun, taking pleasure in the destruction but still showing a clear sense of conscience (even if her morals don’t quite match up to par for a normal person). She’s striking out to find her identity outside of Joker and the film’s full title expresses that: Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. DC is doing much the same thing. It’s finding its identity outside the shadow of The Dark Knight trilogy and allowing itself to test out new ideas.

Image via Warner Bros.

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Birds of Prey takes a very different approach from its very first scene. With an animated intro sequence that’s both tonally distinct from what we expect from a typical DC film and quickly catches us up to speed on the background for this character. It forgoes the drawn-out origin story section that’s become a staple of the genre. Many of the previous DC films like Man of Steel spent a decent chunk of the first act introducing us to the character before they’d become the powerful superhero/villain we know and love. Instead, Birds of Prey dumps us right into the middle of Harley’s breakdown, and we simply learn more as we go. This signals something that’s important to the shake-up Yan and Gunn achieved and that is accelerating the pacing. This new brand of DC doesn’t waste any time getting into the action with Harley blowing up a factory before the ten-minute mark. The pacing is electric in Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad follows suit.

What Birds of Prey laid the groundwork for, The Suicide Squad started actively constructing upon. The Suicide Squad shows just how apt that name is within its opening minutes, killing off the whole first wave of Task Force X in stark contrast to its 2016 counterpart that took until the second act to kill anyone on the squad. We know right from the start that this controlled insanity is not like what came before. Jumping right into the action creates a sense of pressure on the story, making everything feel much more urgent right off the bat. It feels brash and revelatory in a way even more exaggerated than Birds of Prey. The instances of violence are innumerous and high energy, creating a tone of reverent chaos.


Compare the opening beach scene of The Suicide Squad with Superman’s terrorist raid at the start of Batman v. Superman. The framing of the violence feels entirely different between these two films. Superman plows through gun-toting villains in quick succession. The cadence of the fight is quick and strategic but the weight of the actions themselves fall flat through the lack of context. We care little for the villains, and we don’t fear for Superman since he so obviously outclasses those he is fighting. But in The Suicide Squad, the mortal peril is tangible. From Weasel drowning almost immediately to Javelin getting killed right before Harley’s eyes there’s a sense of danger to this fight. No matter how exuberant the characters may be, the context for the violence is one that creates a lot more tension and it helps to elevate the violence in the film as a whole.

RELATED: James Gunn Reveals Alternate Ending for ‘The Suicide Squad’ That Was “Too Dark”

The characters of these newer DC films are in constant danger, and it makes them feel real despite the characters themselves being wackier than the down-to-earth farm boy Kal-El. The violence feels like it serves a stronger narrative purpose in Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad. And that is most noticeable in how the constant violence makes the audience more attached to the characters overall. By showcasing early on how disposable these people are, we grow more attached. While we know Superman will undoubtedly make it to the film’s climax, we know from minute one of The Suicide Squad that no one is safe.

Another shake-up brought by these newer films is in their approach to humor. Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad are both comedies at their core almost as much as they are action films. This emphasis on humor, aside from being engaging to the audience, works hand in hand with the violence to create a sense of groundedness. The violence is used for comedy and the comedy for violence which creates a sense of cohesion throughout the films. But it also functions to make these characters feel real. They’re vulnerable, but they’re also human, and they joke around and make mistakes just like anyone else. Harley watching her beloved sandwich fall into the street is a comedic highlight of the film, but it also serves to humanize her character and create a sense of closeness for the audience.

Image via Warner Bros.

While the characters may be wackier than ever, these films have their characters at their heart perhaps more than any other DC film before. The fisticuffs final confrontation is basically a staple of the superhero genre at this point. The emphasis in a superhero fight is usually on who is the strongest. With whoever comes out on top thematically asserting that they and their motivations are just. This is not the case for Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad.

Harley spends most of the third act of Birds of Prey fighting goons and chasing down Black Mask, but the ultimate climax is not between the two of them but rather between her and Cassandra. The film pivots away from making the fight the emotional core of the film and instead focuses on what’s been at the heart of the film this whole time: Harley’s human relationships. It matters less if she defeats Black Mask than it does that she apologizes to Cassandra.

Similarly, it’s not the actual defeat of the giant alien starfish Starro in The Suicide Squad that serves as the emotional climax but rather the moments leading up to its defeat. Ratcatcher 2 summoning all the city’s rats serves as the culmination for both her character arc and the central theme for the entire film. Everyone has a purpose, it just may not be apparent to everyone. These climaxes focus more on the development of character than the defeat of the villain. The final battles have shifted away from that of clashing ideologies à la Batman v. Superman and instead reflect internal growth and external acceptance.

Image via Warner Bros.

The mood Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad set for the DC cinematic universe is one unique from any superhero universe that’s come before. They lean into the weird and pulpy things that make comics fun while being unafraid of the gritty violence that underlies the superhero genre as a whole. It builds on beloved characters and pulls out obscure anti-heroes, gives them a new coat of paint, and sends them off to blow up a secret US research base. They’ve managed to create something simultaneously steeped in comic book-brand camp and grounded in real human emotion.

Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad were able to hold onto the reins of the grimdark tones that have dominated DC for so long and tempered them with eccentricity to create something engaging and exciting in the oversaturated superhero landscape.

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