You’re probably aware of the Bechdel test: a shorthand measurement to gauge how much agency the main female characters in a movie or TV show have by determining if they spend their time talking about anything other than a man. The idea behind the Bechdel test was to point out that, so often, women in fiction are only there to serve the male character’s story — i.e., they don’t have any concerns beyond his concerns. The women might as well just be plot points, not actual human beings.
While watching Birds of Prey, which does pass the Bechdel test, I wondered if there should be something similar for superhero films. But rather than measuring how much the female characters talk about a man, my new metric — which I’m calling the Extended Cinematic Universe Test™ — determines how much interest I have in any new comic-book movie based on its close proximity to that franchise’s most popular characters. Birds of Prey chronicles the continuing misadventures of Harley Quinn, who audiences first met in Suicide Squad, a movie that would have scored relatively poorly on the ECUT. The new film lets Harley be more in the spotlight, but then asks viewers to follow a whole other group of superheroes that most people haven’t heard of. Studios obviously want to extend their cinematic universes as far as they can go, bringing in more and more characters so that we’re invested in more and more intellectual property. But there’s got to be a breaking point eventually. Seriously, who are these people and why should I care?
When it comes to comic books, I couldn’t be more basic. I never read them as a kid, but I’m familiar with the most beloved: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Hulk, Spider-Man. Basically, if they were on a TV show or a movie from my youth, I’ve heard of them. (This is where being a hip-hop fan also helps: I knew a lot about Iron Man simply because Ghostface Killah rapped about him so much.) I’m neither a super-nerd nor a neophyte. In other words, I consider myself the average moviegoer — somebody who likes comic-book movies but not someone so obsessed that he can tell you every little bit of superhero minutiae. (More often than not, the little bumper at the end of a comic-book film, where they tease out a new character, is lost on me.)
Birds of Prey’s subtitle is (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which hints at the movie’s cheeky self-empowerment theme. When we last saw Harley (Margot Robbie), she was involved in an unhealthy relationship with the Joker (Jared Leto). Well, they’ve since split up, and so Harley has to pick up the pieces and become her own (evil) woman. As part of her bid for independence, though, she’ll have to defeat a city’s worth of law enforcement that’s after her — plus, she must find Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a street urchin who stole a rare diamond that vicious crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) wants back.
Before Suicide Squad, I wasn’t familiar with Harley, but Robbie’s spirited-psycho performance was so enjoyable that she quickly became my favorite character in that otherwise dreadful movie. Harley had the same sort of irreverent watch-the-world-burn attitude as the Joker, but she was sweeter about the whole thing — which made her only stranger and more sinister. (The whole thing felt like a sly riff on men’s dim opinions of women’s unpredictable mood swings: Super-villains be shopping and blowing up buildings!) Suicide Squad included brief references to Batman —as well as a Joker subplot — so that we didn’t feel too far removed from DC’s core properties, but Harley Quinn was something exciting and new.
For Warner Bros., which puts out all the DC films, Suicide Squad’s commercial success and Robbie’s growing stardom made a Harley standalone movie a no-brainer. I would have liked to see that film, but unfortunately Birds of Prey is maybe only about 60 percent a Harley Quinn movie. The other 40 percent involves getting viewers interested in the Birds of Prey, a cadre of female crime-fighters who come from different walks of life but who will join forces by the end of the film. One of them uses a crossbow. One of them has the ability to stop bad guys with her singing voice. One of them is Rosie Perez. I struggled mightily to care about any of them: Why are these other people in my Harley Quinn movie? I want more Harley Quinn.
The reason why they’re in Birds of Prey, obviously, is that Warner Bros. wants to extend its cinematic universe, presenting us with more characters who can then be in their own movies. The studio learned that strategy by watching Marvel, which brilliantly cross-pollinated its characters, giving us standalone films alongside supersized Avengers episodes, making us feel like we had to watch each chapter so that we could keep up with the overarching narrative. (Be honest: Would you have bothered with a Doctor Strange or Ant-Man movie otherwise?) The Marvel brain trust was really smart, never making us feel like any peripheral character was too minor — after all, they were all buddies with Iron Man and Thor, so they had to be relevant, right?
And so now, DC is trying to do the same thing. Everybody’s excited for Wonder Woman 1984, but to get us psyched for Shazam!, the filmmakers needed to assure us that the kid superhero resided in the same universe as Batman and Superman. A movie like Shazam! gets low marks on the ECUT because it has to spend part of its time convincing you that its existence matters — that it somehow connects to superhero characters that you actually like. When this happens, I can’t help but feel fidgety. I know I can’t get a new Batman movie every year, but why waste my time stringing me along with these lesser heroes?
Of course, there’s a compelling argument to be made that extended cinematic universes allow for a more diverse franchise. In Birds of Prey, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Perez and Basco don’t just play rare female characters in a superhero adventure — they represent ethnicities we almost never get in comic-book films. Likewise, Marvel’s forthcoming Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier provides an Avengers secondary character, Anthony Mackie’s Sam Wilson, his own starring vehicle. The most popular superheroes all tend to be white men, with the exception of Wonder Woman, so if we’re ever going to expand our horizons, we need to make room for the characters that aren’t so culturally ubiquitous. Look no further than Black Panther: Marvel had to make Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man and Doctor Strange films before taking a chance on what, by the company’s standards, was a lesser-known superhero character. But as with DC’s Wonder Woman, Black Panther was a box-office colossus proving that audiences were hungry for dynamic characters who didn’t all look like Tony Stark.
So I confess I felt a little torn while watching Birds of Prey, a movie I wish I liked better. I imagine that, for a lot of viewers, simply the sight of a group of ass-kicking multicultural women will be liberating and inspiring. We’ve come a long way from the days of Superman and Batman being our sole crime-fighters. But at least as of now, the new faces we get in Birds of Prey don’t feel as mythic or memorable as DC’s other characters — including Harley Quinn, whom I’d happily see in 10 more movies.
We all want more diversity in Hollywood — the trick will be investing those superheroes with the same amount of care, wit and ingenuity that has made those old white dudes with capes iconic.