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SYFY WIRE Birds of Prey

How Birds of Prey reshapes the revenge plot

By Emma Fraser
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey takes on several different familiar narratives within the larger comic book origin story: the burned-out cop, a recently single woman attempting to get over a toxic relationship, stealing from the wrong person, a singer trying to find her place in the world, and a tale of revenge. Each element is only one facet of each character; they are not wholly defined by one particular event or trait. These women all have inner lives extending beyond the work that doesn't always stay within the lines of the law.

In the movie directed by Cathy Yan from Christina Hodson's script, this is no more evident than in the portrayal of Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). A complex emotional journey follows, subverting some well-worn tropes.

Spoilers for Birds of Prey ahead.

Birds of Prey the Huntress

Helena Bertinelli is an expert killer, dispatching multiple threats without so much as getting a scratch on her. She exudes an image of cool from her predominantly black attire — which includes leather pants and a hooded jacket — and her choice of a motorcycle to aid in quick escapes. It isn't until she opens her mouth that it becomes clear her image and killer instincts are masking insecurity and pain. Huntress is the name she has given herself, and like most self-appointed nicknames, she can't get anyone on board with using it. It doesn't help that she can't deliver it in a tone matching her fierce skills and edgy aesthetic. "Crossbow Killer" is suggested as a more foreboding moniker, but she has set her heart on "Huntress" in a bid to frighten the men she has come to kill. Even if her delivery is lacking ferocity, the bodies she leaves behind speaks louder than any words.

Revenge is her motivation after watching her entire family get gunned down when she was a kid. After playing dead, Helena was secretly whisked off to Sicily. Her childhood ended at this moment and she became dedicated to becoming a deadly assassin. Her life is tainted by the violence of this experience, as depicted in very bloody drawings that spelled out her rage and desire to kill the perpetrators. Vengeance fuels her education, so while Helena is proficient in murder, she is lacking in other social attributes that are learned during this vital developmental stage.

Birds of Prey

A cool and collected personality typically goes hand-in-hand with trained killer abilities. Those seeking vengeance are often portrayed as aloof, armed with their list of targets while being experts at one-liners. Helena doesn't possess the latter, which makes her character more endearing while delivering a fun twist on the assassin archetype. Her isolated childhood and adolescence are emphasized by her socially awkward behavior, which allows Winstead to deliver a performance that is both humorous and vulnerable in equal measure. Sure, she is incredibly tough, but she also doesn’t know how to respond to group dynamics. Nevertheless, instead of fleeing as soon as she has crossed off the last name on her list, she stays to help her new friends as they take on Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his hired goons during the huge final fight sequence.

The toy car tether to her murdered brother is a cherished totem, which she lends to Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) without a second thought. It's an empathetic gesture that represents Helena's vulnerability and strength in equal measure. You can be a badass assassin, have a hole in your heart left by the family that was murdered, and the capacity to want to build new relationships. There is no need to become a killer focused on one single task. By giving Helena a socially awkward demeanor coupled with anger issues and compassion, Hodson's script has crafted an entirely new kind of lone assassin.

She is encouraged by her new friends, but she also doesn't know how to respond to quips about her bow and arrow or the rage that bubbles to the surface — which she claims she doesn't have. But you can't expect her to immediately go from an isolated existence to sleepover-ready. She needs to learn social cues and the norms of gentle ribbing.

Birds of Prey

Balancing a deadly aim with this nuanced portrayal of PTSD is a Birds of Prey strength, which ensures that Winstead steals every scene she's in. It is impossible to take your eyes off her as she adjusts to a life she no longer has to live in solitude. She has spent so long training to kill the men that massacred her family, but when she does what Arya Stark could not — she completes her hit list — the reward of a found family is far more satisfying. And instead of a forced feeling of manufactured girl squad girl power, the team splits into two halves.

Forming a vigilante team, Helena, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) become the Birds of Prey, whereas the naturally more criminal-leaning Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Cassandra take off. Each has found a new purpose after their experience against Roman. Helena's thirst for vengeance has been replaced by a desire for justice, so those years of training were far from a waste. Dinah can spread her wings as Black Canary, no longer at the mercy of a petulant man, and Montoya might not be wearing a detective badge but that doesn't mean she won't be protecting the streets of Gotham. At least now she won't have to put up with terrible corrupt men taking all the credit without doing any of the work.

By flipping the script on the vengeful character devoid of any emotion beyond rage, Birds of Prey takes a familiar narrative and delivers a compassionate theme: transforming childhood trauma into finding a new purpose. And despite her lack of social skills, when Harley tells Helena she's cool, she means it. This level of validation from another woman is not something Helena is used to, but she is going to have to become accustomed to this new rewarding dynamic, now that she is part of a team. Sure, she avenged those deaths, but Helena got something far better out of this scheme — a new family to fight for.