Margot Robbie, Harley Quinn

Cathy Yan, the new director of the Harley Quinn movie, is exactly what the DCEU needs

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Feb 26, 2020, 3:48 PM EST (Updated)

This week, it was reported that Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment had chosen the director Cathy Yan to helm "an untitled girl gang movie" centered on the iconic Harley Quinn. While previous projects had been announced by the studio that would feature Margot Robbie's take on Quinn — including another film featuring The Joker and a now on-hold Gotham City Sirens movie — this project is said to be based on Birds of Prey. That means we'll possibly see Quinn team up with the great female crimefighters of Gotham City, from Barbara Gordon to Black Canary and Huntress. A Batgirl movie is also in the works, and the screenwriter of that film, Christina Hodson, has written the script for this new project.

Robbie, who landed an Oscar nomination this year for playing Tonya Harding, is said to have insisted on a female filmmaker for the project. Still, the choice of Yan is a hugely unexpected one. She's directed one film before — Sundance favorite Dead Pigs — and previously worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. According to Deadline, her pitch for the movie was "exceptional," but in a business where white dudes reign supreme and women of color struggle to gain a foothold, Yan's hiring represents far more than merely bucking expectations.

Harley Quinn comic

Credit: DC

It’s not unusual for indie directors to get the massive leg up from low-budget festival fare to mega-franchises. Nowadays, it seems to be the norm for the blockbuster business model. That is, if you’re a white dude. Women and people of color have a steeper hill to climb. Cathy Yan will be the first Asian woman to direct a superhero film. According to a 2017 study, the number of Asian directors working in Hollywood has seen virtually "no change" over the past decade. Of the over 1000 films surveyed, only 34 had an Asian director, and only three of them were by Asian women.

The basic reasoning behind this kind of directorial hiring is that it allows studios and producers to retain control over the product. Smaller directors with less clout will do as they’re told and be prevented from trying to auteur up the place. That’s begun to shift over the past couple of years, from Taika Waititi’s neon-infused comedy approach on Thor: Ragnarok to Ryan Coogler’s daring afrofuturism in Black Panther. As these films become guaranteed money makers, there’s more wriggle room for directors to experiment and tell a story that feels honest to them, or at least do so within a specific parameter. Patty Jenkins pulled it off with Wonder Woman, and there’s a reason that film is the most acclaimed offering the DCEU’s given us so far.

The DCEU has had some tough times. After rushing forward with their narrative plans to try and keep up with Marvel, they ended up alienating many fans and leaving critics exhausted with the results. Directors have come and gone, the chaos surrounding Justice League continues as fans clamor for the “true cut” of the movie, and box-office receipts are not what they were supposed to be. It’s clear that the franchise needs to make some drastic changes, and bringing in fresh voices may be the key to solving some of their most glaring problems.

The DCEU needs new voices and a willingness to diverge from their original plans for the franchise. The grim-dark pseudo-realism of the past several films, most notably Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, just isn’t paying off. It’s too bleak, too nihilistic, and visually unappealing. Attempts to rectify that problem with Justice League mostly left audiences bored. They can’t stick to the Zack Snyder aesthetic and tonal model anymore.

Yan's debut film, Dead Pigs, about a mysterious stream of porcine carcasses that begin to flow down the river toward Shanghai, won the World Cinema Dramatic Award for Ensemble Acting at Sundance in January. Variety described it as a "delightful, spike, comic debut." Critics frequently talked of her as an exciting new voice for the future. The vast majority of us won’t have seen Dead Pigs because of its limited availability, but that could work in their favor. We could have the opportunity to go into this new DC film with fresh eyes and no extra baggage—the kind of baggage that’s been dragging the DCEU down for a while.

The film industry is not doing enough to support women directors, and it’s doing even less to elevate the voices of women of color. They tend to make waves with tiny films at festivals that cost less than six figures to make and will only be seen by a handful of people. Getting to their sophomore effort is the true challenge, and producers and studios still see women as risks there, whereas men get to be scrappy underdogs or geniuses in waiting who simply need a helping hand. Superhero films are the major foundations of modern cinema. Who tells those stories and what stories are told matter. Representation behind the camera is as important as who is in front of it. Cathy Yan’s hiring means an immeasurable amount on that level, but from a strictly creative point of view, it’s also one that should be commended.

DC tried to create the illusion of daring cinema while playing it painfully safe, and nobody wins. That seems to be changing with their upcoming slate. Shazam! could bring some much-needed humor to the franchise, Todd Phillips’ take on The Joker has potential to combine superhero lore with Scorsese-inflected drama, and James Wan’s Aquaman, whatever happens, will look and feel like nothing else in modern blockbuster filmmaking. A vibrant, women-helmed film of Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey is just what the doctor ordered.

It remains to be seen which version of the Birds of Prey we’ll get. Will we get Oracle, and if so, what does that mean for the planned Batgirl movie? Which run on the comics will feature most prominently? Will this be a version where Harley is with the team or its main villain? For now, we can take solace in the knowledge that Warner Bros. and DC have offered us a delightful surprise with this news, and we can’t wait to see what Cathy Yan does.

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