Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie) is no stranger to heartbreak. Her recent (and hopefully final) split from The Joker may be her most destructive break-up to date, but as Birds Of Prey’s introductory animation sequence is quick to inform the audience, the former psychiatrist’s origin story is rife with former lovers, including at least one unidentified woman. During the film’s first act, Harley also introduces Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a passionate detective with a penchant for endearingly corny dialogue and a desperate desire to clean up the streets of Gotham. Renee has to contend with a number of obstacles during her quest to capture the city’s latest threat, including her ex-girlfriend and assistant district attorney Ellen Yee (Ali Wong). The film never expounds on Harley’s attraction to women, nor do she or Renee expressly state their sexualities. And yet, these casual acknowledgments still feel like victories in what has to be the queerest comic book movie to date.
On the other side of the coin are covetous outlaw Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his gung-ho, platinum-haired goon, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). Victor has a calming effect on the short-tempered Sionis, easing his tantrums with a gentle touch and soothing affirmations. When he’s not focused on Roman’s well-being, Victor is seemingly preoccupied with (and clearly jealous of) his boss’s infatuation with songbird-turned-reluctant personal driver Dinah Lance, a.k.a. Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Though Harley calls Victor Roman’s “BFF,” their relationship is one of mutually intense devotion that blurs the lines between platonic and something more intimately codependent. Their connection visibly exceeds your typically brusque villain-henchman dynamic, but it’s never explicitly labeled as romantic. That’s fine: There should be more examples of platonic intimacy in art, even within your more chaotic bonds. But when the actors themselves play into the ambiguity of their dynamic the way McGregor and Messina have while promoting the film—specifically, when it was implied, albeit jocularly, that they’re “more than likely” gay—it speaks to the more familiar trend of queer coding that we tend to see in films like this, especially when it comes to villains.
The coded comic book character has an extensive, layered history. From 1954 to 1989, the Comics Code Authority forbade mentions of homosexuality in comics. This didn’t preclude the existence of gay characters; creators of mainstream comics were rather forced to cloak LGBTQ+ identities beneath heavy subtext, while independent creators released one-off stories or underground comix. This dovetailed with the film industry’s Motion Pictures Production Code, or Hays Code, which mandated that films depict “correct standards of life” (meaning, no gay characters unless, of course, they were bad guys who shirked society’s narrow definitions of normalcy) before it was dismantled in the 1960s.
While entertainment industries may have moved past overt censorship, that era influenced what filmmakers deemed acceptable, and superhero and fantasy movies were particularly affected, resulting in both coded villains and heroes. Disney has a long history of this, with Scar, Hades, Maleficent, and of course Ursula—whose design is based on drag queen Divine—often cited as examples. (All sidestep conventional expressions of gender while being labeled “effeminate” or “overbearing.”) On its own, Ramon and Victor’s behavior and vaguely defined relationship would certainly align with this phenomenon. While their relationship is unfortunately not made explicit, it does emphasize just why Birds Of Prey’s formal acknowledgment of Harley’s and Renee’s same-sex attraction remains a big step for LGBTQ+ representation in major superhero cinema.
Harley’s bisexuality has only been part of her storyline for a few years, but it has had an immense effect on fans from its onset. DC Comics writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner first confirmed Harley Quinn’s bisexuality during a Twitter exchange in 2015, when they shared that she and Gotham City’s overzealous environmentalist Poison Ivy were “girlfriends without the jealousy of monogamy.” Years later their relationship was made official in print in DC’s New 52 comics relaunch. It was a moment of vindication for those who had sensed a deeper connection between the two since their first encounters on Batman: The Animated Series. Their coupling meant more than than the potential for a dastardly team-up; it was a way for Harley to experience a relationship of mutual respect. Fans were presented with a queer pairing that was a source of healing for a character that had experienced the worst kind of manipulation and abuse at the hands of The Joker.
Of all the films that have included characters that are canonically queer in the comics—Deadpool, Thor: Ragnarok, Captain Marvel, Black Panther, Wonder Woman, the list goes on—Birds Of Prey is the first to openly confirm multiple leading queer characters within the same universe. When you compare the superhero film genre’s progress, in this regard, with the strides of both comics and television up to this point, film is woefully behind. All of the CW’s DC slate, including Arrow, whose series finale aired late last month, has long featured prominent, openly queer characters. Black Lightning premiered the first televised Black lesbian superhero in 2018 with Anissa Pierce, which was soon followed by Batwoman’s Kate Kane, the first lesbian leading character (who, by the way, has a long romantic history with Renee Montoya in the comics). The closest superhero films may have come to including LGBTQ+ characters up to this point came in the form of side characters like Deadpool’s Negasonic Teenage Warhead (though they have yet to address the Merc With A Mouth’s sexual fluidity) and director Joe Russo’s cameo in Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame.
Harley’s adoring public has long anticipated adaptations of her character to, at minimum, publicly address her queer identity, which is never guaranteed. Even DC Universe’s exceptional Harley Quinn has yet to explicitly address her attraction to women beyond a couple of tense moments with Ivy. That’s why Birds Of Prey’s choice to include these details, even as brief asides, resonates: Because we’ve seen the alternative, which is to either downplay or totally ignore that part of these characters. It also dulls the blow of Ramon and Victor’s ambiguously coded relationship, which could have been interpreted as an attempt to capitalize off of gay representation without actually expressly recognizing the characters as such. On screen, the superhero genre still has a long way to go before the LGBTQ+ community can feel like a clear and present part of the landscape. But DC’s absurdly fun, colorful Birds Of Prey is a decent start.