Seeing myself in a piece of media never gets old. There’s a basic kind of representation that feels all right — oh, another queer person, a bisexual person, cool! — but every so often I find something special that really, truly resonates. I usually expect to find that feeling more in books or indie comics than I do in movies, especially mainstream movies, which is why Birds of Prey’s fight choreography blew me away.
I stepped into my first martial arts class when I was eight years old, and fighting and self-defense have been a part of my life ever since. As someone with over a decade of experience, I can tell you, wholeheartedly, that marginalized people approach martial arts and self-defense in a completely different way than anyone else. We typically aren’t there because of a simple interest in exacting violence against cushioned targets — or, frankly other people . We’re often there because we’ve been afraid before; we’ve felt threatened; and we want to be manage that feeling with a sense of self-worth and a capability we can gain by learning to fight. That is how the women of Birds of Prey fight — with an amount of joy, yes, but also with the knowledge that fighting is about survival.
I’ve found it difficult to put all my feelings about Birds of Prey into words, and I am overjoyed that the wonderful Paulina Przystupa wanted to offer her perspective on the film’s fight choreography. The following conversation examines our personal feelings about the fight styles in the film, the way individual characters, fight, and asks the important question: what is feminist fight choreography?!
Alenka: I thought we’d start by giving a bit of information on our martial arts experience. I’m very curious about how your Aikido background influences how you see things, because that’s suuuper different from my background.
Paulina: So I started training Iwama-style Aikido in 2017 after wanting to do martial arts for a long time. However, I had a hard time finding one I liked. I had friends who did kung-fu and I sat in on a few classes, but it never felt like the right fit. I don’t remember when, where, or how I first learned about Aikido, but eventually the correct convergence of money, time, and opportunity came and I joined a group at my local university. I trained for a year, took a year off for dissertation research, came back to the same dojo in 2019, and just earned my Ni Kyu, the equivalent of a brown belt. What I like about Aikido is that as a self-identified smol, I am as, if not more, effective at the art than my tol peers. My center of gravity is lower so it’s easier for me to toss big folks.
I ended up seeing Birds of Prey a little less than a week before my Ni Kyu test, and got super excited for Randori, which is our improvised portion of testing. It’s probably my favorite part of Aikido because it makes us apply and react to actual attacks at semi-realistic speeds. Watching BoP, I saw a lot of throws, particularly some over the shoulder ones, that made me go, hey I can do that!
How about you? Were there any particular scenes that reminded you of your training?
Alenka: That’s a great question. The majority of my background — 10 years of it — is with Tae Kwon Do (TKD), so all the kicks were great! Black Canary’s style felt especially familiar to me; she uses her long legs well. I’m super short and can’t always rely on creating useful distance like a tall fighter can, but both Canary and Harley have those wonderful, long legs. The moment when Harley kicks the phone into Montoya’s face also really stuck out to me. She executes this perfect snap kick to hit it out of the air, into this perfect trajectory for Montoya’s nose. That would be so, so difficult — in my TKD classes we would occasionally practice hitting targets that we threw into the air, which is ridiculous but fun, because TKD instructors are ridiculous — and it’s really hard to direct an object with a kick.
After a long break from TKD, I studied Hapkido for maybe a year, year and half, something like that. Hapkido is also a Korean martial art, but unlike TKD, which involves memorizing forms and has this art-form element, Hapkido is pure self-defense. You’re learning how to get away when your wrist is grabbed, or when you’re bear-hugged from behind, etc. Hapkido involves a lot of manipulating or attacking joints to get away, and — as many have noticed with Harley attacking kneecaps — there are a LOT of joint breaks or hyperextensions happening in the Birds of Prey fight choreography. That felt really apt to me because none of the women in this film have super strength or hyper-specialized weapon abilities, as is typical in superhero movies. Even Black Canary’s Canary Cry is an exhausting move that she can’t use without some prior strategy. The women of Birds of Prey are fighting to get out of some serious, scary situations. They’re not interested in getting into some toxically masculine slugfest; they are fighting to survive, and that means disabling your opponent.
What did you think about the flavor of the fight choreography? Did it work well with the themes of the film for you?
Paulina: I thought the fight choreography was really great and fit the themes of the movie. Overall, what I loved about the fight scenes, and their relationship to the film, is that there was never a moment of, “Oh, they aren’t really that skilled.” What I hate in action movies, especially ones with “strong women characters,” is that there’s almost always a moment of “dude got the better of me,” or a part where they start losing whatever slugfest action sequence they are put into. It always feels like a way to dim the confidence of that woman character.
Alenka: I mentioned this with the focus on survival, but your comment about slugfest-style fighting dimming women characters is a good segue — is this feminist fight choreography? I’m not sure how I would define “feminist fight choreography” exactly, but the Birds of Prey fighting styles feel so distinct from pretty much every other superhero movie, even Wonder Woman‘s.
Paulina: Yeah I totally agree. Wonder Woman had the feel of gladiatorial fighting because all the Amazons have super strength. They could fight like we stereotypically expect men to, which is fine, but not what we see in Birds of Prey. BoP centers women and their skills as fighters, and doesn’t rely on super powers. So yeah, maybe I would call it feminist fight choreography. In many ways, it reminds me of the skilled women fighters more common in East Asian media like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kung-Fu Hustle, and Triad Princess. It’s a different cultural context, but there is a much longer history of women fighters that make those more appropriate comparisons for if this is “feminist fight choreography” compared to other superhero movies.
How about you? Were there other genres of visual media that feel more similar to Birds of Prey than superhero fight sequences?
Alenka: I just finally watched the series finale to Sense8, and thought a lot about Doona Bae’s Sun and her fight scenes in comparison to Birds of Prey. Sun’s style is wildly different from all of the women in Birds of Prey, but as a pretty small person she is able to take down big men because she can use her entire body for throws and takedowns. She’s powerful in a really fluid, beautiful way that is completely unlike any fighting I think I’ve ever seen on screen before!
I can see a through-line from Sense8 to Birds of Prey when I think about this possible concept of “feminist fight choreography;” Sun feels unstoppable because she knows how to use skills and advantages that are specific to her body and her personality — and she also puts her whole body and self into every move. I think that’s something that people who are unfamiliar with martial arts don’t realize: every strike involves your whole body, because you’re moving and twisting from the hip or the shoulder, or engaging your abs, or SOMETHING. Otherwise you’ve got no power, especially if you’re small, which we both are!
What did you think about the goofy, looney-tunes-ish moments, like when Harley misses getting hit because she finds a penny on the ground?
Paulina: Those were some of my favorite moments because they bring Harley back to her harlequin and jester origins. What I loved about Harley as a kid, when I first saw her in Batman: The Animated Series, was that she was funny, competent, absurdist, and very much her own character. As I got older, DC altered her character to, unfortunately, be a bit more male-gaze-y, and I felt my interest in the character dim.
Birds of Prey changed that with those moments, reminding me that she was always my favorite Batman villain. They exemplify the confident ease that Harley approaches the world with, which I admire. The scenes reminded me of the way Domino in Deadpool 2 moves through the world, knowing that things are just going to be ok, and that’s something I love to get to see women do in film. It’s also a great reminder that a good portion of any fight scene, or the possibility of one, is luck and timing.
Alenka: I loved Harley in Batman: The Animated Series as well, and I know this isn’t really about fight choreography but I have to say it – I’M SO HAPPY ABOUT THE HYENA! One of the best episodes of the whole cartoon is the one where Harley is rehabilitated, goes out into the world, and everyone treats her like a criminal — so she regresses. The whole scene where she’s in the mall on her roller skates, being pulled around by her pet hyenas, is such a beautiful, quintessential Harley moment, and that was the Harley Margot Robbie gave us. Harley is super charismatic, and she can wield that charisma as a weapon — like when she cheerfully gets her new baby Bruce to maul the creepy pet-seller guy. She’s amazing.
Paulina: While those looney-tunes-ish moments really highlight Harley, how did you feel about the other characters fighting styles/sequences? We haven’t talked much about the
Crossbow Killer Huntress or Cassandra Cain, but they were no slouches when it came to fights.
Alenka: I was a little disappointed to get a teen Cassandra Cain who didn’t seem to have any fight training, because I really love her as Batgirl, but I also loved Birds of Prey’s Cass! The bit at the end of the film when she uses the grenade was especially wonderful, because as a person without formal fight training, it makes so much sense to grab a weapon that you know how to use and can use effectively. Cassandra is so SMART and using the grenade was a great way to show how she can wield her intelligence and street smarts as a self-defense weapon, too. My now not-so-secret dream is a Bird’s of Prey follow-up film where all these incredible women have taken turns training Cassandra to be an unstoppable fighter.
Huntress’ hand-to-hand fighting style didn’t stick with me as much I think because she has so much cool gear. When I get to watch the movie again, I’m going to observe her much more closely. I think that makes her sort of the epitome of the next question I have for you, though! The characters also use a lot of interesting resources to fight. Harley kicks that phone into Montoya’s face; Black Canary beats the shit outta bad guys with car doors; Huntress basically treats her motorcycle like a weapon; and Montoya, in a particularly badass moment, uses her own handcuffs as brass knuckles.
I’ve pretty much never trained with weapons of any sort, but I found the scrappiness of all these moments to be really compelling. What did you think of the use of props, and weaponry?
Paulina: I love it. Particularly because I love practical effects. Besides some of the slo-mo sequences, all the fighting looked real and those props added to that feeling. One of the things that annoyed me about the fighting in Wonder Woman and Queen Atlanna’s fight scene in Aquaman was the choice to have both characters slide across the floor and have CGI bodies swoop around at absurd angles. While those scenes involve women with super strength, it felt unnecessary. In contrast, the use of props like doors and handcuffs adds to the reality of the situation. When you aren’t a weightlifter or don’t have super strength, anything can be a weapon and should be used.
The prop choice that resonated most with me was the baseball bat that Harley picks up in the evidence locker because it was the closest analog to something I have trained with, a wooden staff called a Jo. The Suburi (movements), we practice with the Jo, while longer than a baseball bat, could be easily translated into scenes like that, and it inspired me to work on my own martial arts practice.
Those moments also reminded me of the way that Bullseye in Daredevil Season 3 basically turned anything portable into a weapon. How do you think Birds of Prey compared to fight scenes in shows like Daredevil that also focus on more intimate semi-realistic fight scenes?
Alenka: Oh my gosh I am so glad you asked because I have been DYING to talk about Daredevil! I never watched Season 3 (I forgot it even aired, to be honest – whoops!) but the fighting in Birds of Prey, to me, really feels like Matt’s style in Season 1. I felt like there was this shift between season 1 and 2 from a more self-defense-focused striking style — remember all those broken elbows and bones poking out of limbs?! — to boxing. We see Matt throw so many more punches, bashing in faces and going for those knockout hits rather than snapping a joint. I think that made tonal sense with how he spirals out emotionally, but the fight choreography in the first season wowed me and felt familiar in a way that Birds of Prey’s fight scenes did, too.
What’s really special and fascinating about the realism of the fight choreography in Birds of Prey is how each woman’s style is so specific and unique to their character history and personality. Harley was canonically a gymnast in school, and she does all this incredible acrobatic stuff, like leap and throw her whole body feet-first into an assailant, or flip up over the head of a moving car, or flip INTO a moving car from the roof. Helena fights with the precision of a very carefully trained fighter, but one with a serious love of the wildness of a fight. (Why else would she jump into weird, moving terrain inside a terrifying, broken down funhouse?) Black Canary, like I said earlier, utilizes her long legs to kick and keep attackers at distance, and she also spins and uses extra movement to make her strikes have a stronger impact. Montoya HAS to have trained in a boxing gym or something, because her punches make clear she knows how to knock someone out bare-fisted. If the choreography was totally consistent across characters or was meaninglessly absurd it would feel cheap, or like it was all just there for pure spectacle. Instead, there’s character background and development built into their fighting styles that makes them feel like real, fully realized people, and that’s an amazing feat.