As much as I love Birds of Prey, I’m still in shock that a Major Studio superhero movie ended up landing in my personal Top 5 films of 2020, much less Swampflix’s collective Top 10. The hyper-violent, hyper-femme irreverence of that film feels like a major disruption of the usual smash-em-up superhero tedium, if not only for the novelty of watching Women Behaving Badly in the context of a mainstream action movie. That doesn’t mean that Birds of Prey is a total anomaly, though. In fact, its major precedent is decades-old at this point, a similarly anarchic Girls Doing Violence superhero gem from the way-back-when of the 1990s. There is strong proto-Birds of Prey energy running throughout the 90s adaptation of Tank Girl, right down to Margot Robbie & Lori Petty doing the same Sadistic Betty Boop Voice as their films’ respective antihero leads. It’s a shame neither movie was a hit, since they’re easily the most exciting specimens of superhero media since Burton revamped Batman as a fetishistic horndog.
Lori Petty stars as the titular Tank Girl, a sugar-addled rebel scavenger in the not-too-distant-future of 2033. Water is in scarce supply, leaving a power vacuum filled by the mega-corporation Water & Power (not to be confused with the infamous enema porno Water Power) under the direction of evil overlord Malcolm McDowell. The water-rich oligarchy in this Mad Maxian desertscape entertain themselves at Hype Williams-style future-brothels; the resistance is led by mutant kangaroos; and Naomi Watts hangs around as a sidekick brunette. As with Birds of Prey, none of these plot details or set-decoration eccentricities matter nearly as much as the central performance that anchors them. Lori Petty bounces off the walls as a manic Bugs Bunny anarchist, openly mocking every inane indignity that distracts from the one thing she loves: blowing shit up in her girlified battle tank. Like with Robbie’s Harley Quinn, Petty’s Tank Girl is the blinding fireworks show at the center of this film, and everyone else is just there to gaze at it in wonder – even the mutant kangaroos.
It’s incredible that the Tank Girl movie doesn’t have more of a prominent legacy in the pop culture zeitgeist. The only time I remember this film being around was when Comedy Central was looping some cut-to-ribbons edit of it to pad out their daytime broadcasts in the early 2000s. I was fascinated by the out-of-context snippets I would catch from those broadcasts as a kid, but never enough to watch it from start to end (a feat I’m not sure anyone’s accomplished with any commercial-padded Comedy Central movie broadcast). I was taken aback, then, that the actual movie is so unapologetically Vulgar. Tank Girl has enough Saturday Morning Cartoon energy that it feels like it was made for kids, but Petty’s hyperactive antihero is an omnisexual social anarchist who challenges every taboo she can point a tank at, like Bugs Bunny smooching Elmer Fudd in drag. In just a slightly better world, that kind of horned-up flippancy would be celebrated as one of the all-time-great superhero performances, but 25 years later we still live in a world where Birds of Prey was allowed to tank at the box office (even though it improves a lot of this film’s already stellar chaotic highs through revision). I don’t get it.
A lot of early-MTV Cool was deployed to boost this movie’s marketability, including a Björk-scored strip club routine, an Iggy Pop cameo, and an opening-credits remix of DEVO’s “Girl U Want.” Still, you can tell it was underfunded & under-supported in its time, if not only because many of its transitional exterior shots & action sequences are supplanted with panels from the original Tank Girl comic. I found that choice to be a boon to the movie’s stylistic palette—borrowing a post-Love & Rockets indie comics patina from the source material—but it’s also frustrating that a vision this fun & this idiosyncratic was left so scrappy while contemporary superhero tripe like Spawn, The Phantom, and Judge Dredd were just torching piles of cash. I would have loved to see Rachel Talalay’s Tank Girl vision on the scale of Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey budget. Recent history has only proven that it would’ve still been ignored & discarded, but you can’t account for general audiences’ lack of taste. This is the superhero media that should be culturally celebrated & exalted, but instead we’re still struggling to shake off the dour, self-serious conservatism of the Nolan era; shame on us all.