Premise: After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord..
You would certainly be validated for being a little skeptical of Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), especially after the unmitigated disaster that was 2016’s Suicide Squad. Heck, you’d even be validated based on DC Comics’ track record in trying to establish their own Marvel-esque connected universe. The studio stumbled out of the gate up until and including 2017’s Justice League, but has had some winners recently with Wonder Woman and Aquaman. But once DC leaned away from forcing the issue of a shared universe and focused on the characters within that universe, they found a way to make compelling films again. Rest assured though, Birds of Prey may contain some hidden Easter Eggs for diehard DC fans – which I missed entirely – but there were far from any overt references to other characters (besides the Joker, of course) or set-ups to future films.
This film stands alone so much that it’s almost a little disorienting whenever Gotham City is brought up; the world is so absorbing and vibrant that it stands in sharp contrast with the baroque grimness of earlier DC films. In fact, Birds of Prey can best be seen as DC cleansing itself of the earlier films, right down to the fiery explosion that Harley uses early in the film to signify that she’s done with the Joker. Director Cathy Yan rightfully picks up soon after the events of Suicide Squad and lets you know exactly what you’re getting into, with a cartoon recap and more of Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) bull-in-a-china-shop energy. Robbie, who was far and away the best part of Suicide Squad, looks like she’s having the time of her life with this character. I’ve written previously about Robbie’s ability to inhabit characters with a certain friendly innocence, but her version of Harley Quinn is more nuanced than your typical good person that does bad things. Rather, she spends most of the film just trying to figure out how she can be left alone. She also, with the help of screenwriter Christina Hodson, gets a significantly more fleshed-out role to show she’s more than a thinly drawn sidekick with an affinity for Gotham’s most notorious villain.
Through a series of increasingly silly situations, Quinn goes on the hunt for a diamond MacGuffin that could unlock the key to the fortunes of one of Gotham’s most notorious crime families. Along the way, she’ll team up with – and against – Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Ella Jay Basco. We know all these women will eventually team up and become the titular Birds of Prey, but Yan lets it happen methodically and organically.
Yan has subtly created one of the best girl-power comic book films in recent memory not by underlining female empowerment, but by subverting the audience’s expectations concerning what it means to be a powerful woman – after all, only one of the characters in the entire film has any kind of superpowers. Sexuality, in both senses of the word, is barely touched upon throughout the film but feels ever-present: it’s implied but never directly addressed that Rosie Perez’s hard-boiled detective character is bisexual. In the same respect, gone are the skimpy and suggestive outfits, typically shoehorned in by studios to sell Halloween costumes. Sure, Harley Quinn’s outfits get more and more outlandish throughout the film, but it feels right for the character, rather than a marketing tactic.
And then there’s the action sequences. Just when you thought the John Wick franchise had cornered the market in over-the-top fight choreography, Harley Quinn comes cruising in on a pair of roller skates with a circus sledgehammer. The fight scenes strike a delicate balance between insanely complicated but easy to follow, all without Wick‘s penchant for stomach-churning gruesomeness. That’s not to say that Birds of Prey takes place in a world of silliness and slapstick without consequences – this is a movie where the villain (a mustache-twirling psychopath played by a scenery-chewing Ewan McGregor) orders a character’s face to be sliced off by his right-hand man/boyfriend(?) played by Chris Messina. But there is an air of prioritizing style over substance to much of the film. At one point, Harley breaks into a prison and sets off the sprinkler system, only for a soaking wet fight to ensue. Later, the climactic battle takes place in a carnival fun house, of all places. Are all of these decisions and set pieces necessary? Probably not, but they look great. And while we’re on the subject, most of the musical cues could probably use some refinement. This is a film that not only includes a melancholic cover of “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, but songs like “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” and “Joke’s On You”, and you’re left wishing these moments had as much subtlety as the rest of the script.
Still, it’s obvious from the end-product that nearly everyone involved had a ton of fun making this film. And it’s refreshing that DC not only green-lit a female-centric comic book film, but surrounded it with female talent, right down to the artists on the soundtrack. Marvel tried something similar with Captain Marvel in 2019 – and, to a lesser extent, a brief moment in Avengers: Endgame – but both ended up feeling more like lip service, a long overdue olive branch after years of male dominance in the comic book genre. Though the film’s R rating will surely turn some prospective audiences away, with Birds of Prey, Yan and company show that great female-centric stories are out there, and they can be entertaining as hell.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.