Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), 2020
Directed by Cathy Yan
Starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ewan McGregor, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Chris Messina, Ali Wong, Matthew Willig, and Dana Lee.
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.
In recent years, the DC Extended Universe has certainly taken some encouraging steps away from its earlier, well-publicised struggles; films like Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam! have made it to screens with minimal executive meddling, while becoming broad hits with casual and nerdy audiences like.
But there’s nevertheless an unambitious decency to these films which suggests they were more concerned with resetting Zack Snyder’s iffy template than striving to give the DCEU its definitive “Iron Man moment.” Wonder Woman arguably got pretty close, save for that dreadfully over-egged CGI-awash finale.
And while Birds of Prey doesn’t boast that film’s appealingly operatic thrall, it is the most purely fun movie this stable has released to date, more-or-less doing for the DCEU what Deadpool did for Fox’s departed X-Men series. If early box office can be believed, though, it will unfortunately fail to replicate the same tectonic success.
Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was unquestionably the unqualified success of 2016’s intriguing yet deeply muddled Suicide Squad, and it was inevitable that the character would eventually receive her own movie. In light of the “divisive” – if we’re being polite – response to Jared Leto’s rendition of The Joker, that character has been summarily ditched, with Birds of Prey’s opening 10 minutes largely devoted to clearing the table by crystallising their breakup.
Though this film’s rather ho-hum core narrative is concerned with Harley Quinn facing off against Gotham’s sadistic crime lord Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), what struck me right away about Birds of Prey is that it’s actually a movie about something. Several things, in fact; primarily a woman freeing herself from a toxic relationship while realising her own agency, and how we as people deal with trauma. In Harley’s case, the latter happens to be blowing up the Ace Chemicals factory which stood as a monument to her enslavement at the hands of “Mister J.”
But in the same breath, this is also a shamelessly goofy movie where, on the turn of a dime, Harley makes friends with an egg sandwich and goes on a cocaine-fuelled violence spree. That Birds of Prey isn’t a nightmare of mood is no small miracle, especially coming from a franchise hardly known for its tonal buoyancy. But just as screenwriter Christina Hodson scrubbed the stink of Michael Bay off the Transformers franchise in Bumblebee, her nimble-minded approach ensures that Harley can be endearingly cutesy and ferociously dangerous all in the same sentence.
There’s no denying that Harley’s personality has been softened substantially from her portrayal in Suicide Squad; here she blasts enemies with beanbag rounds and confetti guns, and as a whole feels like far more of an appealing quasi-cartoon character. She’s less sexualised too, as shouldn’t surprise anyone given that the film is not only written by a woman but also directed by one. Under the steady hand of helmer Cathy Yan, there’s no male gaze in sight, and it’s wonderful.
At the same time, this isn’t simply a femme-led blockbuster keen to trash men for the sake of easy point-scoring; there’s a pleasant lack of platitudinous, pandering dialogue on offer, replaced with an earnest, even weirdly sweet vision of kick-ass women having each other’s back and taking out Gotham’s trash (which, in this case, happens to be a grotesque man).
To be clear, this is really more of a Harley joint than a true Birds of Prey movie, as may disappoint some comic book fans. It’s centered almost entirely on her character and hinged quite cannily on Robbie’s splendid performance, even if this is at the undeniable expense of the titular team’s character development. Crossbow-wielding assassin Huntress, played with an aloof glee by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, seems to suffer the most, not being fully welcomed into the fold until act three despite clearly being one of the ensemble’s standouts.
Yet there is solid character work to be found elsewhere; super-powered singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is striking both in her beauty and her strong sense of will, while boozy detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) makes for an amusingly self-aware riff on 80s cop show tropes. But second to Robbie is surely the villainous gangster Sionis, played with an elegant menace by Ewan McGregor, who camps up the joint like he owns it and turns down no opportunity to give the scenery a hearty nibble.
It’s a shame that we don’t get to see more of him actually wearing the iconic black mask, though – it’s all of a few minutes, sadly – yet McGregor is an actor of such expressiveness that it’s easy to appreciate why the filmmakers didn’t want to hide him behind it for too long.
To return to the aforementioned Deadpool comparison, it’s one that fits neatly yet certainly not with a rigid totality. Yes, there’s foul language and brutality a-plenty, and even some fourth wall-breaking winks at the camera, though as a whole Birds of Prey feels decidedly more measured in its extremes; the blood-letting isn’t as exaggerated, with the most memorable violence largely limited to comically broken bones rather than exploded heads.
Even so, the action is where Birds of Prey really shines, especially compared to its franchise siblings. Beyond the sheer creativity of the set-pieces themselves, director Yan’s coverage is both wide and free of suffocating cuts, allowing the acrobatic, largely practical mayhem to breathe – no doubt aided by John Wick director Chad Stahelski coming on-board for reshoots last summer.
If almost every prior DCEU movie has been seemingly cursed to devolve into hideously blurry, oft-incoherent CGI nonsense in its third act, this film refreshingly keeps the visual effects a fringe gloss rather than a feature attraction. With a budget of “only” $85 million – less than one-third of, say, Batman v Superman – Yan proves that, once again, soulless, Vaseline-smeared fisticuffs are no match for the thrill of playfully entertaining, tactile practical filmmaking.
It’s easy to see how the scissor-happy Warner Bros. could’ve cut this down to a more commercial PG-13 without much fuss, so it’s admirable that they didn’t, even if this decision unfortunately will have kept many teenage girls – precisely the target demo for this following Suicide Squad‘s success – from seeing it.
As for the humour, it’s a Mad Libs assemblage of pop-culture references and character humour, landing more often than not, though certainly not always, and truly hysterical gags aren’t in hugely abundant supply. And yet, even its lesser moments are generally carried by a jovial, witty tone which espouses a clear love for the brand while also having some light fun lampooning how silly it all is.
Birds of Prey is unlikely to be many people’s favourite superhero film, but it feels like a minor miracle for a franchise that’s still waiting for its first truly great movie. With this irreverent and stylish effort, though, it feels like we might be inching a little closer.
Uncommonly sturdy fare for the DCEU, Birds of Prey is a surprisingly successful marriage of free-wheeling tone, razor-sharp style, and well-wrought themes.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.