The one thing coming out of Suicide Squad back in 2016 that was receiving near-unanimous praise was Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn, it also being the beloved comic-book character’s first theatrical appearance. Robbie showed up and went out hard to do the character justice and give her dedicated fans something to grasp on even if the film itself was mostly disappointing, and giving Harley her own story was one of the smartest decisions for the future of this DC universe.
And so we have Birds of Prey (and the Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), directed by Cathy Yan, written by Christina Hodson, and returning Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. She’s joined with Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, and Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya, and together they make up four anti-heroes caught up in the web of crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his efforts to retrieve a diamond stolen by young thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
Birds of Prey, like Suicide Squad, boasts the first appearances of several characters fans have wanted to see for the longest time, now focused into a clear story of resisting the corrupt and the obscenely wealthy in favour of fighting and saving those who deserve it. You know, hero stuff. By having this movie be about a team of women working together against an evil man, the idea is pretty out in the open about empowerment against an abusive figure, something quite relevant to today, but certainly nothing new to the comic book based Harley Quinn or Birds of Prey characters.
We meet Harley at the end of her tether, having had the Joker break up with her and leave her to her own devices. Instead of taking the next logical step and finding a better way forward, Harley just wallows in pity and self-destruction, only luckily managing to live through each day while all of her mistakes come back to bite her in the ass. This instantly gives every scene forward momentum. Whenever things might start to slow down, another bad guy comes racing around the corner with a score to settle. It’s something that bogged down Aquaman into grating repetition, but Birds of Prey smartly keeps upping the stakes and weaving a more complex web of characters and motivations until things reach a logical and effective climax for everyone involved. This is smart storytelling on the part of debut feature director Cathy Yan, even if Hodson’s script isn’t that exceptional.
The ensemble performances from Robbie, Bell, Winstead, Perez, Basco, and McGregor are all terrific, each threatening to steal the movie from the other. Robbie gets deeper into who Harley Quinn really is and what her own identity is beyond being obsessively attached to the Joker, something that the character on the page and in the animated series and other animated movies has dealt with. Additionally, we see her constantly expanding her ability to confidently take out henchman after henchman like it’s a big fun game.
She still needs help and that’s where the real Birds of Prey come in, all with their own talents and hurdles to overcome. At first Smollett-Bell was my favourite as Black Canary, but then Basco got more confident as the movie went on, Perez proved herself as more than the sum of a long career, and Winstead was the funniest one of the lot. I loved seeing this unconventional team together, taking control and struggling as well, in the end becoming well-defined and rich characters I want to see go ahead and be in more adventures.
McGregor, in his first comic-book movie, shows up to play as long-time Batman villain Black Mask. Sure, we don’t get nearly enough of McGregor in the aforementioned mask as some fans would like but he’s still menacing, you feel attentive and excited at whatever he’s going to do next. Sometimes underwritten? Sure, but McGregor and his radiating chemistry with Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz elevated and accentuate the charisma and eccentricities of a villain beyond his generic predecessors in this universe.
Birds of Prey is well-shot by Matthew Libatique, effectively accentuating the high-key look of how Harley Quinn sees and moves through Gotham City without Batman or the Joker in her way. Everything is as colourful as possible, another DC entry that is consciously moving away from ultra-dark storytelling, both visual and narrative, and towards worlds that feel like those from the comic books adapted directly for film. Daniel Pemberton’s score feels similar to the manic and melody-twisting one he crafted for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, yet how it still underscores the climactic action sequence and elevates it a new level is superb. One major problem can be found with the sound mixing for the movie, where sound effects, dialogue and score aren’t in harmony with one another and feel oddly competitive in moments that need focus.
This isn’t anything mindblowing or extraordinary, and that’s okay. Birds of Prey feels mostly like DC’s direct answer to Deadpool by telling a non-linear R-rated story of a character who often breaks the fourth wall, has no idea how to be a hero or a villain, and is super-comfortable to snorting cocaine and bashing a few heads in. This is an enjoyable ride to go on with some worthy characters who stand tall against the likes of Wonder Woman and Shazam as the best this universe of movies have to offer, and while the humour can be hit and miss and the actual dialogue dips too often into clichés (even when characters point said clichés out), Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a nice, goofy, often clunky, but always honest and wild comic-book movie that succeeds thanks to Cathy Yan’s detailed direction of female relationships (the hair tie moment is delightful) and just being what it wants to be: fun.
Director: Cathy Yan
Cast: Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ewan McGregor
Writer: Christina Hodson, (based on the Birds of Prey characters by Jordan B. Gorfinkel, Chuck Dixon, based on Harley Quinn by Paul Dini, Bruce Timm)