Birds of Prey (and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Directed by Cathy Yan
Screenplay by Christina Hodson
Starring Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor
Produced by Margot Robbie, Bryan Unkeless, Sue Kroll
‘Rama Rating: 7 out of 10
Now before we really get going, let’s address the hyena in the room. I know what you’re thinking, “A seven! This is the same critic that gave the Oscar-nominated Joker a five! Obviously, this is bullsh-” I hear you, keyboard warrior. And I’ll say this: different films have different goals and achieve them to varying degrees. Joker wanted to be taken seriously as a prestige drama that tackles the effects of mental health in a fictional world that still feels grounded in reality. For my money, it failed. Birds of Prey is in a whole different lane, a whole different planet really, by virtue of its connection to the DC Extended Universe and its willingness to have a little bit of fun. Do you hate fun, dear reader? I have to ask, why so serious?
First, something you probably don’t need me to say, Margot Robbie is the out-and-out star of this film. But your enjoyment of her take on Harley Quinn really depends on whether you find the character charming or annoying. Christina Hodson’s script leans into the idea that Harley is a scatterbrained, somewhat unreliable narrator - telling the events of the story out of order, stopping scenes to give context, having a seemingly omniscient view of the characters, their plot and motivations. (Can you believe it? Another DC movie borrowing from Martin Scorsese!) But the ping-pong nature of the writing fits with Harley Quinn’s energetic exuberance even while some aspects of it venture into Deadpool-esque meta hyper violence.
Despite the approach, simplicity propels the plot. Harley has broken up with the Joker and now, without his protection, some less-upstanding citizens of Gotham want to get their revenge. So in order to stay alive, Harley has to make a deal with Black Mask but along the way she learns that, unlike the definition of her namesake in commedia dell'arte, she doesn’t need to serve another master. It’s a redemption arc that you’ve likely seen before but an anti-hero coming into their own still makes for a good time at the movie theater. Harley flips, shoots, cartwheels, and baseball bats her way through a bunch of action sequences that put a lot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s fight scenes to shame. A big strength of Cathy Yan’s direction is that she eschews too many blurry close-ups for wide and medium shots that show Harley’s (and the rest of the Birds’) athleticism and competence.
But Robbie is such a force that the other parts of her ensemble do get lost in the background. Hodson really lampshades their sort of two-dimensional characterizations with Harley’s narration (Renee Montoya is the cop who always sounds like an 1980s cop show, Huntress is the moody vigilante with a tragic backstory, etc.) but humor keeps us at arm’s length from them. We spend the most time with Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez giving us her best Mariska Hargitay) and caged songbird Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell) but it’s hard to feel too much for them as the meta narrative makes us a little bit too acutely aware of the roles they play in this story. Cassandra Cain is wildly different from her comic book counterpart but this is a situation where I hope fans would be satisfied to see a character, even if its in name only, translated to the screen rather than a Christopher Nolan/Robin situation. (Ella Jay Basco’s performance is frequently a bit stilted but she’s essentially a living Macguffin.)
Visually, there’s a lot to take in. Yan is enamored with Harley’s bubblegum aesthetic and leans into it throughout the film. (Seriously. There is a lot of pink and blue.) This is Gotham City in technicolor and sequins. Costume designer Erin Benach deserves a lot of the credit there. Obviously, Harley’s wardrobe - a mishmash of roller derby bruiser, punk rock clown, and gay pride parade float - gets a lot of focus. But Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask has some notable looks and even working in the overly serious Huntress’ iconic purple makes the film pop when Robbie isn’t on screen. The costumes are functional even when they are over-the-top. Benach received some pushback from male fans for “removing the sex appeal” of the characters but that’s a hollow criticism as it would never be leveled at male heroes.
There is a lot of intentionality in the way these women are portrayed and so much of that has to do with having a crew that features so many women in important roles. Praise has been heaped on a little detail from one of the trailers that shows Harley giving Black Canary a hair tie in the middle of the fight scene. But there are flourishes like that throughout the film. An uncomfortable scene featuring Black Mask belittling a woman at his club by making her strip down in public isn’t shown to us through Black Mask’s POV. It’s not meant to titillate the audience. Instead, close-ups of that woman’s face and Black Canary’s reaction to what she’s witnessing are meant to create empathy and show how Black Mask abuses his power. I’m not trying to say that only a woman could direct a scene like that but it is the type of scene that is often missing from superhero films.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Birds of Prey is some stunning achievement in cinema - it’s not. But it does provide a blueprint (along with Shazam!) for how the DCEU can forge an identity that is separate from the MCU as well as the morose, conflicted (and frankly, boring) nature of films like Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Joker. It’s not a perfect film but it attempts to build a unique identity for Harley Quinn within the context of a larger Gotham City and the DCEU. Margot Robbie absolutely steals the show and much like the heart of this film, it’s not without a little help from her friends. This is a film about freedom, not revenge and Harley Quinn is finally free.