2016’s Suicide Squad was on my worst of the year list. That film introduced the character of Harley Quinn, as played by Margot Robbie. Robbie’s performance proved to be a bright spot in a movie that proved otherwise wholly abysmal. Since then, the DC Cinematic Universe (or DCEU) has managed to find its own kind of voice, after years of copying Marvel movies. The shake-up happened after the negatively received Justice League film and the firing of Zack Snyder. Since then, with Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam (I leave Joker out for a reason), the DCEU films are figuring out a tone that works for them that isn’t beat for beat Marvel. And with Birds of Prey, we have what is probably my favorite DCEU movie yet.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) follows Robbie’s Quinn, just having broken up with the Joker, finding herself in a place where she’s unsure of her next move. Being the Joker’s right-hand woman has awarded her absolute immunity in Gotham, and now that they’re no longer together, there’s a long list of people that want to come after her. At the top of the list is Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), a mobster with the entire city in his back pocket.
Meanwhile, a group of women also have unfinished business with Roman – Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer in the nightclub he owns, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a Gotham detective building a case against him, and Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman who witnessed the massacre of her family at his hands. Together, they must team up to stop Sionis from destroying all of their lives.
I have no knowledge of how any of this story is handled in the comics or in any previous incarnation of this story, I just want to clear that up first. I was a fan of the short-lived Birds of Prey television series, but I watched and enjoyed that when I was a child, and I’m sure it doesn’t hold up well. As a casual viewer of the DCEU movies, I saw the new Birds of Prey and became obsessed with it and immediately wanted to see it again. I liked what Margot Robbie was doing in Suicide Squad; however, there were many things about that film that, in my opinion, held her performance back. She’s portrayed as the sexy, crazy girl, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much more to her beyond that.
However, Birds of Prey is a fully fleshed-out character study that gives the viewer another way into the character of Harley Quinn, and one that makes her fully realized and three-dimensional. Tonally, this is borrowing from Deadpool, but not in an entirely blatant way. She’s foul-mouthed, brazen, and unpredictable. She narrates the whole thing to the best of her memory, and the film uses that unreliable narrator device in the best possible way. It’s also got a lot of Tarantino influence and borrows a lot from campy action movies of the 1970s, which is a great avenue to take for a film like this.
Margot Robbie is doing fantastic work here. The character of Harley Quinn, in lesser hands, could be grating and unlikable. She gives you a reason to root for her, but to also not pity her. Quinn is a Harvard-educated psychiatrist who fell in love with a delusional patient, fell into a pit of acid to prove her loyalty to him and has never been the same since. But, in this story, which finds her in a place where she needs to continue her story without him, you realize Harley Quinn is not some broken damsel in distress that deserves your pity. She was always going to turn to a life of crime because that’s who she’s always been, with or without the Joker. She’s still an incredibly intelligent doctor who can read anyone like a book and knows how to get to the root of the problem quicker than anyone else in the room. And that’s what makes Robbie’s interpretation of this character so worthwhile.
It’s also essential to note Robbie did the majority of her own stunts. In fact, in waiting through the end credits, you notice how short these credits are. There’s less digital faking going on here than your average superhero movie. Most of the action is done fully practically. Chad Stahelski, who worked on the John Wick movies, is the stunt choreographer here, and his work is almost immediately recognizable. The action set pieces are directed and choreographed beautifully.
This also may seem like a Harley Quinn movie, and not necessarily a Birds of Prey movie. It’s both. The supporting characters are every bit as entertaining as Quinn. Beginning with Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who is always great and doesn’t get enough to do in a film. I love everything she’s doing here as the Huntress – a woman who has been raised to be a killing machine, and as a result of that, maybe somewhat stunted socially. Jurnee Smollett-Bell is an equally appealing scene-stealer as Black Canary, who becomes more interesting the longer we watch her. And I don’t need to tell you how great Rosie Perez is, her work speaks for itself.
Having the most fun here, however, is Ewan McGregor, who is camping it up like you’ve never seen him before. He’s having a ball with the character of Black Mask, and once again, I’m not sure how this character is portrayed in the comics, and I have no idea if his performance is faithful to the source material. What I do know is he’s deliriously fun to watch and gives one of the best superhero villain performances in recent memory.
Cathy Yan directed this, who only has one micro-budget indie to her name, and this is a rare case of an indie director having some money thrown at them, and doing something very good with it. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique shot this, and it looks gorgeous. It’s colorful and vibrant and delightfully alive at every moment. This film has the same zippy, frenetic tone promised by the Suicide Squad ad campaign that was squandered by the actual movie. The fatal flaw of Suicide Squad is that it feels like a two-hour-long trailer for a film we never get to see. It’s got that quick-cut nature of a music video, and there’s no time to really get to know these characters. Birds of Prey is wildly energetic and breathlessly paced, but Yan knows when to let a moment breathe, and that’s mainly why this movie works.
Birds of Prey is the exact kind of superhero film I love, and the big reason why is because it’s a good time at the movies. It’s not dark and brooding, and the world isn’t at stake. There’s no real effort to connect this to other films, despite the one time the plot of Suicide Squad is mentioned fleetingly in a monologue. It’s a kinetic, explosive, and gleefully over-the-top adventure that embraces the mayhem created by Harley Quinn, and gives her the film she really deserves.