It’s only been four years since Suicide Squad stumbled into theatres, but the DC Extended Universe has changed a great deal since then. Aquaman turned a less-respected Justice Leaguer into a cinematic force to be reckoned with. Shazam proved that the DCEU can have legitimate four-color fun while also being true to the spirit of its heroes. What’s next? How about some bloody, giddy, f-bomb mayhem? For that, you’ll need the services of one Harley Quinn.
True to its title, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) finds Harley (Margot Robbie) suddenly single and alone after she breaks up with the Joker after the events of Suicide Squad. With nearly all of Gotham’s underworld after her head now that she no longer has Mr. J’s protection, she ends up falling into the schemes of one Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), also known as the crime lord Black Mask. Sionis is hunting for a young pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who’s stolen something insanely valuable from him. Harley teams up with badass cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), vigilante crossbow-killer Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and metahuman singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell) to take on Sionis and an endless supply of creatively-costumed thugs, villains, and assassins.
I’ll start the review proper with a simple declarative: Birds of Prey is fun as hell. Kinetic, comedic, self-aware, and with just the right amount of R-rated brutality and grit.
This is clearly a passion project for everyone involved. Margot Robbie not only reprises her role as Harley from Suicide Squad but took over production duties as well, insisting on including Harley’s posse and drawing her away from the male gaze-heavy take on the character from her previous cinematic outing. It’s also the first DCEU film to be both directed and written by women as well (Cathy Yan and Christina Hodson respectively), and the Girl Power vibe on the screen is infectious without ever being anvilicious.
Yan and Hodson have constructed the film almost like a symphony. Each of the three acts has its own mood, pace, and color that at first glance seems discordant but in reality looks at the characters and themes through three distinct lenses. The highly-animated first act jumps back and forth in the time line to set up the characters, the second act slows down while still advancing the narrative arcs, and the relatively heavy third act climaxes in a truly spectacular showdown in an abandoned theme park. Each act shines in its own ways, balancing the film wonderfully.
This is a remarkably grounded film for the DCEU in many ways, as well. The threat Sionis provides is very local and realistic; there’s no world-shaking catastrophe here. Aside from Black Canary, none of the characters have superpowers, relying mostly on their wits and skill. What the characters do have, however, are very understandable, real-world concerns and complications. Aquaman started his film taking on international criminals in a submarine. Harley starts her film trying to cure a hangover with the perfect bodega breakfast sandwich while running through Gotham’s Chinatown from thugs, cops, and other assorted people who wish her harm.
The action scenes here are similarly down-to-earth but never lacking in intensity. The choreography was handled by people who also worked on Atomic Blonde and the John Wick movies, and the fights are full of spectacle and poetry. Margot Robbie did most of her own stunts for the film, and seeing Harley in action is a major sugar rush. When she picks up a baseball bat during an extended fight in the Gotham PD’s evidence warehouse, you can feel the kinetic potential leaping off the screen. The third act battle is one of the DCEU’s best fight scenes ever, giving each of the Birds a chance to shine and highlighting a wide variety of fighting styles in an epic melee that never feels confused, over-edited, or unfocused.
The heart of the film, of course, is Robbie’s pitch-perfect take on Harley Quinn. Robbie was without a doubt one of the brightest spots in the otherwise unremarkable Suicide Squad, and she brings that same commitment and charisma to the character here. BoP gives us a new take on Harley, one that’s much more openly vulnerable but also one that plays to her whimsy, resilience, and hidden inner strength. At regular intervals we get reminded that Harley has a PhD in psychology, a skill that she uses to accurately parse her opponents, and that she’s actually a bad-ass in her own right that doesn’t need the toxic presence of the Joker to make a name for herself.
The entire film is also told from Harley’s point of view as she narrates the events of her life, adding an extra level of heightened reality that constantly knocks on the fourth wall. This is probably the only superhero film where the main character has a fantasy sequence imagining themselves as Marilyn Monroe in “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend.” And you know what? It works. Simply put, Robbie is amazing every time she’s on screen, and this is the role she was born to play.
But Robbie’s supporting cast aren’t any slouches, either. The Birds are all dynamic characters in their own right, and each one is just about perfectly cast. Rosie Perez is especially amusing, coming off as every cop that plays by their own rules from every 1980s action film ever (a fact that even characters in the film point out). Jurnee Smollet-Bell’s Black Canary is a take on the character I never knew I needed, just pure fierceness and presence. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is wonderful as Huntress, balancing the character’s aggression and remarkable combat abilities with a surprising amount of introversion and social awkwardness. After all, that’s probably what happens when you’re raised by a family of assassins. One of the film’s few faults is that we don’t see nearly enough of Winstead, and it takes far too long for her to join the rest of the Birds.
Birds of Prey also contains one of the DCEU’s most interesting and interestingly-presented bad guys. Ewan McGregor looks like he’s having the time of his life playing Sionis, slipping seamlessly between an amiable, club-owner persona and a vicious, psychotic temper. He brings all of his considerable charm to the forefront to the point that when Sionis does get truly villainous, you become genuinely terrified for the other characters. There is a strange amount of queer-coding in his portrayal, though, from his flashy suits to his love of the finer things in life to his ambiguous relationship with his head enforcer, the knife-wielding Victor Zsasz (played with smoldering intensity by Chris Messina). It never detracts from his menace, however, and it serves to make him a more intriguing and less straightforward (pun intended) villain than we’ve come to expect from the DCEU.
The main area where BoP falters, however, is in how long it takes the story to bring all the Birds together. For most of the film, they’re either working against each other or crossing paths without realizing it. You spend a great deal of time just wishing they could team up already, because you know that when they do, they’ll be able to take down anyone. It gets frustrating waiting for that moment when the team comes together. The film is also relatively short compared the rest of the DCEU, and while Yan is wickedly efficient with the narrative, you still wish you could see more.
That’s really a minor concern in the end, because there’s still plenty to enjoy while we get to that point. This is not only exactly the film Harley needed to really shine, but it’s a leap forward for the DCEU as a whole. This is the film Suicide Squad wanted to be but never could. It’s just the right blend of experimental, gritty, and vibrant, backed by a colorful cast and a killer soundtrack. Emancipation has rarely looked this good.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B+