Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a kitschy, campy, bloody chick flick that definitely passes the Bechdel Test. It’s also another sign that DC’s post-Snyder film franchise approach of “do whatever and hope something weird works” is working. Apart from Shazam!, this is the first DC film in a long time I’ve spent time laughing at for all the correct reasons.
And why wouldn’t it be? Since her first appearance in Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn has become a fan-favorite amongst comic book lovers. She’s the most upbeat and empathic sociopathic ex-psychologist out there, constantly striving to define herself outside an abusive relationship with the Joker. Birds of Prey forces her to abandon that toxicity for good, with Harley (Margot Robbie) finally getting dumped by her Mr. J and going through all the traditional post-break up grief. Cutting her hair, getting a new place above a Chinese food restaurant, buying a pet (a hyena, of course), taking up roller derby and getting wasted. Baby steps.
Robbie was easily one of the better things about 2016’s Suicide Squad, standing out but never fully getting the chance to explore her character due to the poor script. But Birds of Prey director Cathy Yan manages to develop the character in a way that’s both goofy and relatable, letting Harley come into her own and escape the confines of toxic men. Holed up on the East End of Gotham, Harley needs to re-claim her identity beyond watching cartoons in a onesie while eating canned cheese and breaking down. So she blows up the Ace Chemical factory where her and the Joker’s criminal relationship began, finalizing their breakup at the expense of alerting everyone in Gotham that Harley’s Joker immunity is off for good.
This puts Harley in the crosshairs of Roman Sionis (i.e. Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor), the local mob boss hoping to up his territorial claim. To avoid death means helping him locate the film’s MacGuffin- a diamond with the bank records of the Bertinelli crime family inscribed inside- which was accidentally stolen by a pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Getting back the girl and diamond leads to Harley ineracting with a handful of other women seeking Roman and/or the diamond including Roman’s burlesque singer with a “killer voice” Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollet-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a GCPD officer frustrated by her male colleagues taking credit for her work and Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a surviving crime family daughter seeking vengeance with a crossbow.
What brings these ladies together is their desire to let loose. To put it bluntly, they’ve all had their share of obnoxious, disappointing or abusive men, and this night isn’t making things any better. Hence the titular “emancipation,” giving the finger to the lack of respect they’ve received from lawful and criminal patriarchal institutions and finding that kickass comradery in one another. Or at least that works in theory. While the side character performances are good, you get the sense Harley’s actions tend to overshadow their motives, or at the very least bring them together by happenstance. The thematic components still shine, but I’d prefer a sequel to devote some more time to the non-Harley characters.
This is definitely still a Girl Power movie, complete with all the energy of a mix between crack and pop art décor. If Aquaman was full of color, Birds of Prey has it in spades, from the neon yellow and pink of Harley’s outfits to the Amusement Mile funhouse where the Birds finally assemble in Act III to make their stand. Things are bright, peppy and over the top, backed up by color-coded text boxes describing every Gotham citizen with a grudge against Harley (spoilers: it’s a LOT of people). It helps that those text boxes are incredibly funny too.
If there’s a narrative critique, it’s that Birds of Prey gets bogged down a bit during the second act through its need to set up character exposition. This creates a Nolan/Tarantino-esque scenario where backstory and plot intersections have to be scrunched together, mostly through non-linear sequences and Robbie’s voiceovers, which slows down the pace. Things pick up again when Harley breaks Cassandra out of jail, but I still found it a noticeable dip in crazy just to establish who’s who and why someone is cynical against the system. Thankfully the film doesn’t stay in that funk for long before getting right back into the silly chaos.
Even when things get violent, there’s still a sense of fun to the whole ordeal, especially when Harley raids a police station with grenade launcher that fires bean bag confetti rounds. This film was made on a budget of $97 million and is by far the shortest DCEU entry, but that actually works to Birds of Prey’s advantage. Fight scenes are fluid, energetic and coherent, with a lot of wide shot moments to keep the action visible and set to a catchy female-led soundtrack. And there are creatively brutal results too, such as Harley using her trusty baseball bat to fastball some thugs with cocaine pouches, admittedly after inhaling some of the stuff. Compared to other DC films it’s rather tame, but this limited restraint gives Birds of Prey’s gritty small-corner setting of Gotham City its own low-key stakes.
But despite having a few issues with Birds of Prey, I can’t deny I was having a blast watching it. It’s campy in just the right way, an anarchic and colorfully liberating girls night film that can definitely be enjoyed with friends and shots. Robbie is once again infectious as Harley, this time with a lot more room to showcase her sense of humor and street smarts to evade trouble like a clownish Bonnie Parker. And the only thing remotely sexualized by the camerawork is her deep love for egg sandwiches. That, plus the needed “hair scrunchie during a fight” moment, is how you know this film wasn’t made with the male gaze in mind.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
DC might not ever have a cinematic universe on par with Marvel and the CW Arrowverse, but at least Birds of Prey shows they’ve learned to make good movies. And that’s the most important first step. It’s weird, its bright, its chaotic, its bloody, but above all, it’s fun. And they didn’t even need a Batman cameo to prove its worth. More like this please DC!