A hyper-sexualized sidekick with a Brooklyn accent, psychiatrist-turned-murder clown Harley Quinn has always been a fan favorite in the DC Comics universe, inspiring hoards of cosplayers and tattoos alike. But for me personally, she hadn’t always had that same appeal — that is until Birds of Prey arrived. Adorned with the extravagant full title Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), the film removes Harley (Margot Robbie) from her previous context as “Joker’s girl” and puts her at the center of the narrative, fleshing out the character into someone who’s still very exaggerated but way more relatable. This Harley seems like she’d be fun to party with and engage in petty vandalism with, while the old Harley would have just talked about her boyfriend the whole time.
That says a lot about what Birds of Prey actually is. This is a madcap, fun night out, not a grim, brooding Zach Snyder bro-down. The approach can probably be traced back to Robbie, an actress who’s been very aware of when and how she allows to be sexualized throughout her career. Robbie was the breakout of Suicide Squad, and I think she was aware of that, so she parlayed that into a producer role on this film, exerting heavy influence over the hiring of the film’s director, relative newcomer named Cathy Yan. But while Birds of Prey favors bulletproof vests over push-up bras, Harley’s sassy, impulsive, playful and, yes, sexy essence remains intact. The film (which is also written by a woman, Christina Hodson) demonstrates its genuine feminist touches without making a big deal out of it, treating solidarity among women as a given and adding knowing flourishes like an already famous hair tie moment to its gory action scenes.
Opening with a thankfully brief animated sequence catching the audience up on Harley’s ludicrous backstory, the film opens with a montage of Robbie in the throes of self-pity after Harley and “Mr. J” call it quits. And as you might expect from a newly single person, she adopts a pet (a hyena she immediately sics on the creepy guy who sold it to her), eats spray cheese from the can while wearing a onesie and crying, joins a roller derby team to keep herself busy, and gets way too drunk at the club. Narrated by Robbie and accented with colorful hand-drawn titles that flash across the screen, this effervescent intro sets the tone for the remainder of the film, which mostly makes up in flashy style for what it lacks in forward momentum.
The narrative is about as (likely purposefully) scattered as Harley’s brain, jumping around in time and space from present-day Gotham to Sicily in the ’80s as Yan weaves together a disparate ensemble of women on the verge. These includes Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a Gotham City detective who’s continually undervalued by her colleagues; Dinah Lance, a.k.a. Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a nightclub singer with a hidden talent for crime fighting; Helena Bertinelli, a.k.a. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a mob princess turned hardened assassin; and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), the teenage pickpocket at the center of a citywide manhunt. Cassandra is the first to collide with Harley Quinn after the latter makes a deal with flamboyant crime boss named Roman Sionis, a.k.a. Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) and his sidekick Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), offering to track the kid down in exchange for her life. (Harley has many other enemies, and since she’s no longer under the protection of the Joker, they’re all out to get her now.) It’s not until the last third in which the film lays down all of its cards, and the Birds finally assemble into a flock.
But with the whole flock the film does seem to not fully trust that Harley Quinn can hold her own movie. There’s a bevy of interesting supporting characters but the script just doesn’t seem sure how to balance them. Robbie skillfully wields her character’s personality, embracing her more absurd traits and using her natural charisma to dominate the role quite well, but the supporting cast around her is pretty thin and kind of scattered about. At the same time Birds of Prey is also a blaring signal that this new DCEU is to be filled with a lot more manic energy, and this film is full of running gags and non sequiturs. And a fair share of them work — Harley’s love affair with her favorite breakfast sandwich, for example, or a cutaway where Huntress practices her big entrance in the mirror. Winstead is the film’s secret weapon as the humorless assassin, playing nicely off of Robbie’s frantic energy; in fact, there’s an easy vibe to the entire Birds ensemble once they all get together, but that also might make you wish we got to see them hang out more. Dressed in velvet suits and monogrammed gloves, McGregor is also a hoot as Roman, but he never fully crosses over into the scary side of the “charming psychopath” equation. That’s typical of the film as a whole, which is more successful as a madcap comedy chasing Harley Quinn through the streets of Gotham than it is as a comic book adventure.
On a moment-by-moment level, the action in Birds of Prey is pretty compelling, as it draws more from the Hong Kong style of unbroken takes designed to properly display the choreography than the chaotic, jerky quick cuts that make up most American blockbusters. The fights come courtesy of John Wick director Chad Stahelski, who supervised the film’s action alongside his Wick fight coordinator, Jonathan Eusebio. Yan also takes advantage of the film’s R-rating with grisly scenes of henchmen leg-breaking with sickening cracks and people getting their faces cut off. The upbeat approach to the violence gives the film something of an amoral edge, adding a demented twist to Harley’s cheerful quips about pizza and tacos. Unfortunately, once these moments are strung together into full scenes, the overall impact can be less than the sum of its parts.
As a whole there’s an odd, airless void at the center of the kaleidoscope that is Birds of Prey. Perhaps it’s the inconsistent way the realistic bloodshed is mixed with cartoon touches like Harley’s rampage through a police station, taking out cops with confetti bombs. Or maybe its the sensory overload of the art direction, which delivers colorful, frantic locales like outdoor markets even when it’s not dealing in campy sets that seem straight out of a Joel Schumacher Batman movie. (Erin Benach’s costume design is dazzling, and one of the biggest highlights of the whole film.) More likely though it’s the aggressive soundtrack cues, which are mixed in more organically here than in Suicide Squad but are still regularly and painfully on-the-nose. There’s also the fact that the film takes a little bit to really get going, dulling the impact of the thrills when they do arrive. But now that the DCEU’S gritty, brooding, often self-serious approach to superhero cinema has begun to move along, this irreverent roller-coaster ride just might be what the studio needed — even if it’s a bumpy one. As thin as it may be, Birds of Prey remains largely engaging through its vibrant palette, madcap hyperactivity, and ambitious gonzo fluidity.