Is Birds of Prey even a superhero movie? I mean, there’s the DC Extended Universe stinger ahead of it, featuring Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. But this is no ordinary superhero movie, it shares very little in common with anything we’ve seen and that’s part of what makes it so great. A ridiculously unhinged neon splash of beat ’em up action and rainbow-colored girl power make for one of the most enjoyable comic book movies in years. Call it “fantabulous.”
Margot Robbie slips back into the clown makeup and pastel-colored fashion sense of Harley Quinn, the breakout character from 2016’s Suicide Squad. The ADD-riddled paramour of Joker is no longer his main squeeze (Jared Leto’s version of the villain is barely glimpsed but often referenced), and going solo has only made her more erratic. This plays out in a 4th wall-breaking, quippy, time-jumping, motor-mouthed narration that is both hilarious and patience-testing. We’re speed raced through her origin story using a combo of live-action and animation, ending with her basically being thrown out on the street. She handles the break-up like any normal person would, with a lot of tears, a new haircut, eating herself into a food coma, buying a pet hyena, y’know how it goes. She also gets into a LOT of trouble, because now that Joker’s no longer protecting her, it’s open season on Harley Quinn and she’s racked up a murderer’s row of enemies.
It’s an ingenious point driven home by writer Christina Hodson (Bumblebee, the upcoming Batgirl movie), that Harley Quinn is so used to being under Joker’s umbrella that she never once had to think about the consequences of her actions. “A Harley Quinn is meant to serve”, she weeps somberly to Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), while indulging at the nightclub of crime boss Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (a flamboyantly Walken-esque Ewan McGregor). Who is Harley Quinn without a master?
She’s batshit insane, that’s what, only without any guardrails, and the direction by Cathy Yan is appropriately heightened to match her broken psyche. A thin plot emerges involving a dead mob family’s priceless diamond, which gets snapped up by teen pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who is being protected by cop-on-the-edge Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who enlists Black Canary for help, only to run afoul of vengeful assassin the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, great at playing deadly serious). These vigilante Spice Girls must team up to stop Black Mask and his face-removing thug Victor Szasz (an unrecognizably creepy Chris Messina) from getting their hands on Cassandra.
There is no shortage of toxic men for these gals to beat up on, and Birds of Prey works best when it goes full-on riot squad. The wilder it gets, the better, like a Terminator-esque siege sequence with Harley Quinn shooting up a police station with a bean bag gun full of glitter, or a chase sequence in which she tries desperately to save the one thing in life she still cares for…a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. Quieter moments find Harley Quinn ruminating on her need to break free from the abusive relationships that have defined her (hence the movie’s “Fantabulous Emancipation” subtitle), but it would be too much to say these times are especially deep. They’re enough to give the talented Robbie a little more to do than bash skulls with a giant mallet and crack jokes. Robbie is totally in sync with this character, and in two short films has elevated her from colorful sidekick to figure of female empowerment…albeit one with a penchant for breaking legs. The contrasts within Harley, that she’s a maniacal villain seeking to help an endangered child, mirror the conflicts within all of these women. Each of them must become something new, embrace a different part of themselves, if there’s any hope of them working together and surviving. The theme of evolving beyond past traumas is common among male superhero characters (hello, Batman!!) and it’s refreshing to see it in a major film with some of DC Comics’ best heroines.
Fueled by a roaring soundtrack of stage-setting rock hits (“Barracuda” plays during one notable scene) and manic cinematography by Matthew Libatique, Birds of Prey is undeniably loud and superficially stylish, recalling the early works of Tarantino or his copycats. There’s a random Marilyn Monroe music video sequence that feels ripped from a different movie, but y’know what, it works. Yan throws everything against the wall to see what splatters and sticks, and nearly all of it does. If you’re going to make a movie from Harley Quinn’s fractured personality, this is how you do it. Go big. And that includes the action which includes plenty of slick John Wick-style fights (the plot is pretty similar, too) elevated to Deadpool levels of comic inappropriateness. The violence is brutal, sadistic, and clashes with the overall cartoonish tone. To put a point on it, the little girl dressed as Harley Quinn in front of me had to have her eyes shielded by her mother on more than one occasion.
As a spinoff of Suicide Squad, there are stylistic similarities in attitude and atmosphere, but Birds of Prey embraces its crazy and leaves nothing left to chance. While it doesn’t all come together perfectly, the gamble pays off in emancipating the film from the confines of a tired genre.