Review: Birds of Prey is the Insane Breakup Party We Need
Birds of Prey is the incorrigibly raucous, unapologetically insane, colorfully frenetic breakup party we all need. While I maintain that Jared Leto’s Joker in 2016’s Suicide Squad is the only iteration of the clown prince of crime to actually care about Harley (he pushed her out of a crashing helicopter to save her life, which probably wouldn’t happen in the comics or animated series), there’s too much baggage and stigma with what is canonically one of the most abusive relationships in comics that Harley Quinn needed to establish her own identity apart from being Mister J’s main squeeze. What better way than to have an ostensibly superhero team movie be the vehicle for announcing your breakup with a bang?
Make no mistake, the film might be titled Birds of Prey and loosely based on the comic of the same name, but its more appropriate follow-up title, The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, encapsulates what the movie is all about. Fresh from a breakup with the Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) takes the audiences on a fourth wall-breaking narrative that includes violent Looney Tunes-ish animation of her past all the way up to her present state of affairs.
And what a messy state of affairs it is, as Harley had up to that point been taking advantage of her untouchability as the paramour of the most feared man in Gotham City after the Batman. When she, as Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) puts it, “[updates] her relationship status” with the wonderfully colorful destruction of the plant where she and the Joker shared their first toxic chemical bath, it becomes open season and everyone she’s ever wronged or taken advantage of—a considerably long list—comes after her with a vengeance.
“I did not think this through,” Harley tells the audience while comically eluding bad guys left and right. That’s the point. As the audience, you’re not supposed to think things through, either, because in the back of your head you must be wondering where the Joker and the Batman are amid all this mayhem. Instead of the wildly derided but honestly under-appreciated Jared Leto Joker, we get Ewan McGregor as a flamboyant and whiny Roman Sionis aka Black Mask who, true to his mobster stereotype, owns a nightclub. Incidentally, it’s the nightclub where the songbird Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smolett-Bell), better known to comic book and Arrow fans as Black Canary, works as a lounge singer. For some reason, Sionis gets free rein in the film, causing so much mayhem that it’s difficult to put on hold the idea that Joker and Batman are in the same city. This is one of the film’s biggest plot holes, but once you get past that hurdle, it’s a massively fun roller coaster—or should I say roller derby—ride of fantabulous proportions.
When open season is called on Harley’s head, a chaotic, interweaving tale ensues, reminiscent of a Guy Ritchie film, where all the players converge in the third act. It works well despite a real dearth of character development for all the other players because, well, let’s face it, this is actually a Harley Quinn movie and everyone else is just background color for the star of the show. And boy, is Margot Robbie a star. The Australian actress and producer (who also produced the film) steals every scene she’s in and her presence is so electric that she lingers in every scene without. There can be and has been any number of actors cast as Bruce Waynes or Clark Kents, but there can never be another Harleen Quinzel. Robbie plays the character with such frenzied, psychotic intensity it’s impossible not to love her or imagine anyone else in the role.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about a couple of her co-stars, namely the half-Filipina Ella Jay Basco who plays a Cassandra Cain that’s wildly different from the comics. Basco comes off as somewhat hammy, an unfortunate byproduct of acting beside peak Margot Robbie. Comic fans will be disappointed to find that Cassandra Cain aka Batgirl aka Orphan is merely a light-fingered street smart kid rather than a mute killing machine trained to be the world’s greatest assassin. It’s a story choice that makes sense because Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) already fills that niche in the film, so having two of the same archetype competing for screen and story time would’ve been redundant and counterproductive. The typically competent Winstead also acts extremely wooden in the film, which might indicate a failure of direction by relative newcomer Cathy Yan, whose film credits consist mostly of independent short films.
But the real reason might lie somewhere in between as Yan actually proves to be a remarkably adept director whose vision translates vividly on screen. The action sequences are so fun and inventive that the adrenaline rush seeing these women perform astounding acrobatic feats is as good as any action film. The creativity in the action choreography rival the over-the-top sequences of the latter Fast films, and outdo most superhero movies. Yan has license to thrill because Harley Quinn’s world is so colorfully demented that the insanity of a car chase with roller skates is par for the course. Harley also has a unique, balletic fighting style that’s immensely enjoyable to watch. Yan shows so much promise in her first popcorn film debut that a sequel should probably be all but guaranteed.
Just like in the comics, it was important to establish Harley’s independence from the Joker. With the growing and long overdue recognition and portrayal of women’s agency and power in mainstream cinema, Harley needed to be more than just “the Joker’s girlfriend.” The failure to recognize that one is in an abusive relationship is one of the most enduring factors why women (and even some men) stay in them. The film only glosses over the types of abuse the Joker put Harley through, so the complicated power dynamics of an abusive relationship are never fully explored. It’s also a missed opportunity because, in the film, the Joker dumps Harley rather than the other way around, so her emancipation is forced upon her rather than earned. Harley sheds the emotional and psychological baggage of the Joker by necessity because she’s been left with nothing. It would’ve been a far more powerful and significant message if Harley had found the will to leave the Joker of her own accord after realizing how badly she’s been treated. As far as catharsis goes, Birds of Prey falls a little flat.
As escapist fun, however, the film is topnotch entertainment. Warner Bros is at its absolute best when it breaks the mold and lets directors execute their vision, and Birds of Prey continues the upward trend of DC superhero films that revel in their individuality. After the heavy grimness of Joker by Todd Philips, Birds of Prey is a welcome and much needed contrast in tone. The movie is celebratory, even at its most violent (it’s rated R-16 by the MTRCB), and understands the meaning of fun from start to finish. It isn’t a perfect film, wanting egregiously for more character development for the other women, as well as having some truly ineffectual bad guys who are more annoying than truly menacing (Leto’s Joker was at least a little scary), but overall, it’s a phenomenal and wildly festive way to kick off superhero films for 2020.