If there’s one thing you can say about Margot Robbie‘s relationship to Harley Quinn is that she cares.
And that genuine attention and affection for the character keeps Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) afloat when it sometimes threatens to capsize. Loosely based on the DC Comic about a female covert action team, the film does an admirable job bringing versions of fan favorite characters like Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett) to the screen. Of course, it is not the Birds of Prey film its most ardent fans would want — Barbara Gordon is missing entirely — but there is plenty to enjoy once you get past the looseness of the adaptation and the fact that this is, first and foremost, a Harley Quinn film.
The plots concerns Harley (Robbie) getting over a seemingly permanent break-up with the Joker. And once word gets out, Gotham East Side kingpin Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) resolves to “own” her. Oh, and just about every other person she’s maimed or wronged descends on the East Side to get their revenge. But, curiously, Harley’s explosive change in relationship status coincides with Sionis’s biggest play for control of the city, which itself also brings players like Huntress and GCPD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) into Harley’s maelstrom of chaos.
And its Harley’s chaotic energy — and narration — that keeps the film moving along. Huge swaths of story are told out of order thanks to her scattered thought process, but it allows for a few action set-pieces to appear early on. It only makes sense as director Cathy Yan stages them in compelling and fun ways. Curiously, one sequence features a parade of non-lethal weapons which use glitter and smoke to take the place of gore. It’s strange to see in a R-rated film, but it nonetheless leads to scene which feels more impactful thanks to some splendid stunt work (courtesy of John Wick‘s Chad Stahelski and his team).
At the same time, Harley’s out-of-order storytelling does not feel like a last-minute patch the cover up directorial mistakes and instead feels baked in from the earliest drafts. Unlike some DC-based films, Birds of Prey is the product of one screenwriter, Christina Hodson, and that difference shows. Instead of the Frankenstein affair of Justice League, there is a clear story being told. The plot lines up and the different character strands come together in a satisfying way. The stakes may be smaller than the world-saving struggles of Wonder Woman or Aquaman, but every scene feels like it should be there and not the artifact of a script patched over by a succession of disinterested writers. Like Robbie, Hodson (and Yan for that matter) seem to care.
That said, some characters are underdeveloped — leading to one of Harley’s choices later in the film seeming less earned than it should be. But that may be a consequence of introducing the Birds of Prey via Harley’s pre-sold screen appeal. Granted, Harley could probably spend the next decade introducing groups like Checkmate and the Challengers of the Unknown and still offer a film with as many joys as Birds of Prey.
The one truly odd note is the inclusion of Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). An early scene pays some respect to the character’s introduction in the comics, but otherwise BoP‘s Cass is an entirely new character who could just as easily been named “Wendy” without making the amount of changes necessary to fit Cass into the story. Jettisoned is just about everything about her past; though the film is vague enough about her situation to allow some of it into a subsequent film appearance. Nonetheless, she just doesn’t feel like the one-time Batgirl. Also, Basco and Robbie play well off of each other and their shared narrative may have been stronger if Basco’s character wasn’t a known DC quantity. Or, at the very least, a much more obscure character.
Meanwhile, Winstead, Smollett, and Perez play recognizable versions of the DC Comics counterparts. Winstead’s Huntress lacks in the people skills department, a Helena Bertinelli trait dialed up to 10. Smollett’s Dinah shares traits with the Black Canaries of All-Star Batman and DC Bombshells while still offering key aspects of the character across all media and an unexpected reference to her family history. Perez’s Montoya may be the furthest afield just because Perez always offers so much of herself to any part she takes. Nonetheless, the character’s struggle is relatable and she does dress in Question colors during the climatic battle.
McGregor’s Sionis is … interesting. He’s less refined than the comic book character on his best days, but he nails the cartoonish lack of composure on Black Mask’s worst days. He’s fun to watch and the right sort of antagonist for Harley and the Birds of Prey. Chris Messina, as Victor Zsasz, is more difficult to appreciate just because of everything Anthony Carrigan gave the character on Gotham. Messina simply isn’t that version of him and the one which appears in the film seems lightweight in comparison. He does have an interesting function in the film, though, and we wish the dynamic between him and Sionis was developed a little bit more.
But at two hours, Birds of Prey accomplishes a lot by way of introductions to DC’s ever-emerging film universe all the while telling its own story. The result is something fun, funny, and filled with action even as it sets up smaller stakes. Then again, we’ve been so trained to expect universal stakes in these superhero pictures, that something this contained seems minuscule in comparison. And if the studio can find a way to produce these sorts of films and still make money, we’d happily watch more Birds of Prey films and Harley films. Just maybe not together next time. We still want Barbara Gordon in a BoP film.
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