The DC Cinematic Universe has undoubtedly had a rocky start, with the goal seemingly being to run and catch up to the massive success of Disney and Marvel’s interconnected narratives and superheroic team-ups. After the disappointments of Batman v. Superman and Justice League, Warner Bros. has changed their strategy and wisely started to produce standalone films that had their own unique sensibilities; Aquaman and Shazam! have two distinctly different vibes and styles, and they are all the better for it.
And now, thanks in large part to Margot Robbie’s producing efforts, we have our first colorful punk-rock DC film in Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which sees Robbie’s Harley Quinn character from the sloppy Suicide Squad taking center stage and telling a female-led story of an eclectic group of strong-willed women fighting some awful men.
Directed with manic zeal by Cathy Yan, Birds of Prey fully immerses us in the mind of the psychotic villain telling the story, making for an anarchic, unfiltered (this one’s properly R-rated), and very glittery piece of entertainment.
Robbie steps back into the heels of Harley Quinn, the infamous villainess and lover of the Joker. After a falling out with the Clown Prince of Crime, Harley finds herself struggling with the idea of being on her own. She’s also quickly realizing how many people are mad at her for various reasons, which are cleverly shown to us in text form whenever these characters pop up in the narrative. One of these people is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who’s been vying for criminal dominance in Gotham. And he’s in desperate need of a precious diamond to cement his power as the “Gotham godfather,” as Harley puts it.
But Harley isn’t the only woman who has some issues with Sionis. And through Quinn’s scatterbrained narration, we are introduced to the various women that get wrapped up in Sionis’s evil exploits: Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), the police detective trying to build a case against him, Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), the singer at Sionis’s club who’s secretly working with the feds, and The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an assassin who’s out to settle some scores. Oh, and there’s also Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a young pickpocket who might have ingested that very important diamond.
I was one of the lucky few who got to see Cathy Yan’s feature directorial debut, Dead Pigs (which has yet be distributed and properly released), at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2017. From what I remember of that film, Yan’s strength in genre-melding and big tonal swings was evident. She brings those same strengths to Birds of Prey and turns up the volume a bit to match the level of insanity required for a protagonist who’s a little off her rocker.
Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn was the highlight of Suicide Squad, and here she really gets to let loose and build a full character. The actress clearly understands what makes Quinn such an alluring presence in Batman lore, and this film smartly allows her character to not be defined by her relationship with Mr. J. She’s her own brand of crazy, and Robbie makes her incredibly fun to watch, without letting us lose sight of the fact that she’s an unreliable, unhinged psycho killer (one of Suicide Squad‘s critical failings).
The rest of the girl gang are solid in their roles, especially the underused Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, who’s skimmed-over origin story definitely has the most intrigue of all of them. Ewan McGregor gleefully camps the place up with his turn as Sionis, a character who will dismember someone with ease but is also grossed out by snot. McGregor plays both sides of that coin to a very heightened degree.
Structurally, Birds of Prey is a little wonky, prioritizing relentless entertainment over providing much dramatic heft. It feels like almost an hour of the film’s 109-minute runtime is dedicated to introducing our heroines and setting up the conflict. And that entire segment of the film is undeniably entertaining, stuffed with timeline jumps, choice needle drops, well-choreographed fight sequences, and weird asides.
But once we get through all that setup and start forming the central relationship between Harley and Cassandra, we are already near the climactic battle. There isn’t enough time to let that relationship develop enough to fully payoff by the end. And without a sufficient second act, Birds of Prey ends up feeling dramatically slight.
What it lacks in narrative depth, it makes up for with all kinds of candy-colored set-pieces and even a brief Baz Luhrmann-esque musical number, just for fun. The action sequences are cleverly staged and brutal as can be, without feeling gratuitous. Expect a lot of baseball bat and hammer-swinging. And the near-constant stream of music, from both the soundtrack and Daniel Pemberton’s score, keep the energy up all the way through.
Birds of Prey is a sugar high of a movie. It isn’t the most substantial meal of a DC offering, but it does everything in its power to keep you energized and entertained while you’re watching it. The anarchic spirit is there, and I admire Cathy Yan and Margot Robbie’s insistence on the “anything goes” camp that befits a movie about Harley Quinn. Birds of Prey successfully continues DC’s current cinematic hot streak, and I hope Warner Bros. continues this trend of giving us stylistically diverse little pockets of their cinematic universe.
Birds of Prey is rated R, and it’s playing in theaters now.
All images courtesy of Warner Bros.