The DCEU has been a roller coaster since the start. After trying to make a name for themselves by being the “serious” comic book adaptation (and failing miserably), they finally found their footing as the “Here’s Some Money, Do Whatever” studio. Aquaman made waves by embracing the silliness, Joker made Oscar and box office history by remaking Taxi Driver with a supervillain, and Shazam! leaned into its feel-good fable to find universal themes. That same sense of freedom was provided for Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – a title which, while lengthy, is far superior to the shortened gobbledygook they replace it with. And while it certainly rehashes familiar beats and ideas to connect to comic book moviegoers, Cathy Yan, Margot Robbie, and the rest of the cast have created a fascinating, flashy, absurdist action comedy-thriller that works more often than it doesn’t.
In the aftermath of her team-up with The Suicide Squad and subsequent escape, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is devastated when her beloved Joker unceremoniously dumps her. Now left on her own, Harley begins to repair the damage done by the toxic relationship, including roller derby, adopting a pet hyena, and going out with her acquaintances. However, despite her whole new persona and social circle, she still struggles to connect and form meaningful friendships. But that all changes when gangster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) places a bounty on tween pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). After reaching the girl first and deciding to raise her as a protégé, Harley soon finds herself partnering with – and occasionally betraying – a group of women who make up the crime scene of Gotham City – alcoholic detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Roman’s lounge singer and moll Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and mysterious vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And when they find themselves pursued by Roman’s goons, including terrifying henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) the band of misfits finally learns the true strength of friendship and numbers.
There are two simultaneous aspects in Birds of Prey that elevate it and make it work: its story of female friendship and empowerment, and the way it balances earnestness and pastiche in its execution. While its straightforward narrative is a little weak compared to other films in the superhero genre – after all, the technical “plot” is just a mad dash to find a diamond before anyone else does before half the pursuants come together to stop the other half of pursuants – Yan shifts her focus away from narrative and into a shaggy, smarter series of moments involving women coming together as a group: out of necessity, out of survival, and out of friendship. The best moments in Birds of Prey involve women looking out for each other. This evolves in ways both serious – one of the film’s first action sequences involves one woman saving another who’s being taken home drunk from a bar by two mobsters – and silly-realistic – during the final battle, Harley stops fighting just long enough to hand Dinah a scrunchie to keep her hair out of her eyes.
Meanwhile, Yan approaches some of the film’s most significant moments of growth and camaraderie in the same way many so-called “chick flicks” portray their female protagonists – and often to great effect. In the aftermath of her breakup from The Joker, Harley goes out dancing and drinking at a club in what I can only describe as one of the most honest post-breakup portrayals I’ve seen on film. Yan elevates these ideas and tropes to almost comical levels throughout the film (the “burning of the ex’s things” angle is taken to bombastic new heights), and draws from the genre every chance she gets – including the use of food porn, an important aspect of these types of films because, let’s face it, delicious food is almost always better than a man. While these allusions appear in the form of parody, as if it’s a female-centric comedy from the eyes of a deranged clown killer, there’s a clear distinction and honest, surprising earnestness that manages to make you laugh while simultaneously pushing the genre forward. And sure, not every decision works perfectly – there’s a sequence involving Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” that’s gorgeously shot, but doesn’t quite fit the narrative. But for the most part, this is a really interesting story, dealing with riveting themes, and delivered earnestly and humorously.
The most surprising trick up Birds of Prey’s sleeve is the fact that its action sequences involve the best choreography in any superhero film in…honestly like two decades? It certainly surpasses all MCU and DCEU entries to date. Yan and choreographer Chad Stahelski (of John Wick fame) work together as a talented team to create action set pieces that not only feel real, with limited stunt doubles and accurate physics, but are above all fun. There’s a built-in strategy to the fights, where the women uses their wits to play to their strengths to take on behemoth hitmen. This involves aiming at a lot of legs, teeth, and joints, and therefore results in some gleefully shot and perfectly Foley-ed sequences of shattering femurs, broken teeth, and fractured skulls. Yan scores these energetic, exciting sequences of gleeful female revenge with hit songs like “Barracuda,” balancing the female rage, mirthful carnage, and dance-like performance of the battles with an exhilarating rush. I mean, I physically cannot understand not screaming out “f*ck yeah” as Harley accidentally snorts an exploded packet of cocaine and proceeds to beat a room of heavily armed goons to death with a baseball bat – one of whom’s leg she breaks in three different places. 80% of the movie could be “I gotta take you back to the beginning” moments (a major pet peeve of mine, and one of the film’s only faults) if it means I can watch a neon-fueled cornucopia of these four brutally murdering sadistic misogynists.
In terms of the performances, there’s really not much for me to say in terms of Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn. She is such a charismatic actress, and a perfect fit for everyone’s favorite psychotic clown. Robbie’s face has this rare ability to create cartoonish facial expressions that exist in a world of pure art, and when coupled with her physical performance (whether she’s beating up bandits, eating an egg sandwich, or downing shots while flipping off a group full of men), it stands tall as one of the greatest couplings of comic book characters with live action actors in cinematic history. I don’t exaggerate when I say she should be considered in the same category as Christopher Reeve, Chadwick Boseman, and Robert Downey, Jr. Jurnee Smollett, meanwhile, launched her remarkable 2020 with a compelling turn as Dinah Lance, aka the Black Canary. Smollett’s performance is rather understated, a cross between a moll and a spy that feels out of a classic film noir, and when I first left the theater, I’d felt she’d had the least impact of the group. Weirdly enough, all these months later, it is her performance I can’t stop thinking about. She captures her character’s nervous energy and quest for a voice quite perfectly, and she may have the greatest arc outside of Robbie. Rosie Perez is Rosie Perez, I don’t know what more you want me to say – she’s perfectly cast as a wise-cracking alcoholic cop, and she makes an admirable, down-to-earth foil for Robbie’s chaotic energy.
And then there’s my favorite: Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Winstead’s role is a little hard to analyze, as she’s really only onscreen for the final act. But Winstead plays Huntress, the socially awkward badass who constantly flubs her practiced speech in the mirror before murdering mobsters, with such a socially stunted energy, and with such clever comedic timing, that she feels like she’s a part of this film far more than she actually is – and we’re all the better for it. Ella Jay Basco rounds out the titular Birds as a proper foil for Harley (equally obnoxious, but in an entirely likable way), and while her character isn’t quite as interesting as, say, a killer clown, alcoholic cop, or vengeful assassin, she certainly fits into the group quite nicely. Chris Messina brings a creepy energy to the sociopathic murderer Victor Zsaz, prancing around the set with a terrifying sensual energy not unlike Tim Curry’s villainous roles. But if anyone deserves praise outside of the film’s lead actresses, it’s Ewan McGregor as the villainous Roman Sionis. What’s great about McGregor’s performance, and how Yan directs him, is that he understands that, were he to play this role straight, it would serve as a cliché: a sexist monster who likes to murder. Yan has McGregor turn up the ham reader all the way up, entering camp category, and to great effect. McGregor manages to find a smart balance, undercutting Sionis as a threat to these women while simultaneously making him a terrifying, formidable presence. His man-child-like energy is all sh*ts and giggles right up to the point where he cuts the face off a child, or threatens, berates, and abuses a female patron of his club in a truly harrowing sequence. McGregor’s villain is the perfect counterpoint to the film’s heroines, and I give credit to the writer, director, and actor for knowing exactly what type of performance is needed to make the film work.
Birds of Prey is a fun, nasty, smart entry in the weird-ass DC canon. I haven’t even touched on the impeccable animated sequences, or the often-hilarious screenplay by Christina Hodson (there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Bernie joke that’s one of the best visual gags of the year). There’s just so much to love, things are inevitably going to get left out. If Birds of Prey accomplishes anything, it is cementing Robbie as an A-lister and making Yan a go-to director for any genre of her choosing. But on its own, it still works as a rollicking, touching, humorous action-comedy, and a top-notch piece of entertainment.
Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is now available on HBO Max, and can be rented on most streaming platforms