The last time audiences saw Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, she was being freed from Black Gate prison by The Joker (Jared Leto) in David Ayers’s Suicide Squad. That was in 2016 when hopes were high that a group of DC Comics misfits (re: killers) might come together like Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and rake in the dough. Sadly, that film ended up being all filler, little killer, and audiences weren’t sure if we’d see any of the characters again in the DC live-action world being created. Robbie, however, had a different idea after seeing the audience response to her character at San Diego Comic-Con that year, as her iteration of Harley spawned countless cosplayers. She could feel that something was there and spear-headed a campaign for a solo feature, even becoming a producer on the project. That project ultimately became director Cathy Yan’s (Dead Pigs) Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), a film which is more fantastic girl gang than solo outing, and audiences are all the better for it. It’s not that Robbie’s Harley can’t hold her own, but this ensemble is totally killer in a story that’s equal parts touching, hilarious, and downright bonkers.
Sometime after Joker breaks Harley out of prison, they break up, sending Harley on a downward spiral as she begins to figure out her role without her Puddin’. Lost, confused, and shielded only by Joker’s reputation, Harley finds herself the target of multiple adversaries once word gets out about their break-up. There is hope, though, as she’s not the only one with a target on her back, and the enemy of my enemy offers the chance of friendship. The thing is, she may need more than Gotham PD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), lounge singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and assassin Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to take down the man connected to their woes, crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), but the only way any of them get to regain their independence is to take him down.
Given the history of the DC Comics live-action films in the last decade, there’s a certain amount of healthy skepticism around any property. It’s that whole “fool me once, shame on you” deal at work. Even with healthy audience and critical responses for Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam!, there’s this strange sense that the shoe’s going to drop at any moment. It’s with incredible delight that, once more, DC Comics has a real audience-pleaser on their hands with Birds of Prey. A transitional film (one which closes loops on Suicide Squad and opens up possibilities for future films but gets hampered by that responsibility), it is free of the kind of nasty tropes proliferated throughout Suicide Squad and shares more in common with Wonder Woman thanks to the script by Christina Hodson (Bumblebee). The bad guys are bad guys not because they hate women, but because they hate Harley. Harley doesn’t engage in unnecessary (read: gratuitous) moments to highlight her body, nor is she put in a compromising position to have her body flaunted or ogled. That’s right, there’s not a single moment where the Male Gaze is present or considered. Rather, the script uplifts Harley and her fellows as Yan favors only the best way to tell a story. This is refreshing in the kind of way that shouldn’t be at this point. Too many male directors make the mistake of thinking that sexual power only comes from the physical presentation of the body, whereas the reality is how the body is shown or used within the scene. This is one of the greatest strengths of the Yan/Hodson film: the characters only serve the story and, in so doing, themselves, not anyone else. This gets to the heart of the film itself: emancipation and what that really means.
At its core, Birds of Prey is not just a film to wipe the slate clean for the Crown Princess of Crime, but to establish that the toxicity present, the male-domination that creeps through Squad, is a thing of the past. Harley is no longer defined as The Joker’s companion, but as her own villain, whose belief system may be in disarray at best, self-serving at worst, but never as the servant of chaos most think she is. This is present in the things she values (like a good breakfast egg and bacon sandwich), how she hurts people (broken knees for the rude; bean bags, colored gas, and glitter bombs for Gotham PD), and how she dresses (gone are the revealing outfits in favor of functional yet stylish attire). This isn’t a rebranding of the character, far from it, but the start of a tonal shift from what was introduced in Squad into whatever will be. The possibilities are enormous and quite literally infinite. It could be something more like what fans of the original Arleen Sorkin-voiced Batman: The Animated Series are used to, like the Tara Strong-voiced iteration in the Arkham Asylum games, or even like the Kaley Cuoco-voiced version on the animated DC Universe show. Whatever it will be, with Birds of Prey, Robbie cements herself as the epitome live-action version. It doesn’t matter that she’s the only one, theatrically, thus far, this performance sets the official bar far more than her role in Squad. Robbie not only nails the psychotic cheerleader voice of Harley and calm, professional voice of Harleen (clear identifiers of the personalities battling within her head), but she also embodies the character in a way that has only previously been animated. In this strange way, her performance in Squad felt like it was in service of the audience (or what they thought the crowd wanted), whereas, with Yan at the helm and a largely female cast, Birds of Prey offers a performance that’s more inhibited, more insane, and yet more far more believable. In this way, fans of the erstwhile Joker paramour see a depiction worthy of praise, idolization, and emulation over the toxicity encouraged in Squad. As long as the upcoming James Gunn-directed The Suicide Squad and rumored Gotham City Sirens doesn’t prove reductive, Birds of Prey is the beginning of something that offers a dirtier, less idyllic version of the feminism presented in the Wonder Woman films while being no less valuable.
Despite how the marketing sells it, Robbie isn’t the lone character of the film, even if her character maintains the narrative center of it all. As constructed by Hodson, the central characters are connected, even if tangentially, and it’s those threads which pull them around Harley. While Birds of Prey is not comic-accurate, the film is no less satisfying in how it pulls the pieces together. After over a decade of comic films dominating the box office, audiences should know better than to ask for a straight panel-to-screen adaptation. It rarely works and leaves most more aggravated than sated. Here, the individual pieces are roughly what comic fans know: Dinah Lance is a metahuman with the ability to produce sonic waves via vocal-chord control; Renee is a Gotham PD detective; and Helena is a vengeance-focused assassin. The changes come from (a) trying to mesh with the previously existing worlds established by Batman v Superman, Squad, and Justice League and (b) serving as easy introductions to the characters. That means that Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain is not the mute killer fans know, but a thieving foster child who lives in the same apartment building as Dinah. From the outside, that seems like a huge departure, but, from within, Cassandra’s background is the most seamless way to add her to the story while also providing the audience with a gateway into this new Harley’s adventure. Each of the changes and adaptations might ruffle feathers at first until it’s seen in action, then it transforms into the most brilliant back-door origin story those same fans will be clamoring for as soon as they leave the theater. Remember, Birds of Prey is a transitional film, so the bulk of the time is setting up who the characters all are and each of the actors make an indelible mark on the audience, even if given less screen time than you’d like. Yan and Hodson accomplish this by applying a narrative technique that ebbs and flows with Harley’s erratic train of thought. The upside is that the film maintains a less traditional structure which enables the film to play with the rules of reality without breaking anything previously established (think names on walls, cartoonish drawings over people’s faces, and a little 4th wall breaking), while the downside is a frequent and abrupt halting of forward momentum every time the film backtracks to offer background. None of these backtracks are boring, nor do they diminish the enjoyment of the film as a whole, but the lack of linear structure does tend to interrupt the honest-to-goodness insanity on screen in such a way that it requires an adjustment period to regain the same energy. The less traditional approach does prove necessary in order to better understand how the seemingly random assortment of characters fit together where a more traditional method would be clunky, it’s just a shame that the inventive method is a bit of a disruption.
Of all the things in Birds of Prey that’re worth discussing, the most important bit is the stunt work. There’ve been stunts in previous DC Comics films before and many continue to resonate within the minds of the audiences. What sets Birds of Prey apart is how practical the stunt work appears and how frequently it seems that the actors are the ones performing them. Think John Wick with a Legally Blonde vibe. In the trailer-teased sequence of Harley attacking a police department, not only does Robbie appear as totally comfortable with her shotgun as she does with her baseball bat, but the method of attack appears variant depending on the offensive needs while also feeling undeniably kinetic. There’s a real bone-crunching sensation from each landing of either fist, foot, or projectile. Later, in a sequence involving Helena, Mary Elizabeth Winstead appears every inch as agile as the comic character, leaping from one precarious perch to another with apparent ease. Also, for those who look for proper realism in their fights and not just panel-to-screen repetition, the fact that long hair is a distraction is addressed quickly and minimally and should delight anyone who’s wondered how the hell any elite fighter can see through their long locks. This doesn’t even touch on the beauty of the Harley-on-cocaine tussle teased in the trailer or the sequence in which the entire girl gang battles for survival. Fight coordinator Jon Valera (Creed II) and stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio (John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) nail the realistic, yet unconventional nature of comic book violence by employing techniques and styles that ground the mayhem in ways more commonly seen in Jackie Chan films like Police Story and Rumble in the Bronx where household items and objects around you become weapons of destruction in capable hands.
If you’re wondering how you could get all the way to the end of a review and not hear anything about the villains of the story, don’t let that suggest that McGregor’s performance as Roman or Chris Messina’s as his right-hand killer Victor Zsasz are nothing special. Far from it. McGregor offers a performance that eats every scene he’s in, presenting a man whose power hunger is a psychological reaction to the loss of control. This makes him almost more predictable than this universe’s Joker who murders for fun, but far more deadly in his methodology. He wants you to hurt like he’s been hurt and working with someone like Zsasz, known in the comics as a serial killer, makes for a partnership built on a symbiotic need for bloodshed. There’s nothing subtextual about their partnership as it’s put right front and center for everyone to see. The biggest and best thing about these two as villains is that their disdain for Harley and the rest is not because they are women, an overused trope to shorthand villainy, but because they each have “wronged” Roman in some way. This is all goes back to Hodson in crafting a story that celebrates the uniqueness of women without the implication that their gender matters. In short, while Bird of Prey lacks the over-the-top violence and deep-cut homages of films like Death Proof and Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, it absolutely contains the feminine empowerment that writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s been targeting for years without fully hitting the bullseye.
In closing, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t satisfied with popping off the screen when it can explode everywhere. It’s an uproarious action-comedy that captures the anarchistic aspects of Harley Quinn that endear her to audiences without trying to erase the complexity that makes her difficult to love, while it also introduces a few new characters audiences will demand more of before the film even finishes. The stunt work is top notch in its inventiveness and visceral nature, the male gaze is virtually absent, and the story never bites off more than it can chew. For many, the bar by which DC Comics live-action films must clear is terribly low, so when I say that Harley Quinn blows up that bar it’s because ::puts on Harleen’s psychologist glasses:: the bar’s existence is merely a patriarchal manifestation to measure one separate film against another in an unnecessary attempt to cultivate tension among fandoms you’ll understand that this is a DC film unlike any other.
In theaters February 7th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.