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Harley Quinn is a wonderful character. It was clear when she first debuted razzing the Caped Crusader on Batman: The Animated Series in the 1990s; it’s continued to be clear as she’s created all varieties of chaos on the pages of DC Comics for decades; and it was even true when Margot Robbie first brought the character to life in David Ayers’ otherwise unfortunate Suicide Squad back in 2016. She’s not only a hell of a lot of fun to watch in action, but it’s obvious that all of the people expressing themselves through her personality and crafting her stories are having a ball as well.
This in mind, it should come as no surprise that Harley is the best part of Cathy Yan’s Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn). She’s a captivating presence whenever she is on screen, particularly because of her fantastic unpredictability, and the results are wild every time we see the world from her off-kilter perspective – be it a wildly colorful and sparkly police station invasion, or a musical sequence that springs from her mind while she is being tuned up by a foe. What’s more, the film is fully cognizant of what it has with her, and takes every opening to put her front and center.
Great as this is, there is a problem – and you may notice it recognizing that “Harley” and “Quinn” are words 10 and 11 of an expansive title that is front-loaded with the name one of one of DC Comics’ most popular teams. Spotlighted as Harley is, this isn’t a solo film, and the film is built to have her share the stage with four other heroines. The trouble is that this proves to be a complicated task to pull off narratively, resulting in a fair bit of messiness.
Much like Harley herself, the movie has a bit of an identity crisis (which will be partially exemplified in me referring to it as Birds of Prey going forward), and while it does manage to stick the landing, it’s also hard not to recognize its unevenness.
Written by Christina Hodson, our story begins with the titular emancipation of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie)… though it isn’t so much an “emancipation” as it is Harley being almost literally thrown to the curb by her longtime beau, The Joker. It’s not a relationship status change that she takes well, at first being publically in denial of the whole thing, but things go from bad to worse when she tells the entire city of Gotham that she is done with Mr. J by blowing up the chemical plant where she was transformed from psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel into a pale-skinned psychotic.
She realizes far too late that this is also a message to Gotham’s underworld that she is no longer under the protection of the Clown Prince of Crime, and suddenly everybody with a grudge starts to come out of the woodwork. The most significant threat in this regard is pernicious club owner and crime lord Roman Sionis a.k.a. Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), who has a laundry list of grievances and has been waiting for his chance at revenge.
Just when things seem to be at their darkest, though, an opportunity presents itself when Harley learns that her enemy has lost track of a diamond that could be his key to total control of the city. As it turns out, the stone was nicked by a young pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), and the situation is further complicated by Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a detective trying to build a case against Sionis; Dinah Lance a.k.a. Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer at the Black Mask club who turns witness against her employer; and Helena Bertinelli a.k.a. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an assassin who has been going around murdering gangsters with a crossbow.
Is it a Harley Quinn movie, or a Birds Of Prey movie? Both... and neither.
In its mission to introduce audiences to a fantastic collection of characters never adapted for the big screen before, Birds of Prey is very successful, as the personalities are strong and engaging – the issue is really just about how they are layered into the story. The movie goes above and beyond telling us about the life of Harley Quinn when she is going about her daily existence, and everyone else simply subsists in her story and only have a handful of scenes separate from her to get across their respective deals.
It feels like the film faced a tricky decision during development – whether to tell a story solely from the perspective of Harley Quinn, or build team movie – and never came up with a firm answer. The result is a broken structure that shortchanges what should be key players. By the end of Birds Of Prey you’ll definitely think Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress is fantastic, but you’ll also find yourself wishing the blockbuster didn’t wait until the third act to solidify her place in the narrative.
It's Margot Robbie's playground, but everyone is having fun.
Of course, the positive spin on this is that the reason you want more is because you enjoy the taste you get, and that’s absolutely true in this case. Each of the film’s stars, no matter the total size of their part, makes the most of their moments, and leave a wonderful impression. Mixing together rage and a shaky confidence, Winstead’s Helena Bertinelli has a seriously weird energy, and with a back story featuring a mom who was a costumed vigilante, Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Dinah Lance brings some interesting drama to the table. Ewan McGregor is also clearly loving every minute of acting as malicious and vile – creating some of the movie’s most surprising, but welcomed humor – and he is joined in doing so by Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz, who seems to love getting the order to commit violence as much as he loves actually executing said violence.
Great as everyone is, however, this is Margot Robbie’s movie, and she totally owns every frame. It was made clear in Suicide Squad that the Australian actress had a strong beat on the role, and here she gets to crank things up 10,000% (think Deadpool’s journey from X-Men Origins: Wolverine to his solo film). She demonstrates excellent comedic timing and physicality, and even creates real empathy examining her broken psyche and the struggle between her loneliness and her emotionally dependency.
Birds Of Prey is at its best when at its most colorful and sparkly.
Being more focused on character and tone, Birds of Prey doesn’t go as massive as your typical comic book adaptation, but it is still peppered with many memorable set pieces, and up-and-coming director Cathy Yan leaves a stylistic stamp. Never before have you seen so much color and sparkle in a DC Comics film, often paired with some fantastic fight choreography, and only further supplementing the high energy is a well-utilized soundtrack filled with sick beats and clever remixes. It’s strong work for a filmmaker’s first high-profile project.
DC Comics fans have been waiting years and years for a great Harley Quinn solo movie, and here they get it… albeit it’s packaged inside a more so-so Birds of Prey movie. It’s a mixed bag, with both its strengths and flaws showing clearly, but it’s definitely an enjoyable one.