Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) arrived on our screens in February with plenty of performance pressure. DC has always been tailing after Marvel with its films, but lately DC has been upping their game with exciting, stylish comic book films and Birds of Prey had to follow suit. After the rather disappointing Suicide Squad, of which one Miss Harley Quinn was the clear highlight of, Birds of Prey had to do justice to not just the character herself, but also to the larger universe of DC films. It also had to make a lot of money to prove that female-led and female-centric comic book films could be financially profitable. Mission impossible much?
Birds of Prey focuses mostly on Harley herself and the aftermath of her breakup from the big Mr. J himself, who is never seen, but always seems to be casting a shadow over Harley. She, like every girl, makes some terrible post-breakup decisions and gets mixed up in a search for a valuable diamond and comes across some other ladies of Gotham, who are also in dire need of some liberation.
While Birds of Prey is admirable in its ambition to be bigger, better and certainly bloodier than a lot of the other DC films, it ends up stumbling under its own weight and the very heavy expectations. It feels one good script edit away from a truly remarkable comic book movie, but as it stands, Birds of Prey is still first-class entertainment and full of some pretty good girl power. Birds, assemble!
Margot Robbie, who already proved her Harley is the real star of Gotham in Suicide Squad is once again magnetic here, commanding the screen with admirable presence and a lot of star power. This new Harley is liberated, sexy and painfully relatable, because haven’t we all had that one bad haircut after a dramatic break up and we’ve certainly made some impulse purchases too, even if we’ve never bought a hyena and named it after Bruce Wayne. Robbie keeps the film grounded in Harley’s emotions and her fight to become her own woman, even if this narrative gets a little lost later in the film.
What doesn’t work is the actual titular Birds of Prey; Black Canary, The Huntress and Renee Montoya. All actresses do their best here and bring a lot of OOMPH into the film, but it’s simply overstuffed with characters and motives. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s The Huntress is a clear highlight, but not enough time is devoted to the character who is now just an amusing sidekick who just stumbles into the action.
While Ewan McGregor goes full camp as the main villain Roman Sionis AKA Black Mask, he never feels like a real threat to Harley or anyone really. While a scene in his club where Roman outrightly screams at a woman to dance on a table for his sick entertainment is terrifying in its depiction of toxic masculinity, there’s never any real terror associated with Roman. Villains are notoriously difficult to get right and it’s the one aspect where DC is still lagging behind Marvel; the DC villains are too one-dimensional and cartoonish to become iconic or even just engaging.
Along with villains, comic book films have always struggled with their final battles. They’re usually messy, explosion-heavy CGI nightmares so while the finale of Birds of Prey feels a little anti-climactic, mainly because of the villain himself, it’s refreshing in its practical effects and simplicity. There are no CGI baddies to be seen here, but plenty of good, old-fashioned fighting and the fight choreographies stand out in their brutality and electricity.
Birds of Prey proves that comic book movies can still be exciting and different, they can be unique. It’s an excellent example of a character that’s now been looked at by a woman, the female gaze. Harley feels like a character that serves herself rather than just the male audience. While it’s far from perfect, Birds of Prey is certainly an improvement and exciting new step for both the DCEU and the character of Harley Quinn.
Dir: Cathy Yan
Scr: Christina Hodson
Cast: Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez
Prd: Sue Kroll, Margot Robbie, Bryan Unkeless
DOP: Matthew Libatique
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Country: United States
Run time: 109 minutes
Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is available on Digital 24th of April and DVD and Blu Ray June 15th.