As film fans, there’s always a handful of films that we allow to pass us by. This isn’t usually a comment on their quality or our willingness to enjoy them – sometimes, we’re just a little late to the party.
Another entry into the DCEU, Birds of Prey borrowed one of the only elements of Suicide Squad that actually worked and span it off into a film all its own. That element is, of course, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, and the resulting film is an interesting one. Its success all came down to its approach to the character and her story.
At least, it should have done. Falling short of its “break even” box office mark, Birds of Prey is technically considered something of a flop. However, that status doesn’t match its quality – instead, its release just a few weeks before the pandemic shut down the film industry should be held accountable. Honestly, Birds of Prey is a marked improvement for the DCEU.
Right off the bat (there’s a joke there, but it’s low-hanging fruit), Birds of Prey fundamentally understands the appeal of Robbie’s version of Harley Quinn. She’s exactly the type of quirky anti-hero that sells, and Birds of Prey sets out to highlight that from the off. With narration vaguely reminiscent of Deadpool and a self-aware approach to its own slightly jumbled manner of storytelling, it’s a film that builds its charm around the general atmosphere of chaos that Harley Quinn exudes.
It almost goes without saying, but Margot Robbie is excellent as Harley Quinn. The film is essentially Quinn’s exploration of self, her identity outside of her relationship with the Joker, and her place within Gotham’s criminal hierarchy (which turns out to be lower than she’d like). Robbie injects all of the energy and presence into Harley Quinn necessary to paint her as a nouveau feminist icon, although Birds of Prey feels just a little too over-manufactured in that specific regard for it to land as intended.
There’s no doubt that Birds of Prey is an answer to the criticisms of there not being enough female-led superhero movies – no doubt at all, because it practically beats its audience over the head with the idea. Using Harley Quinn as its foundation, it introduces a number of interesting female characters (who also happen to be key parts of the DC universe): Renee Montoya, Black Canary, Huntress, and Cassandra Cain. It’s also important to note that the film’s true villain is a misogynistic white man born into money (just in case the idea wasn’t already clear enough).
Lack of subtlety notwithstanding, Birds of Prey is by far one of the DCEU’s best films. Its action is executed with style, but it’s never forced: action sequences all service the plot in some way, and some are far more flashy than others. Birds of Prey also uses a fairly basic framework of non-linear storytelling to further build that chaotic vibe, and although it’s pretty transparent, it works well.
Margot Robbie may be Birds of Prey‘s star, but its supporting cast are excellent, too. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is criminally underused, but offers a taste of not just her action capabilities but her comedic chops, too, with one or two perfectly deadpan lines that elicited genuine laughter. Ewan McGregor is delightfully evil in his rare villain role, delivering an interesting take on the Batman villain Black Mask. Rosie Perez provides some self-aware stereotypes, Jurnee Smollett offers up some sound moments of drama, and Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain provides a significant portion of Birds of Prey‘s comedy.
Despite its inability to do anything even remotely akin to subtle, Birds of Prey is significantly more fun than the vast majority of DCEU movies. This makes it more akin to Shazam! than Suicide Squad, indicating that the franchise is beginning to correct its tonal issues. Bolstered by excellent performances from its talented cast, Birds of Prey hammers its point home repeatedly – and even though it doesn’t relent on its central message (essentially, girl power), it also doesn’t let up on the fun, as it’s full throttle from start to finish.
Summary: What it lacks in sublety, it makes up for in fun. There’s little not to enjoy about Birds of Prey, other than the fact that it seems entirely too keen to prove itself – though this wears a little thin at times, its action, comedy, and general mayhem are enough to ensure it’s never dull.
Highlights: Though Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress only has a few minutes of screen time, she’s one of Birds of Prey‘s most interesting characters, effortlessly delivering gravitas, badassery, and comedy all in the same scene.