Comic book movies are the mainstream these days with new ones landing nearly each month from the giant corporations behind Marvel and DC’s cinematic output. Both factions, eternally at odds with the other if their vocal fans are to be believed, feature filmographies that vary in quality from film to film, but it’s only DC that seems to get a consistent critical drubbing. To be fair, 2016’s one-two punch of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad earned any and all negative responses, but DC has since found a sweet spot of tone, temper, and fun with films like Wonder Woman (2017) and Aquaman (2018). The latest entry in the DC Extended Universe continues that trend as Birds of Prey delivers laughs, thrills, oodles of charm, and the best action scenes in a comic book movie since Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has led a complicated life capped of with some spectacularly bad choices. She left her psychiatry career behind after falling in love with the Joker, but after years of committing crimes at his side the fool has broken her heart and tossed her out onto the street. Word spreads, and Harley quickly finds herself targeted by all manner of bad guys — some want revenge, others want her as their own side piece — including the sadistic but stylish Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). As she fights for her life throughout Gotham she finds herself crossing paths with a preteen girl and a trio bad-ass women who’ve had their own fair share of bad experiences with overbearing and/or violent men. It’s not long before they all realize that if they’re going to survive the onslaught of Roman’s army of thugs they’re going to have to fight back as one.
Director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs, 2018) delivers a Harley Quinn standalone film in the form of a confetti and joy-filled pinata and then proceeds to knock it around for 100 minutes releasing bursts of color and blasts of fun through to the very end. The film offers a vibrant palette and personality that captivates with color and consequence. It starts a bit rough while Christina Hodson‘s script gets Harley’s troubled past out of the way via voice-over, animated sequences, and some rushed scenes, but once viewers are brought up to speed it settles into its own story with irreverent energy, gleeful violence, and characters overflowing with wicked appeal. And it earns bonus points for that Pet Sematary (1989) nod too…
There are some cutesy jokes that don’t land and a couple unintelligent character choices in the third act, but for the most part Hodson finds a fantastic balance between the humor and the thrills. Even more impressively in a world filled with agenda-driven movies handicapped by a mishandling of those very agendas, her script manages to be a powerful rallying cry for strong women — call it girl power, call it feminist, call it female-focused — that never neglects story, character, and the bottom line goal of being entertaining. (It also never resorts to obnoxious pandering along the lines of Avengers: Endgame‘s laughable female photo op on the battlefield…) Master villains are a heightened concept, but oppression and abuse at the hands of men is all too real, and while each of these women have been touched in some way by it they’re all standing up to it. That reality is present without ever feeling heavy or intrusive, and the subsequent ass-kickings they deliver to the bad guys are that much more enjoyable for it.
To that end, the fight scenes here are spectacular. Yan, cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, 2010), and 2nd AD Chad Stahelski (John Wick, 2014) pool their talents to deliver some gorgeous and thrilling set-pieces built mostly around fights, brawls, and highly athletic take-downs. Slow-motion highlights some shots while most play out in real-time, and the choreography feels both exciting and fresh. Traditional guns are used sparingly, with most fights involving fists, feet, and other objects, but one sequence shines with Harley’s use of a bean-bag gun. You’d think the Gotham police department — located as it is in a city filled with super villains — would be a bit more secure, but it’s nonetheless fun watching her tear through the station using nothing but mad style and non-lethal force.
Robbie feels tailor-made for the role of Harley Quinn, and while the accent might take some getting used to — it feels unwise at first, much like Edward Norton’s Tourette’s-laden performance in Motherless Brooklyn (2019), but as with that film it quickly evens out as the film becomes the focus — she perfectly embodies the character’s poppy energy and dangerous uncertainty. Her Harley is a capable and competent woman finding her own two feet, and her faults feel every bit as convincing as her strengths. You also unequivocally buy the pure joy she feels when committing acts of brutality and carnage. The supporting cast, though, is where it’s at starting with Harley’s fellow birds.
Rosie Perez plays a detective fed up with the boys club, and she’s still the same firecracker you fell for decades ago in films like Do the Right Thing (1989) and Fearless (1993). Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane, 2016), meanwhile, kills as an orphan turned assassin with wobbly social skills. Scenes of her practicing “cool” dialogue and trying to fit in with the other women are terrific and remind just how great she is with comedy. The film’s breakout, though, is Jurnee Smollett-Bell (The Great Debaters, 2007) as Black Canary. She delivers a smart, compelling character and convinces with the action too. Finally, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that McGregor is an absolute blast as the sleazy and cruel Roman. He’s clearly having a good time, and that translates into more sadistic fun with the character.
Birds of Prey is a comic book superhero film that, with only a minor exception, keeps its world, story, and action grounded, and that works to create a Gotham that feels more tangible in its blend of gangsters, whispered-about super folk, and violent shenanigans. It’s an entertaining, poppy, colorful movie that, like the women of the title, works to draw more people in rather than push them away. Harley is no hero, and the film never shies from her core attitude — she can’t be trusted in the long term, but in this fight at least she’s someone worth getting behind and fighting alongside of… and that’s probably a bit more interesting than anything her ex ever managed.