Few titles set expectations for the movie that follows better than the full title of the new DCEU movie, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). It’s an excessive title, one that puts the ridiculous made-up word “Fantabulous” next to the incredibly important word “Emancipation.” It’s a title that gestures at a team called the Birds of Prey while still insisting that this is mostly about Harley Quinn.
Harley’s come a long way from her first appearances in 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series. Since then, up to and including her portrayal by Margot Robbie in the 2016 trainwreck of a film Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn has existed to be abused by the Joker and to be ogled by audiences.
Birds of Prey undoes that history in the most outrageous and violent way possible.
The movie shares many qualities with Suicide Squad, most notably Robbie back in the role of Harley Quinn. But where that movie put her in (by all accounts very uncomfortable) booty shorts and defined her character as the crazy lady in love with the Joker (Jared Leto, blessedly not returning to this film), director Cathy Yan gives Harley purpose. After being dumped by the Joker (again, not present at all in the film, save for some animated representations), Harley tries to rebuild her life by adopting a hyena and joining a roller derby team.
But Harley cannot completely escape her past, and she finds herself blackmailed by gang leader and club owner Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (a deliciously hammy Ewan McGregor) and his sleazy henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). Harley soon meets other women harmed by Sionis, including veteran police office Renée Montoya (Rosie Perez), nightclub singer Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), the crossbow-wielding Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and teenage pick-pocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Bosco). Realizing that Sionis will kill them all, the women form the titular team.
Again, the idea of misfits coming together to fight a psychopath isn’t that far off from Suicide Squad (or the movie Suicide Squad wanted to be, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy). But Yan improves on her predecessor in every way. The trash-glam aesthetic that felt ostentatious in Suicide Squad perfectly captures the themes in Birds of Prey, visualizing characters making outrageous identities out of the garbage that’s trapped them. Birds of Prey features plenty of pop song needle-drops, but they are well-chosen and not overbearing, adding to both the tension and levity of the fight scenes.
And what glorious fight scenes they are. Choreographed by John Wick stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio, the fights are visceral and exciting, perfectly mixing danger and irreverence. Apropos to Harley’s outsized Brooklyn accent and her penchant for large hammers, the action often feels like it comes from a Loony Toons short — if those shorts lingered on the bloody bodies of Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd. Where superhero movies have been largely bloodless affairs, Birds of Prey relishes the gore, from the snapped legs of a man who foolishly harasses Harley to the faces Sionis peels off of his victims.
These flourishes aside, Birds of Prey is absolutely a superhero movie. Writer Christina Hodson crafts a straightforward story about women set against one another in pursuit of a diamond and then realizing that they need to join together to protect themselves from the gang leader who wants that diamond.
But as that description suggests, Birds of Prey grounds its superheroics in feminist terms. McGregor and Messina play their villains like petulant man-children, deeply insecure people who need to abuse women to feel good. Harley’s plight stems less from the fact that she has broken up with the Joker and more that she lives in a world designed to be dangerous for women. Men prove their power by attacking or protecting these women, essentially reducing them to tokens of privilege. By fighting back, Harley and her fellow Birds aren’t simply taking down a bad guy — they’re redefining social norms.
That’s a lot for one movie to do, but Yan and Hudson pull most of it off with ebulent verve. They fall short, however, in the construction of the film. Despite the movie’s uses plot, Yan uses a fourth-wall-breaking, fractured style that often muddies the story’s forward trajectory. Huntress is introduced early in the film but disappears until the last act. A character trait for Black Canary is mentioned only in passing, until it appears again near the climax, as the end of an arc that none of us actually witnessed on screen.
But every time these shortcomings start to become annoying, McGregor does a silly dance or Smollett-Bell executes a roundhouse kick or Robbie cracks wise while cracking heads, and the movie’s manic glee overtakes us. Who has time to complain about these minor missteps when its much more fun to tear down the patriarchy with a giant mallet?