Synopsis: After the traumatic experience of being in Suicide Squad and around Jared Leto, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) decides to strike out on her own, resulting in her being drawn into a madcap chase for a diamond sought after by crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) and his psychopathic bodyguard Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). Luckily for Harley, she soon assembles her own motley crew of antiheroes, including rogue cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and pre-teen pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ellen Jay Basco).
1. Everything wrong with Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (henceforth shortened to Birds of Prey for the sake of my sanity) is encapsulated in the synopsis above. It’s not so much about the quality of the plot as the quantity of it. This has been a general problem with the DC movies. In their bid to catch up to Marvel’s head start in establishing a cinematic universe, they have taken shortcuts that undercut the quality of the movies. New characters are hurriedly introduced with the sole purpose of setting up future franchises, which is counterproductive as they make little impression and only serve to derail the movie they are in. Too much happens too quickly, resulting in an overstuffed plot that makes no sense and is driven only by an end goal rather than organic story beats. All of this is applicable to Birds of Prey, which is a real pity because there is so much of it to like. Director Cathy Yan recently hinted that the film may have been reworked by the studio against her wishes, and watching it certainly seems to bear it out. This is one of those movies where the whole is lesser than the sum of its parts, and while those parts are strong enough to make it worth recommending, the overall lack of coherence means that this recommendation can only be a tepid one.
2. First, the good. The only reason why Birds of Prey was greenlit is thanks to the popularity of the Harley Quinn character, and Margot Robbie continues to knock it out of the park. It’s very apt that this movie’s plot involves digging a diamond out of shit, because that’s a perfect metaphor for Robbie’s performance in the whirlpool of suck that was Suicide Squad. If anything, Robbie is actually better in this film, and Cathy Yan deserves credit for this. For one, her camera does not leer at Robbie as though she is a piece of meat the same way David Ayer’s did, which, while a very low bar to clear, is a definite improvement. Furthermore, someone (most likely Yan) hit upon the bright idea for Harley to essentially be a distaff Bugs Bunny, and large swathes of Robbie’s performance plays like a homage to the wascally wabbit thanks to her cartoonish (in a good way!) Brooklyn accent and the general ‘ain’t I a stinker vibe’. (1) Above all, Robbie just seems like she’s having the time of her life playing Harley, and her infectious energy and enthusiasm does a great deal to carry the movie even through its draggier sections. Aside from Robbie, Ewan McGregor also makes a solid impression, playing Roman Sionis as a psychopathic manchild with a misogynistic bent that is subtle enough to play into the movie’s themes without beating the viewer over the head with it. (2)
3. Yan also has a nifty sense of visual style, which makes Birds of Prey stand out visually from other movies of its ilk. The film pops with streaks of candy coated colour, and has an inventive and flashy approach to its production design. Key sets like Roman’s club, Harley’s apartment, or the rundown amusement park where the climax takes place are creatively designed both in terms of space and colouring, and (in a sure sign of competent directing) are factored into the way the camera moves. Said camera movement is also another strength of this film, which clearly attempts to avoid the incoherent ADHD editing and ‘meh’ shot selection of your typical action blockbuster in lieu of a more fluid and dynamic camera. Shots in Birds of Prey last noticeably longer than most superhero movies, resulting in numerous stylish action sequences. Birds of Prey also nails its tone perfectly with the action sequences, thanks to that aforementioned Looney Tunes sensibility – a solid mix of exaggerated bloody violence and slapstick humour. It is also the rare Western action movie to cut before the hit as opposed to after, which means that the blows that Harley and company land feel far more intense and visceral. No one is going to mistake this for The Raid or Police Story, but it is nice to see a Western action movie that choreographs and cuts around its fight scenes to maximise rather than minimise the impact of the hits. This point is best elaborated in Tony Zhou’s masterful video essay, which I have linked down below.
4. Where Birds of Prey goes wrong is in its story structure. I have yet to watch a DC film (3) that has been structured competently. Wonder Woman came closest, but threw it all away with a horribly staged CGI climax that undercut the message it was trying to make. Birds of Prey is, to put it bluntly, a mess. Characters pop in and out of the narrative, emotional beats have awkward setups and payoffs, and large sections of the plot feel rushed. One good example – at one point Harley makes a selfish decision based on hurt feelings stemming from the betrayal of an ally. Fine. That’s a common enough trope. The only problem is that said ally is introduced about fifteen minutes prior to the betrayal, and has only one comedic scene that gives next to no indication that he is supposed to be emotionally important to Harley in any way. This is what I mean – the film tries to go through the beats of setup and payoff, but the timing and execution of these beats are all wrong. Furthermore, there is so much plot to cover that Robbie’s voiceover narration has to do a lot of heavy lifting, which makes the movie break that fundamental rule of storytelling – show don’t tell – much too often for my liking, often resorting to Harley’s motormouthed exposition to fill us in on things like character motivation or key backstory instead of, y’know, presenting it to the audience. The balance between the characters feels off as the movie cannot decide as to whether it is a solo or team adventure, clumsily lurching from the Harley story to the ‘forming a superteam’ story. It says a lot that the titular Birds of Prey get formed literally two minutes before the climax begins. If anything, it feels like a team-up movie awkwardly grafted onto a solo movie, which makes me suspect that (thanks to DC’s track record) the suits at Warner Brothers were attempting to piggyback off Robbie and Harley’s popularity to launch a new franchise. (4) This does a disservice to Rosie Perez, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and especially Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who all give charismatic performances, but often have so little to do that they may as well be furniture. As is customary with the DCEU, Birds of Prey tries to take a shortcut to setting up a brand new franchise, and in so doing trips over its own feet and falls on its face. Who would care about watching these characters in their own movie when they have been given no opportunity to make a big impression? (5)
5. All in all, I would call Birds of Prey a qualified success. It is largely enjoyable, and distinguishes itself from most of the superhero movies thanks to Yan’s sense of style, its Bugs-Bunny-on-PCP tone, and Margot Robbie’s spectacular lead performance, which remains one of the best actor/character pairings in its genre. However, thanks to a script that tries to do too much too soon (and has the prerequisite extraneous action scene because it fears the audience will get bored), the movie is often a mess that cannot decide whether it is a solo or team-up adventure. This identity crisis means that the movie’s focus is all over the place, with plot points or emotional beats not landing with the impact that they should thanks to its disorganised structure and storytelling discipline. There is more than enough in Birds of Prey to overcome its screenplay issues, but I cannot help but feel slightly disappointed at what could have been if it had elected to focus on telling a coherent story rather than serving the franchise management mandate of its corporate masters.
- The reason why I credit Yan for this is because of a scene where Harley and Cassandra watch Looney Tunes on TV, which feels like a deliberate allusion rather than a coincidence.
- A real pity, though, that the film (again, seemingly not by Yan’s choice) never goes all the way in actually stating that Roman and Zsasz are in a homosexual relationship – this is one of those moments that feels more like a cop-out than an attempt at subtlety.
- Full disclosure – I have not watched Shazam or Aquaman
- Which, if you’ve seen the box office numbers for this film, has not worked.
- As usual, the MCU puts DC to shame. Consider Captain America: Civil War, which served as the first introduction of Black Panther. They introduced one new character in a movie (that is the third in a particular franchise and the thirteenth in the MCU) filled with familiar characters. He is given a complete character arc across the entire film, and by the end, the viewer is interested in knowing him and his world better in his own solo film. The DC approach would have probably involved throwing Shuri, Okoye, M’baku and Nakia into the mix while also having some extraneous scenes in Wakanda. Less is often more when creating the breadcrumb trail from one film to the next.