Feb 18, 2020

‘Birds of Prey’ is the first superhero movie of the year, if you can call a movie centered on fan-favorite supervillain Harley Quinn a superhero movie. It contains much of the same tropes of your typical superhero movie—endless action sequences, a Big Bad, quirky supporting characters, and of course a bigger cinematic universe it’s attached to—despite the notable lack of earnest and caped do-gooders.

But, DC has always had more interesting villains than superheroes, and they clearly have a lot more fun. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is unapologetically chaotic, having spent too much time with her now ex-boyfriend Joker, terrorizing Gotham City. She’s cartoonish, from her outfit to her stunts, but somehow is utterly likable. To audiences, at least. For Gotham, she’s Public Enemy # 1.

In ‘Birds of Prey’, she’s lashing out after her split-up with Joker. Without his protection, however, the city is free to lash back. We see her ingenuity and luck in both avoiding people with grievances against her while wreaking as much havoc as possible, as casually as possible. It’s an entertaining start, especially the animated sequence of Quinn narrating her life from the beginning and how she ended up a total mess. It’s a mixture of poor circumstances, poorer decisions, and how terribly the men in her life have treated her.

It’s important to note that ‘Birds of Prey’ is a female-led anti-hero movie. All the protagonists are female, and all the antagonists are male. The film is even directed by a woman (Cathy Yan) and written by a woman (Christina Hodson). There’s feminism here, but somehow both too latent and too overt. The females kick male butt, its overarching themes include girl power and even sisterhood, but the film is too glossy, too superficial to glean any sincerity from it.

As it turns out, Quinn isn’t as invincible as she had been with the Joker, and was brought in to face a powerful man’s—Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), an even bigger super villain than her—wrath. To buy herself some time, she offers herself up to find a missing diamond now in the possession of teen pick-pocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Meanwhile, other characters are alternately looking for the same diamond or looking for Quinn, including cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and Black Mask’s driver, Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell).

The film’s middle is largely a game of cat-and-mouse and odd couple comedy with the unlikely team-up of Quinn and Cain. Cain, whose main skill and interest is petty thievery, thinks Quinn is the height of cool. This isn’t surprising, as Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is intensely charismatic, even with her bad behavior. We also learn about a mysterious crossbow killer (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead), whose own arc seems removed from the main plot.

As Black Mask closes in on Quinn and Cain, they head to an abandoned funhouse, as do Montoya, Black Canary, and the crossbow killer. Realizing the Black Mask has reason to kill all of them, they decide to team up and fight their way through the carnival packed with his goons. The film finally enters its third act and picks up the pace, infinitely improving as it finally pivots into an interesting girl-power ensemble. They inevitably win, and the film wraps up with Quinn and Cain riding off in Black Canary’s stolen car. The teamwork was good while it lasted, but the point was never Harley Quinn turning over a new leaf. It was all about the catharsis of vanquishing her would-be vanquisher: a maniacal man who doesn’t think much of her,  or women, or life in general. 

Posted by Warner Bros. Pictures on Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The main cast—especially the ladies—gave their own flair to the role that they held their own against Robbie’s stellar work. But appealing performances only go so far. With the film constantly feeling like it’s on the brink of saying more and digging a little deeper than what we’re seeing on screen, it pulls back and subjects us to another fight sequence. It introduces so many interesting characters but doesn’t a satisfying amount of time on any of them. Instead, details fall to exposition, including a very late and rushed explanation of ‘Birds of Prey’ at the end. 

The film is, for the most part, a lot of fun. It’s brimming with color, full of compelling fight scenes, and stars an infinitely watchable team of rising female stars. But in a genre that busts out dozens of near-identical movies, superhero stories need more than visuals to be memorable.


Header photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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Read more by Nikki Francisco:

‘Cats’ is a confounding, almost chilling, CGI-heavy dud

‘Toy Story 4’ is still a sweet, emotional ride about moving forward

The Lion King’ remake chose realism over heart

TAGS: birds of prey birds of prey movie review gotham city harley quinn movie review superhero movie