Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
Runtime: 1 hour 49 minutes
Director: Cathy Yan
Starring: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Ella Jay Basco
The DC Extended Universe is enjoying quite the renaissance after the its long string of creative misfires notwithstanding Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman (2017), since the Warner Bros. division’s change in management. Along with last year’s Shazam!, Harley Quinn’s latest solo/team outing all but evens up the meta rivalry between the DCEU and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Taking a titular page from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman (2014), Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn picks up sometime after the events of Suicide Squad (2016) with Harley Quinn, reprised by the delightful Margot Robbie, recovering from her unceremonious break-up with the Joker, leaving her to fend for herself for the first time since she become The Jester of Genocide’s eccentric sidekick. Quinn’s prior relationship with the Joker meant she was free from the consequences of her mayhem. With that gone, it’s now open season for anyone with beef to take their shot, not unlike John Wick’s “excommunicado” in Chapter 3 – which funny enough both films share fight choreographers. In her fight for survival Harley falls in love with a sexy breakfast sandwich, gets snatched by lesser known Batman rogues Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) and Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), “rescues” a pickpocketing foster kid, and befriends a team of badass anti-heroines: all of it making for a hell of a good time.
Sophomore feature director Cathy Yan knocks Birds of Prey out of the park. From its kinetic, self-referential energy (ala the Deadpool films), to its bone-breaking action straight out of the John Wickiverse, to the authentic comradery among the Birds, the DCEU has yet to produce something this unapologetically brutal in its committed vision. Yan exercises excellent creative judgment bringing a good comic book story to the big screen in critical ways the likes of Zack Snyder, David Ayer, Joss Whedon, and Todd Phillips were unable to with their films: a keen capacity to let these characters breathe without becoming bogged down by what they think the plot is. The appeal of comic book films isn’t the derivative plotting that can be found in virtually every film in the genre; it’s the characters and their respective uniquenesses that makes a comic book movie worth a damn.
Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Ella Jay Basco all bring something different yet essential to Birds of Prey that only this cast of actresses could have. That’s not to say male cast isn’t also fantastic. Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis/Black Mask is having such a sadistic good time, you can’t help but chuckle even when he’s ordering the most heinous acts of violence. Sionis’ right-hand Victor Zsasz takes a slight visual detour from his usual comic appearance, but he’s still delectably creepy. The film is clever to only feature Joker by name; it’s presumed that the Jared Leto version is still active, but that’s only confirmed by a couple passing lines and a brief Suicide Squad flashback that doesn’t even show his face. Regardless, Joker’s “presence” is well felt without being overbearing, and for the better.
Birds of Prey may have made Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn my favorite comic book movie character ever (plus she votes Bernie). Pardon my French, but fuck the box office and whatever financial forecasts this film may have fallen short of. If we don’t get a Cathy Yan-helmed Gotham City Sirens in the next few years, the DCEU will have made its biggest mistake since Justice League.