When Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn debuted in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, her character was, essentially, the Joker with a heart of gold. Yet, in the new film Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn the character hopes to move past Mistah J. However, just like in the DC Universe animated Harley Quinn series, she doesn’t move on alone. Rather, she assembles a crew of misfits to achieve the (evil) things they couldn’t on their own. A version of Mistah J. got his own solo film, Joker, the first billion-dollar R-rated film. Yet, Harley Quinn and The Birds of Prey couldn’t be a more different movie. All they have in common is their rating. No matter how you feel about Joker, there is no denying the film is joyless. Birds of Prey is the exact opposite, and that’s largely because of Harley Quinn.
Just to get this out of the way, this review of Birds of Prey will not spoiler Harley Quinn’s adventures. At least, we won’t reveal anything that isn’t already revealed in the marketing for the movie. Though, what’s interesting about this movie is that there really isn’t much to spoil. It’s a straightforward, what you expect is what you get sort of film. If you have any familiarity with the characters from the comics, you’ll not really be surprised by anything. Yet, that’s okay. Birds of Prey is a fun ride with good action and its fair share of laughs. There aren’t any heroes in this film, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, what you can expect is bad guys versus bad girls. And, Harley Quinn could easily be DC’s answers to Marvel’s Deadpool.
A Slow Start to Harley Quinn and Even Longer for the Birds of Prey
Image via screengrab
The only area where Deadpool truly outshines Birds of Prey is in the beginnings of the respective films. The former started out with an action scene. The latter film starts out with an extended narration sequence setting up the story. Deadpool breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the camera. This works a little better than the opening to Birds of Prey. It may be difficult to connect to the characters during this expositional info-dump. However, once you get past about 10 or so minutes of set-up, the movie really takes off. Like Deadpool, the characters in this film are not trying to stop some world-ending event. Rather, it’s a very personal and small-scale story about a group of women caught up in the drama surrounding a spoiled rich-kid crime boss.
Every comic book movie is, usually, only as good as its villain. Ewan McGregor plays Roman Sionis, also known as Black Mask. He’s from a rich family, but he wants to be Gotham’s kingpin of crime. He owns a club, where Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Dian Lance works as a singer. While it takes awhile for Harley Quinn and the rest of the Birds of Prey to really establish themselves, McGregor’s Sionis arrives all-the-way formed. His performance is ostentatious, mixing between silly and brutal. Yet, every second he’s onscreen is a delight, especially when he loses his cool. He does wear his character’s iconic black skull mask, but he’s more an original character than any version of Sionis we’ve seen. Yet, in a movie as unique as Birds of Prey, this is precisely the right choice. The movie is a lot of fun, and you should definitely see it.
The Stunts and Fight Choreography Are Outstanding
Image via Warner Bros.
Another key element to comic book movies are the fight sequences. The fights in Birds of Prey are quite remarkable. It’s one of the rare times, outside of martial arts movies and films like John Wick, where the action never gets old. Usually, in order to keep the action visually dynamic, the characters fight like well-trained professionals. In Birds of Prey, the fights are both gritty and imprecise while still possessing a supernatural quality. There aren’t many super-powers on display here, and the most super-tech device is a crossbow pistol. Still, director Cathy Yan found the perfect mix of brutality and cartoonish violence that even eluded the Deadpool films. In one fight, for example, Harley Quinn breaking both of a henchman’s legs is too explicit for TV but still plays as comedy. I can already hear some critics decrying the fights, but that’s a suspension of disbelief problem. If you think Black Widow and Hawkeye could hold their own fighting aliens or Ultron’s robot goons, you should have no problem with this.
Yan and the screenwriters decided to go with non-linear storytelling. At first this might feel jarring. I found myself wishing they’d just tell the story. However, after seeing the entire film, it absolutely works here. These asides, basically all of the non-action scenes, are interesting character pieces. We see how Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya could end up working with the Birds of Prey instead of her fellow Gotham police officers. We find out how Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress became the vigilante she is when we meet her. They are quiet character moments that help the audience care about them as individuals. It’s a clever decision by Yan, because it keeps the action to character moment ratio even. No fights go on too long, and you never end up bored when the characters are simply chatting.
Harley Quinn and The Birds of Prey Never Really Become a Team
Image via Warner Bros.
Again, this is spoiler-free review of Birds of Prey, but Harley Quinn and the rest of them never really feel like a team. They end up where they do by circumstance and bad decisions. They are forced to team up, but there is no gathering together for shawarma at the end of it. To be clear, this isn’t a negative critique of the film. In fact, showing them all really coming together to defeat the bad guys and stand up for justice would have hurt the movie. By keeping it all a matter of circumstance, Birds of Prey stays true to the characters. It’s not great for franchise building, but it seems that Warner Bros. and DC are really only concerned with telling standalone stories. (That said, the events of Suicide Squad, at least, are “canon” in this movie.)
The best relationship in the film is Quinn and Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain. That’s a famous name from the Batman comics and the history of Batgirl. Yet, in this movie, she’s a 13-year-old kid who with a bad home life. The chemistry between Cain and Quinn is immediate. Cain finally has an adult (kind of) who she can trust (kind of). Quinn finally has a person who sees her and not just the Joker’s girlfriend. If there is any territory to explore in a sequel, it’s this relationship.
The rest of the characters are all pretty great, and it would be interesting to see them again in some form. Perhaps Warner Bros., or Warner Max, could develop mid-budget standalone films for them. Yet, just like the Suicide Squad before them, the only character you really leave Birds of Prey thinking about is Harley Quinn.
Grade: 2 Deadpools Up
It’s not Joker or Avengers: Endgame, but I really enjoyed this movie. It’s as funny as Deadpool while still being very unique. What did you think of Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn? Share your thoughts, reactions, and reviews in the comments below.
Featured image via Warner Bros.
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.