What They Say:
It’s open season on Harley Quinn when her explosive breakup with the Joker puts a big fat target on her back. Unprotected and on the run, Quinn faces the wrath of narcissistic crime boss Black Mask, his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz, and every other thug in the city. But things soon even out for Harley when she becomes unexpected allies with three deadly women — Huntress, Black Canary and Renee Montoya.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
With a turn in Suicide Squad that captured the majority of the attention for all the usual reasons, Margot Robbie parlayed that into producer status to bring about something far more in line with her own vision of the character, which reflects the comics character well. Though I’m far more a fan of the animated version currently running and that personality, Robbie’s invested heavily in the character and took a raise-all-ships approach by using it to launch the Birds of Prey as the film. Though Harley is front and center at the expense of a greater depth of the other characters at times, being able to launch this film with several other new characters being introduced is definitely the way to manage what you’ve got and not abuse it for your own end. And in that area, Robbie and her team definitely deserve a lot of praise.
Like a lot of comic fans, I’ve liked Harley since she was introduced in the Batman: TAS property in the 90s and her migration to comics where we got something better to mitigate and provide new views into the Joker. Her path there over the years finally separated her from something that became far more toxic than originally intended and show and the result is a powerhouse character that drives sales and attention. And leading roles with one of the best-known actresses of this generation. Birds of Prey takes her post-Suicide Squad where, after things have gone south with the Joker and she’s been tossed aside, she tries to figure out how to stand on her own two feet. It’s not easy because she’s always been tied heavily to others and we see how she’s spending a lot of time covering up what happened and keeping it secret by lots of drinking and violence.
Notably, this occurs at the club Roman Sionis owns. Sionis is known more as Black Mask and here he’s got a simple story of wanting to prove himself to be better than his wealthy parents who largely kicked him out so he could make it on his own. His plan is pretty good in that he’s looking to acquire a diamond that has come back to Gotham City that has the codes to the Bertinelli fortune etched within it. The diamond was lost for fifteen years or so after the family was executed and once Sionis has this, he’ll be incredibly wealthy and can buy up a whole lot of Gotham with it. The problem, of course, is that as he’s close to getting the diamond, it ends in the hands of a young thief that Harley ends up taking in. And the chase gets underway with Saionis sending his main man, Zsasz, to get her while also sending every other thug out there with a high bounty on the kid. But we also get the cops looking for her and a Bertinelli as well just to make it more complicated. Toss Black Canary in there as well and it’s easy to see why the women, crisscrossing paths for a while, eventually realize the root of all their problems is Saionis.
The film has a pretty straightforward idea behind it but it works a lot of back and forth structural changes thanks to Christina Hodson’s script. This is done as the whole story is done with Harley narrating it and her kind of fractured way of telling it allows her to shift gears as needed to spend time filling us in about the new characters as they come on board. We get a good look at the struggle Rosie Perez has as Renee Montoya and why she’d fall in with this lot. Jurnee Smollett-Bell is the fourth live-action Black Canary I’ve gotten to see in the past decade and she does a great job in defining her own version here and giving her reason to do the right thing even when just keeping her head down is a better idea. The weakest of the group is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Helena Bertinelli and that’s partially because her flashbacks are to when she was a kid when she survived her family being executed. That said, they go with the idea of making her so socially awkward here that it’s a grand departure from the classic version that I enjoyed the heck out of it. And I see a sub-fandom coalescing around her already because a lot of young women are going to identify with her the most I think
For a lot of people, I think the way the film moves back and forth is going to be the biggest issue because it takes the wind out of the sails at times and slows or kills the momentum of the story. That was less of an issue for me because it works in so many chaotic bursts of activity that it felt more like a Harley story because of that. There are a number of creative scenes that unfold throughout the film, such as the riff on Harley as Terminator going into the police station or the dilapidated fun house at the end that the Joker used to use. The choreography for that end fight is fantastic even if just a touch too polished in its smoothness – it almost becomes more a dance than a fight – but just to finally see these characters go all out as they do here in that sequence is great. It delivers exactly what it needs to in that and the other smaller action sequences throughout.
While the film wants as wide an audience as possible as most films do, this was not a film aimed at me though I had a great time with it. I talked about two areas with it afterward with my daughter (who said this is her favorite film since Spider-Verse). Having raised her with a film education series since she turned eight and always talking movies afterward, it’s a good back and forth piece. The main area that we talked about was just how interesting the cinematography by Matthew Libatique was for it. He’s done some fantastic stuff and has worked with Darren Aronofsky for most of his films. The contrast to things like Suicide Squad and the Snyder films is what I was most curious to see. The praise Patty Jenkins and her team got for Wonder Woman and the elimination of as much male-gaze material in her solo film definitely was a solid conversation when that came out. It’s even more carefully managed here because we get to see all of these women going through so many similar situations but the male-gaze element is almost non-existent. They’re not costumed to tantalize (even if I miss classic Huntress or even Arrowverse Huntress costuming) or designed to appeal to others. They’re done up in what makes them feel good (well, Montoya likely hates her t-shirt she changes into) and the way the camera focuses on them isn’t to show as much skin or sexuality as possible. It’s to show them going through the action, which with Harley is crazy over the top but without her practically being naked in skintight suits. I really, really, appreciated that as a change here because I can get that skintight sexuality elsewhere easily.
The other piece that I really wanted to see here, and this may seem a bit counterintuitive, was Ewan McGregor. I’ve been a huge fan of his since I saw him in Shallow Grave – his second film – back in 1994. He’s had his over the top roles over the years and a chance to do some real scenery-chewing in a comic book movie like this was appealing to me. Even more so because he was bringing to life Black Mask, who hadn’t been done in film before. But to just go villain mode and to do so withing Gotham is something special. Metropolis villains aren’t the same kind of crazy. Most Marvel villains aren’t the same kind of crazy. And most aren’t coming from a mob element either. I really enjoyed his scenes throughout it and particularly his bond with Zsasz, even if it did reduce the mainline character of Zsasz to a support role. But Zsaz is a solid narrative line through the film and he helps to tie a lot of things together as well. The way these two play off each other is definitely solid.
Birds of Prey is going to feel like a struggle in comparison to other superhero films because it’s an R-rated film playing in a PG-13 world. There are exceptions to that, obviously, but a film like this was always going to be held to different standards and agendas. It’s been like that from the moment it was first announced. The experience of the film itself was a blast and it had a lot of fun things going forward. There are a lot of moving parts because of the structure, a lot of new characters for people to get acquainted with, and a lot of Harley as a dominant factor that could be too much for some. But the end result is a film that doesn’t feel like every other DC or Marvel film and sets its own tone and path. For those that have gotten into the deep groove of how most superhero films have been made, this is either exciting or very frustrating and off-putting. I’m looking forward to another viewing in a few months to see how it’s rattled around in my brain since then as well. It’s definitely the kind of movie worth supporting, I think.