Everyone loves a good villain. Don’t try and deny it. Of all the cinematic franchises currently running, DC arguably has the best villain ever in the form of The Joker. But there’s someone out there that’s better. Or at least, more fun to watch: Harley. Freakin’. Quinn. And where better to watch her wreak havoc than in her debut solo outing: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
Definitely the best bit of 2016’s Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie’s chaotic queen of crime is now tearing up the rulebook and breaking hearts, minds, and no small amount of limbs on her own. It’s an absolute riot of a film, presenting an adrenaline-packed antidote to the superhero fatigue that’s creeping in at the edges of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Starting with an animated intro to give us the back-story, it soon descends into the kind of chaos only Gotham’s finest villains could deploy.
Robbie herself is in excellent form. Not only did she do most of her own stunts (some of which look actively painful – there’s a reason Harley limps towards the climactic moment), she’s clearly having an absolute blast doing them. So too is everyone else: Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina are gleefully menacing as villain-and-sidekick pair Black Mask and Victor Zsasz respectively, while Mary Elizabeth Winstead brings a palpable (if somewhat dorky) vulnerability to assassin Huntress. Jurnee Smollett-Bell injects Black Canary with a heart of gold that’s just as potent as her character’s famously super-powered lungs. Rounding out the cast are Rosie Perez as world-weary police detective Renee Montoya and newcomer Ella Jay Basco as light-fingered pickpocket Cassandra Cain.
So, what’s the story, morning glory? Well, newsflash, The Joker dumped Harley. The Kleenex is just over there; I’ll understand if you need a minute to take it all in. Theirs is a famously abusive relationship, so this is ultimately a good thing for Harley, even if she does start the film devastated at the break-up. This is also the incident from which the film takes its idea of emancipation: Harley is free of the Joker, and free to make her own way through Gotham’s seedy criminal underworld. It’s a world to the top of which she firmly intends to rise. Thus, after a quick grieving montage during which she eats cheese-whiz from the can and buys a hyena (named Bruce after “that hunky Wayne guy” – no, i don’t know who that is, maybe we’ll learn more about him in another film), she sets about enjoying her independence as best she can.
If only things were so simple. By no longer being attached to The Joker (a.k.a. “Mr. J”, or “Puddin’”, depending on the mood Harley is in), she goes from being off-limits to free game in the eyes of Gotham’s vengeful criminal underworld. And by “free game” I mean her life is very much on the line. Gotham is a dog-eat-dog (or hyena) city and McGregor’s villain firmly intends to be the very top dog. In his way are Harley and the titular Birds of Prey, who rally round to protect Cassandra Cain, Black Mask’s ultimate target for reasons I won’t spoil. Riotous shenanigans thus ensue, playing out in a psychedelic technicolor whirlwind so glorious it frankly puts to shame every other DC film, and most of the Marvel ones too.
Stylistically, it takes a couple of lessons out of the Deadpool playbook – the fourth wall is so heavily leaned on it might just crumble, the soundtrack is pitch-perfect, and the fights are so exquisitely choreographed (with some incredible slo-mo peppered in) that the brutal, bone-crunching chaos feels like ballet. Beyond that, it’s very much its own film, standing head and shoulders above both Deadpool and Suicide Squad.
The narrative is told in a messy, not-wholly linear manner that never feels confusing despite the unreliable nature of the narrator. The humour veers wildly between overt slapstick and incredibly dark, which is only to be expected (don’t feel ashamed for laughing – you’re laughing at the expense of bad people doing bad things who very much get what they deserve). The “men vs women” politics are also very well-played. In her introduction scene, Black Canary sings “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (sung beautifully by Smollett-Bell herself) – and the film goes to great lengths to demonstrate the truth of this. The women of the film fight for every scrap they get, whether it’s Harley fighting for her life (or a mouth-watering egg sandwich), Black Canary or Cassandra Cain fighting just to get by, or Renee Montoya fighting for the respect of her peers.
The climax is, literally, a men-vs-women fight as Black Mask brings his boys to Harley’s hideout to get rid of her and her new team-mates once and for all. If this comes across as a tad on-the-nose, the film cordially invites you to stop looking down your own lest a glitter bomb break it open for you. Posing the climactic fight in that way may well be blunt, but it’s entirely necessary given the tiresome reaction of male audience members to, well, just about everything about the film.
I won’t get into that too much here, but the crowing on social media about low profits on the opening weekend, the snootiness with which Harley’s (fantabulously colourful) outfits have been treated, and the general decrying of a female-led superhero film being made by women for women and very much not for the male gaze is an attitude that is long overdue for a glitter-strewn smackdown. Frankly, the film is a hugely enjoyable experience no matter what gender you are. From the gleefully manic fight scenes to the genuine friendship the Birds of Prey strike up to the excellent soundtrack, if you’re not having fun watching this film then there’s no hope for you.
The one real criticism is that the villain is a bit flat. Black Mask is sadistic and cruel, with a penchant for cutting off faces and other acts of hyper-violence, but there isn’t much else to him. The audience is seeing him from Harley’s perspective, which explains his thin characterization within the narrative, but the screenwriters themselves haven’t done enough to round out his character beyond this. On top of this, McGregor’s American accent slips more often than is really forgivable so, although it’s enjoyable watching him strut his stuff, that’s about all that can be said for Black Mask. A similar problem plagued Suicide Squad. If you’re going to make a film in which villains or anti-heroes are the protagonists, the antagonists need to be even nastier, and neither film has quite managed to get this right. Oh, and there’s some egregious beard arson which, speaking as a beard-haver, I object to on a personal level. Sure, the victim is a bad guy, but there’s no need to set the beard on fire. That’s just mean.
The villain problem is the film’s only real flaw, and the whole thing is so much fun that it’s an easily forgivable fumble. Beyond that, Birds of Prey should be essential viewing. It’s a masterclass in fun, and is definitely one of the best (and most fantabulous) films of the year so far.
Directors: Cathy Yan
Starring: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: January 25, 2020 (Mexico City), February 7, 2020 (United States)
Run Time: 109 minutes