Birds of Prey is not a Suicide Squad sequel. It is not DC and Warner Bros.’ follow up to Joker. It’s really not even particularly a comic book superhero movie, outside of the fact that it stars comic characters. Hell, depending on your point of view, whether or not it’s a Birds of Prey movie might be an argument. But here’s the thing: What Birds of Prey is, is loud, bright, and fun as all hell.
Despite being released in the wake of Joker’s award-season buzz, Birds of Prey – or, to give it its full, suitably silly title, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – rightfully does not care in the slightest for whatever Todd Philips’ film was or what it was trying to do, outside of the fact that it too revolves around ejecting Jared Leto’s “damaged” interpretation of the character from Suicide Squad, thankfully nowhere to be found here. While Joker did so metatextually, Birds of Prey’s premise is predicated in a more literal ejection, as Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), tired of doing all the work of the clown prince of crime, cuts all ties, romantic and professional, to forge her own path. She does so in a literal rainbow explosion, defiantly setting on fire the chemical factory the Joker had transformed her from Harleen Quinzel, Arkham Psychiatrist, and into his own Harlequin.
That is, distilled to its purest essence, what Birds of Prey is: a triumphant woman, surrounded by explosions of color, free to not care about anything in the world but herself.
Harley makes the world’s most explosive and declarative relationship status update. Image: Warner Bros.
It is in this explosive moment – the first of many that director Cathy Yan frames in glorious slo-mo and poppy, eclectic soundtrack choices – that Birds of Prey introduces its world and the characters drawn into Harley’s orbit. As she stakes out her claim away from the Joker, more and more people in Gotham City become aware that she no longer has his reputation safeguarding her. That means that, suddenly, everyone from Gotham PD to every two-bit thug in the city wants to enact vengeance on her for a career of often very painful clownery.
Among them is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, playing a perfectly prissy foil to his foes as he eagerly munches on scenery), a.k.a. the Black Mask. After having a diamond in his care, which holds the key to a mafia family fortune, stolen by a compulsive orphan named Cass (Ella Jay Basco), he gives Harley an ultimatum: Find the kid, get the diamond, or be killed by Sionis and his partner in crime, stab-happy Victor Zsaz (Chris Messina).
This setup is rather complex and initially laid out in an equally complex manner. In the first act of the script, we zip about in time and pacing to slowly draw the other main characters into Harley, Cass, and Roman’s circle. We’re introduced to what will eventually become the Birds of Prey: Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer at Sionis’ club unsure of whether to use her hidden powers for good or ill; Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a seasoned cop irked by office politics and desperate to haul Sionis in; and the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a lethal assassin stalking Gotham’s criminal underbelly for revenge.
But they’re all primarily introduced through their relation to Harley and Cass’ plight. It means that not only is the opening of the film rather slow, outside of a flashy action set piece here and there (including a sublime, glitter-coated attack on Gotham PD), but we frustratingly don’t really get to know the cast of the film outside of how Harley sees them. And in the early stages of the story, Harley primarily sees the women as obstacles in the way between her, Cass, and survival.
Roman Sionis and Victor Zsasz, uh, cut a deal with Harley. Image: Warner Bros.
Thankfully this slow start and, at times, confoundingly twisty narrative setup is belied by some of Birds of Prey’s most consistent highlights. First is a fabulous performance by Robbie (continuing to own this role with a seemingly effortless grace and charisma, after being the sole gem among the morass that was Suicide Squad), who takes her Suicide Squad version of Harley and amps up the humour and charisma way past 11. The actress/producer carries Birds of Prey’s slow setup with aplomb, and she’s married to Yan’s eclectic, colourful interpretation of Gotham City in these early moments too. Yan’s use of light and colour creates a refreshing and vivid look that is unlike any version of the usually gothic lens into the city we’ve seen on screens big and small so many times before. This Gotham delivers a visual pop that feels almost like cutting the world’s most expensive music video compilation to match its bright and unpredictable star.
Robbie and Yan also deliver in the film’s excellent and varied scope of action scenes from the get-go, from chase sequences to brutal fight scenes (reportedly assisted by John Wick director Chad Stahleski). These moments are rarely gory despite the R-rating, which is used primarily to punctuate its script with a delectable amount of cursing, something that feels casually empowering for its female cast.
They’re strengths that eventually push the movie’s initially stalled momentum into a nonstop rollercoaster of exhilarating, often hilarious set pieces that marry a carefree breezy tone with some incredibly inventive, viscerally engaging action. But they’re really kicked into a high gear when the film has finally established the connections between its myriad characters, and can instead relish in letting these women bounce off of one another and, to gleefully brutal effect, bounce off of their foes in increasingly intense and bombastic moments of action that stand out as some of the best in the entire DC cinematic oeuvre. Gone are the CGI-enhanced, uber-destructive superpower-laden brawls of prior films, replaced by tight, kinetic, grounded spurts of violence with the occasionally zany bit of comic book flair.
It takes a little too long for them to come together, but when they do, Harley, Cass, and the Birds of Prey kick some seriously fun ass. Image: Warner Bros.
It is through this action that Birds of Prey empowers its female leads. The film makes clear early on its messages about the frustrations each of these women feel about their places in society – whether it’s Harley frustrated that the Joker never gave her credit for her work, paralleled with Montoya’s stalled career in the Gotham police department, Cass’ aimlessness in a fractured home environment, or the constant degrading Sionis and Zsasz lash out at Dinah with as she just tries to do her job, no matter how much working for such cruel men irks her. But it is not something Birds of Prey lingers on, paying dues to its character’s feminist leanings by having them repeatedly spout pithy one-liners about smashing the patriarchy or fighting the man (and doing so like a girl, as the pejorative would typically be). Instead, they simply...do. You understand the injustices each of these women have faced in their lives without having to be consistently reminded of those injustices, and are instead invited to relish in the cathartic way in which they enact vengeance for them via the means of intricately staged, smartly framed violence.
Eventually, beneath the increasing stakes and tightening threads finally pulling these main characters together over the film, you come to learn more about each of the titular anti-heroes and why they would reasonably team up with each other in, for reasons that range from touching to, in one surprising case, hilarious. For some viewers, it will come a little too late. Like most superhero team origin movies at this point, the Birds of Prey don’t really become the Birds of Prey until the film’s final act, and while that makes for some delightful moments of interaction between each of the team when they finally do unite, they can feel a little few and far between, especially as the film leans in on mining the burgeoning relationship between Cass and Harley, the former serving as the latter’s catalyst on her road to being, as she puts it, a little less of a terrible person.
Cass and Harley’s partnership – a shared love of shoplifting and breakfast cereal for dinner – drives the emotional through-line of the movie. Image: Warner Bros.
But even if Birds of Prey takes a little while to get going with its characters up to that point, you’re rewarded with perhaps one of the most fun third acts in a DC film so far, a showdown between Sionis’ mercenary forces and the Birds in an abandoned theme park that fully embraces the zaniness of its setting to fully unleash our heroes’ similarly eclectic fighting forms. It’s here that Yan’s mastery of directing action really shines, as the camera whips around house-of-mirrors mazes, carnival slides, and trampoline-studded funhouse stages to highlight Harley and the Birds kicking ass and, above all, having fun while doing so. It’s an esoteric embrace of comic book style, if not drawing from a particular version of the source material but evoking it in splashes of bold colour, out-there aesthetics, and the joyful, primal satisfaction of its heroes dishing out bloody-knuckled justice.
In the end, that really is what Birds of Prey is. It’s not concerned with being a DC movie about a group of female heroes, and how that is somehow still depressingly a groundbreaking, revelatory thing in 2020. It is first and foremost a killer action movie that just happens to star an incredibly charming and capable cast of female characters – even if for the most part said cast has to orbit around Robbie’s charismatic sophomore outing as Harley Quinn, at the expense of us really getting to know them (there’ll always be room in a sequel, at least). Aside from a slow opening and not as much time with the Birds as would be really liked, Birds of Prey delivers on its otherwise laser-focused intent: making a comic book action movie that is an earnest, kickass blast to watch.