Wonder Woman is wonderful but not everyone can be a gorgeous, all-powerful Themysciran princess who’s also a demi-god. DC’s latest Birds of Prey–a follow up (of sorts) to Suicide Squad that’s also everything that movie wasn’t–is a grubby, funny, joyful female team-up that resonantly shows us heroes come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.
Suicide Squad was a cinematic car crash, so there’s something so satisfying about the fact that four years later, released over a weekend where a movie about the Joker is nominated for 11 Oscars, Harley has also completely reinvented herself as a flawed, powerful and empowering leader in a film that reverses her character’s former betrayal.
No longer reduced to “a whole lotta pretty in a whole lotta crazy” (as she was in Suicide Squad), Harley makes the point early on in the movie: when an incidental character hits on her and calls her a “dumb slut,” she breaks his leg and points out she has a “fucking PHD.”
“I completely lost who I was,” says Harley in the long, animated voice-over that opens the film and sets out its stall from the get-go. Mr. J is out of the picture and it’s time for Harley to find herself once again.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is the movie that Margot Robbie built: She’d been pitching it to Warner Bros. since 2015, and is a producer on the film, and she owns the screen. Dressed for the most part in a longer pair of shorts and a t-shirt bearing her own name, no longer “Daddy’s Lil Monster,” Harley is ready for a new start. Unfortunately, her break up with the Clown Prince of Crime means she’s not under his protection anymore, and it turns out quite a lot of people want to kill her.
It’s a rebirth story for Harley and she begins it in style, focusing on her new love interest: a bacon-and-egg sandwich that cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s camera hilariously perves over to a porno score. And to be fair, it looks like a very nice sandwich. More than that though, it’s a cheeky nod to the audience that this is a film where none of its female characters will be ‘made safe:’ there are no husbands and boyfriends for these birds, and no kids either unless you count young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who’s the driving force of the plot when she steals a diamond that Harley’s former frenemy–the volatile Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, captivating and having a blast)–wants to get his hands on.
Birds of Prey is both a vibrant, stylized comic book movie and also a very successful satire of comic book movies and women’s places within them. And it’s pitch perfect. Director Cathy Yan builds her Gotham not of mean streets but bright colors, though this isn’t the world of billionaire playboys; instead it’s a cultural melting pot populated by people trying to scratch a living on one side of the law or the other. That this is only Yan’s second feature is deeply impressive, so cohesive and assured is it. She’s buoyed by the incredibly sharp script by comic book movie golden girl, Christina Hodson, who penned the well-received Bumblebee and is attached to both The Flash and Batgirl.
Far from feeling rushed, everything here is done right. The other women who will eventually come together in the movie’s third act, each have a proper arc and introduction (more on them later), the humor is fast, funny and frequent, and the action is electric.
The stunts were done by the team behind all three John Wick films and Deadpool 2 and it shows, with each character given her own distinctive fight style and euphoric set-pieces to spare. Avoiding the excessive CGI battles and underwhelming baddies that dragged down some of the earlier DCEU movies, Birds of Prey’s standout scraps are dirty, witty, gritty, and cool. It’s a violent film, sure, but rarely gratuitously so and while there are plenty of human casualties, there is at least some sort of twisted morality at play. When Harley charges into a police precinct to find the young Cain, she shoots up the cops with glitter and bean bags.
In comic book movie terms, Birds of Prey most closely resembles Deadpool–it’s sweary, anarchic, and subversive, it jumps around timelines, and Harley talks directly to the audience. Though while BOP has elements of things we’ve seen before, it feels entirely new.
Although the rest of the gang fit loosely into familiar tropes–Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress is the vengeful loner, Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya is the alcoholic honest cop, Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary is the isolationist and reluctant gangster chauffeur, and Basco is the Artful Dodger-esque street urchin–we’ve never seen them as women and in the same film. And yes, it’s incredibly empowering.
The whole film is packed with flourishes and call-backs that give each character real depth and heart. All the women are excellent, though Huntress may well prove to be a fan favorite as the highly trained kick-ass crossbow assassin who’s extremely socially awkward because of childhood trauma. Former psychiatrist Harley even gets to do a bit of fly-by psychoanalysis throughout, in another of the movie’s lovely nods to who she is, and who she was.
Harley’s initial mission is to learn to stand on her own, but instead the message of the movie is that we’re better if we stand together. Bringing together all this great talent has certainly resulted in a movie that’s even more than the sum of its parts.
If Wonder Woman was a perfect bit of wish fulfillment for young girls who are, like Diana, finding their way in the world, Birds of Prey is the movie for adults of any gender who find themselves more flawed, jaded, or just down on their luck but still deserving of a second chance and a redemptive arc. After Suicide Squad, Harley surely deserved a second chance away from all that toxic masculinity, and what a truly fantabulous emancipation it is.