by Andrew Wyatt on Feb 11, 2020

Birds of Prey is a weird, messy comic-book movie – and that’s OK. Heck, messiness has been the defining feature of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). That would be the series of shared-universe features based on DC Comics characters, a franchise that’s been lumbering along to decidedly mixed critical notices (though not mixed box-office returns) since 2013’s Man of Steel. The growing odor of shrink-wrapped uniformity that clings to Marvel Studios’ output – a longstanding critique of the MCU films, but one that began to feel credible starting with Infinity War (2018) – has perhaps retroactively turned the eccentricity of the competing DCEU into that series’ most appealing feature. Although DC’s critical hit-to-miss ratio has been lower than Marvel’s, its lineup is also much more tonally varied, and it even evinces some of that elusive auteurist sparkle that Marvel ruthlessly grinds out of its features. It’s not a coincidence that Justice League (2017) – a bland attempt to turn the first film about DC’s most iconic super-group into a quippy Avengers flick – has already vanished down the memory hole. Meanwhile, the bad but utterly deranged Batman v Superman (2016) is still inspiring savage Internet knife fights to this day.

In short, letting their freak flag fly is one of the things that DCEU films do well, and Birds of Prey – a semi-sequel to the dire multi-villain team-up Suicide Squad (2016) – embraces this attitude with DayGlo-spattered enthusiasm. Much like last year’s Shazam!, Birds of Prey seems to draw some influence from the loopier comic-adapted action-comedies of the 1990s, such as The Mask (1994) and Men in Black (1997). While Shazam! embraced an overall warm-and-fuzzy tone and a Cartoon Network farcical streak, Birds of Prey is more jagged, insistent, and joyfully brash. It often feels like a film that’s been simmering for a couple of decades, waiting to burst forth, the lost love child of Joel Schumacher’s notorious acid-trip Batman films (1995, 1997) and Rachel Talalay’s underrated dystopian comedy Tank Girl (1995). The latter is particularly evident in Birds of Prey’s logline: This unapologetically feminist fable brings together a roster of anti-heroic women to gleefully smash their way through the alleged man’s domain of the Gotham City underworld.

Viewers who haven’t seen Suicide Squad need not subject themselves to that dud to enjoy Birds of Prey: The titular squad’s MVP, psychologist-turned-agent-of-chaos Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), brings the viewer up to speed with a manic animated prelude that recounts her backstory. As a therapist to Batman’s archnemesis the Joker, Harley (formerly Dr. Harleen Quinzel) became romantically infatuated with the Clown Prince of Crime. Eventually taking a swan dive into a vat of chemicals at the behest of her “Puddin’,” Harley thereafter attached herself to the Joker’s hip as his sociopathic consort in crime. After the events of Suicide Squad, however, the Joker dumps Harley, which is where Birds of Prey picks up. Harley is wallowing in post-breakup self-pity, which she tries to alleviate with a new pet (a hyena named Bruce), new hobbies (a stint on a roller-derby team), and the usual vices (alcohol, drugs, and Easy Cheese, the latter consumed straight from the can while ugly-crying). She’s also not too proud to string along Gotham’s underworld, neglecting to mention that she and Joker have split, lest she lose the near-immunity she’s enjoyed among the criminal class.

In case it wasn’t obvious from the film’s epic-length subtitle, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is first and foremost a Harley story – or, more accurately, a Gotham City story told from her delightfully demented point of view. DC Comics enthusiasts who are familiar with the all-female super-group Birds of Prey will doubtlessly grumble about the decision to put unaffiliated fan favorite Harley front and center for the team’s first big-screen appearance. However, DC presumably knows a winner when they see one, and Robbie’s scene-stealing turn in Suicide Squad – which rose above the film’s incessant leering over her body – made Harley a natural choice for a spinoff.  Fortunately, screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) finds a way to integrate Harley’s post-Joker search for a new identity with the Birds’ origin story, framing the latter as a collection of escapes from various patriarchal prisons.

Harley Quinn has always been one of most fascinating yet problematic characters in Batman’s orbit, a mentally disturbed but otherwise “normal” supervillain who fits right in among the Caped Crusader’s rogue’s gallery. However, Harley’s toxic, co-dependent relationship with the Joker can be challenging to portray in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative. (David Ayer made the inexplicable choice to depict the couple as a kind of edgelord Bonnie and Clyde in Suicide Squad, one of many ways in which that film feels misguided.) Birds of Prey is essentially an attempt to answer the existential problem at the heart of Harley’s character: Without the Joker, who the hell is she? As she observes with half-amused bitterness while drowning her sorrows, “A harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master.”

Bolstered by Dutch courage, Harley decides on a whim to blow up the chemical plant where she was first baptized in toxins, as a kind of public middle finger to the Joker. (In truth, most of Harley’s decisions are made on a whim.) This act of destruction catalyzes a series of intersecting events all over Gotham City, most of them revolving around an old-fashioned MacGuffin: an enormous diamond that’s been micro-etched with access codes for the bank accounts of a slaughtered Mafia family. This jewel has recently fallen into the possession of crime boss Roman Sionis aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor, camping it up in silk and velvet), who intends to use the wealth to leverage a monopolistic takeover of Gotham’s underworld. He’s also keen to gruesomely murder Harley for any number of past slights now that her newly single status is public knowledge, but that particular goal gets put on the back burner when the diamond is nicked by middle-school pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who has no notion of what she’s stolen.

This barely scratches at the surface of the film’s plot, which is a ridiculously convoluted affair involving a half-dozen characters’ competing, shifting goals. However, Hodson and director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) do a solid job of wrangling it into a comprehensible story, although they’re unfortunately often obliged to neglect characterization in favor of all the breathless to and fro. Admittedly, the narrative is structurally shaggy, filled as it is with interludes, digressions, and flashbacks. However, there’s a perfectly reasonable in-universe rationale for such scattered storytelling: The narrator is a cheeky criminal chatterbox afflicted by a panoply of unspecified mental and neurological disorders. Harley is a lot, as they say, and the experience of watching Birds of Prey (especially its first half) is akin to listening to your coked-up Sagittarius friend tell a rambling anecdote. She gets there eventually, but it requires a lot of backtracking.

Harley’s quest to carve out a place for herself in a post-Joker world is echoed in the tribulations of several other key female characters. Gotham PD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) has spent several decades being passed over by male peers, including those who took credit for cases that she closed. When Harley lights the literal fuse that upends Gotham’s underworld, the cynical, hard-drinking Montoya is contending with departmental skepticism about the case she’s been building against Roman, not to mention a recent spate of gruesome mob murders. The latter, it turns out, are being perpetrated by a crossbow-wielding, motorcycle-riding assassin known as the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who’s been training in secret for a decade-plus and is now skewering her way through her personal shitlist. (Composer Daniel Pemberton even gives her character a Kill Bill-esque musical motif.) Meanwhile, when Roman learns that his captive nightclub chanteuse Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is also a formidable martial artist, he makes her his personal driver. It’s admittedly a promotion for Canary, but in practice it mostly involves her doing the crime lord’s dirty work alongside his smirking, psychotic enforcer Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina).

Yan and her cast get some low-key comedic mileage out of the way that each principal seems like a refugee from a different film genre – Montoya a cop drama, Huntress a revenge picture, and Black Canary a noir thriller. Pinballing through these intersecting subplots like a candy-colored Bugs Bunny is, of course, Harley, who eventually collides with the three women and Cassandra as she tries to wriggle out of Roman’s homicidal grasp. Again: It’s a lot of plot, and although depth takes a back seat to the sheer amount of stuff that’s happening, Yan keeps all the balls in the air capably enough, infusing the film with a winning riot-grrrl momentum.

It helps that Birds of Prey is (somewhat unexpectedly) a blood-spattered, bone-crunching action film at heart, one that takes giddy pleasure in living down to its R rating. John Wick director Chad Stahelski served as a second-unit director for some of the film’s action sequences — and it shows. That franchise’s reverence for wide shots, long takes, and balletic violence is discernible in Birds of Prey, albeit in somewhat muted form. Here, the gunplay is toned down in favor of bareknuckle brawling, acrobatic takedowns, and righteous beatings administered with baseball bats and sledgehammers. Robbie and her stunt doubles – Renea Moneymaker and Michelle Steilen – turn Harley into a gymnastic whirlwind of uppercuts, roundhouses, and giggling mania. (She even gets a cocaine-fueled “Popeye the Sailor Man” moment.) Smollett-Bell, meanwhile, serves up some major “Angela Bassett in Strange Days” energy, which is always a welcome thing.

Sadly, Birds of Prey starts to disappoint somewhat in its final act, when it drops most of its nuttier flourishes for an obligatory single-location battle-royale climax. The locale in question is fitting – an abandoned boardwalk funhouse that once served as a Harley-Joker hideout – and the all-hands-on-deck brawl is staged with gratifying fluidity. However, it doesn’t feel all that different from the final showdown in any given martial-arts flick where the heroes pummel their way through a hundred goons. In a film that otherwise feels like such a confetti blast of manic female fury, there’s something unsatisfying about wrapping it up is such pedestrian fashion. This is perhaps consistent with Birds of Prey’s overall resistance to push things too far. It’s a fun, dizzy film with an unapologetically adolescent sense of the naughty – ultra-violence, f-bombs, and shit jokes abound – but its woman-centered story is the limit of its radicalism. The film’s generic eccentricities are still safely within the range established by the likes of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) and Deadpool (2016). A full-scale dynamiting of comic-book-movie conventions – something closer to the unhinged meta-madness of Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) – would have been more appropriate for the likes of Harley Quinn, Ph.D.

Rating: B-