Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn returns, this time steering her own narrative, one as subtle as an oversized carnival mallet.
The two biggest takeaways from 2016’s Suicide Squad were that the Joker was woefully underrepresented in the movie and that Harley Quinn stole the show. Even though it was with a different actor and creative team, the Joker issue was resolved last year when the infamous character got a standalone movie. Now, it’s Harley Quinn’s turn with Birds of Prey.
Birds of Prey sees Harley Quinn (I, Tonya’s Margot Robbie reprising her Suicide Squad role) splitting up with “Mr. J” and out in Gotham City on her own, devoid of the protections that being the squeeze of the Joker provided her. She runs afoul of a mob boss named Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor from Doctor Sleep) and, in order to save her skin, Harley agrees to track down and bring in a petty thief named Cassandra Cain (fresh face Ella Jay Basco) who, due to her habit of snatching anything that isn’t bolted down, has accidentally stolen a valuable diamond from the crime lord.
To screw with Harley, Roman also puts out a half-a-million-dollar bounty on Cassandra, so every mercenary and thug in the city is looking for her, including a songstress named Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell from True Blood), a rogue cop named Renee Montoya (White Men Can’t Jump’s Rosie Perez), and a mysterious stranger who calls herself the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead from 10 Cloverfield Lane). When the women realize that they’ve been set up by Roman, they have to work together to save the kid…and themselves.
The subtitle to Birds of Prey is “and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” which is a much more apt title for the movie. Although it does function as an origin story/meeting place for the members of the DC Comics Birds of Prey team, they’re supporting characters. Birds of Prey is Harley Quinn’s movie, from the opening expositional monologue to the final climactic frame (and the now-standard post-credits scene, which is simultaneously disappointing and amusing).
Despite the entire catalyst of the movie being Harley’s struggle with getting over her breakup with the Joker, there’s a lot of Girl Power in Birds of Prey. It’s hard to call any of the characters in the movie “heroes,” but the leads are all capable and formidable females, and the antagonists are all smarmy and sleazy men. Thanks to the vision of director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) and the fantastical script from writer Christina Hodson (Bumblebee), there’s a female gaze to the film that is quite refreshing. The women are more than just spandex and hot pants. In fact, they’re not spandex and hot pants at all. They’re shown as badass warriors. You know, sort of like how a male director and writer would portray their male characters.
But the best aspect of Birds of Prey is how it never takes itself too seriously. It’s a live-action cartoon, and it never veers away from that fact, whether Harley is driving a fuel truck into a chemical plant or Black Canary is shattering glass with her powerful singing voice. The whole thing is, front to back, an over-the-top surreal rock-and-roll fable, full of brainless dialogue and unlikely situations. Is it bad? Of course. But there’s a purpose to its corniness. It wears it like a badge of honor, which is more than any of the other DC Comics features can say. It embraces the fact that it’s here for the party. At one point, right in the middle of a fight, Harley Quinn offers Black Canary a hair tie, which Canary accepts graciously before going right back to kicking ass. Batman never did that for Aquaman in Justice League.
And speaking of rock-and-roll, the soundtrack for Birds of Prey is a killer. Just about every action sequence is accompanied by a high-energy tune or two and, in keeping with the Girl Power theme of the movie, they’re mostly female anthems, from classics by Joan Jett and Heart to more recent jams from Sofi Tukker and Halsey. There’s also a show-stopping, barely recognizable version of “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” by ADONA, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell gets to show off her vocal chops with Black Canary’s unironic version of James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” It’s a high-energy soundtrack for a high-energy movie.
The Joker standalone movie is nominated for a whole bunch of Oscars, and it seems like the frontrunner for at least Best Actor and Best Score (we’ll find out this weekend when the awards are given out). And even Suicide Squad won an Academy Award for makeup and hairstyling. So, maybe Birds of Prey will follow suit and become a critical darling. Probably not. But as far as pure fun goes, Birds of Prey beats those other movies hands down. And does it with an oversized carnival mallet.