Birds of Prey Soars High Above the DCEU (Movie Review)

Harley Quinzel breaks free of her former fatally-flawed squadmates, acquiring an all-new team that’s better in every way imaginable. This will not be one of my standard intros, where I hold back on my assessment until the second paragraph. I loved Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) as much as despised 2016’s Suicide Squad. While technically not a direct sequel – Suicide Squad 2 aka The Suicide Squad arrives next year – Birds has the same “this is way better” vibe the sequels to Ouija and Annabelle delivered (all the same studio too, so great job Warner Bros.!). Nearly every problem present in David Ayer’s much-maligned supervillain team-up is addressed: the fight scenes, the plot, the characters, ya know, the DNA of comic book flick. If you’re a fan Margot Robbie (who isn’t?), the DCEU, or you just want to have a heap of fun, this intentionally messy banger is a real hoot.

As the film opens, Harley (Margot Robbie) is enjoying her crazed, violence-filled nights with a devil-may-care attitude. We know this because Tyler knows this, I mean Harley, since she narrates everything. Crime and corruption run rampant in Gotham City, but that means little to the former psychiatrist for Arkham Asylum. However, Harley has a secret. She may seem like her usual, shot-taking, egg sandwich-loving self, but deep down, she’s mending a broken heart. Problem is, once the rest of the city finds out, her protection as “Joker’s gal” will cease to be, and any number of crime bosses and other low lives inhabiting Gotham will want to settle their scores against her. Soon enough, everyone finds out because, well, Harley decides, “F$@% it,” and makes her single status known in the most explosive way possible.

The joy of Birds of Prey is the way director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) wisely knows precisely when to pump of the mania to eleven, when to hit the brakes, and when to just skate backward for a bit. I mean this figuratively and literally as Harley is a roller derby skater too because of #squadgoals, amirite? The script by Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) has a blast constantly shuffling back and forth in time like the Deadpool flicks. Yet there’s such wonderful specificity to Harley, her gang, and the unique world of Gotham. As a result, none of it feels like we’ve “been there, done that.”

The easy explanation would be to say it’s due to an all-female cast, but we’re past that now. We’ve had a lot of good to great blockbusters and or comic book movies with strong, funny, fierce women. If anything, Birds of Prey isn’t very political. It is first and foremost a hard R-rated film (fun blood and gore! language!) that don’t give two effs what you think.

The action scenes are as close as any superhero flick has gotten to John Wick level awesome. For starters, that’s because co-editor Evan Schiff worked on John Wick 2 and 3. But the bigger reason is that Chad Stahelski (director of the Wick films) was brought on to oversee the fight and stunt choreography. So there is a logic to the mayhem.

Harley may remain charmingly bonkers, but there’s a sense of purpose Yan employs on nearly every level. There’s the cadence of baddie Ewan McGregor’s dialogue as crime leader/nightclub owner Roman Sionis aka Black Mask, or how Erin Beneach’s (The Neon Demon) costume work imbues the characters with lived-in, wearable chaos, but never in a self-conscious way. From top to bottom, it’s impressive how well all of these seemingly random things work; a shotgun that fires confetti but still hurts and delights, a studio apartment that feels personal yet the center of it all is a tube TV, etc. All of this feels inspired.

As evident from the title, this is an ensemble affair with Quinnzel as our de facto (and strangely) reliable narrator. The rest of the cast mostly shines as well. Jurnee Smollett-Bell is Black Canary, a lounge singer with mighty powerful pipes. Rosie Perez is detective Renee Montana who speaks in humorous 80s cop cliches. In a terrific debut, Ella Jay Basco is Cassandra Cain. She’s the one all of the baddies are after. Only Ali Wong, who got her name above the credits on the poster, is severely underused as Gotham’s DA. Meanwhile, Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress seems to be channeling Romana Flowers from last decade’s Scott Pilgrim Versus The World.

Additionally, while I wouldn’t say Yan is channeling only Edgar Wright, the energy and use of fun graphics certainly fits in Pilgrim’s world as well. Also, like Wright, Yan has a gift for pop music selections. Sure, a few picks eye-roll worthy like Heart’s “Barracuda” (just too easy), but most of the tracks kept the film bumpin’.

Now while there is a lot to love about The Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, I’d be remiss not to point one at least one irksome trope. Ewan McGregor is on a good roll as Danny Torrence in Doctor Sleep and now as Roman. He can be charming, vulnerable, and menacing all at once. And yet his character and his right-hand man Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) are clearly riffing off that old gay-coded villain cliche. Think James Mason and Martin Landau in Hitchock’s North By Northwest. I get how, by design, the world of Gotham is filled with horrible and (most likely) straight dudes. So having the main villain be a predatory cisgender male might be too on the nose. Still, while I like the character of Roman and the effort put in by McGregor, do we need these kinds of character traits in 2020?

Issues aside, with a refreshing new take on Harley Quinn and the bouncy but deadly world she occupies, I was absolutely thrilled by how well Birds of Prey turned out. And now the sky’s the limit for a sequel.

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2 Responses to “Birds of Prey Soars High Above the DCEU (Movie Review)”

  1. Gregg Senko

    My favorite part of this review is your rating markers. Nicely done! I had a lot of fun with this movie!

  2. Brian White

    Thanks Gregg!