The 2010s were concluded with a year of some of the comic book genre’s strongest showings in film. To no one’s surprise, Marvel kept up their torrid pace by putting out multiple films that eclipsed a billion at the box office, including “Avengers: Endgame” which became the highest-grossing film of all-time. But what is unexpected, is that DC objectively had successes that rivaled their adversaries. “Joker” became a cultural phenomenon that resulted in it becoming the highest-grossing rated-R film of all-time and earning actor Joaquin Phoenix an Academy Award. Now that we have entered a new year, the inevitable step onto new grounds has begun and DC is the first of the two studios to make their move.
“Harley Quin: Birds of Prey” is a pseudo-sequel to the underwhelming “Suicide Squad” film of 2016. Of what few strengths its predecessor had, the casting of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn had been met with universal praise and it is no secret that this film’s existence is an attempt to separate her from much of the pulp of that failure. In a cynically comedic way, one can almost see DC surgically removing Harley Quinn from everything fans hated about her previous appearance to salvage the character from the wreckage. And while you can make a compelling argument that they succeed by the end of the film to present Harley and the Birds of Prey as entities that can stand on their own, the film’s meandering around the specter of the Joker ultimately shows that they came up short in their goal. They acknowledge that Harley is moving on from Mr. J, and yet, the choice to, once again, not allow her to face-off against him as an adversary renders her “emancipation” little more than an acknowledgment of their problem without ever dealing with it. There is a Jared Leto-sized elephant in the room that has not yet been taken care of.
But that being said, I do not hold this singular film responsible for the greater politics of DC comics. “Birds of Prey” wishes to be treated as a singular body of work worthy of judgment separate from the failure that preceded it, and rightfully it should be. The legacy of this film will be the moment that Harley Quinn became a capable leading character and a continuation of the trend of female-led comic book films in the mainstream. Director Cathy Yan has created a movie that is consistently entertaining with great performances by everyone involved, even if the plot is fairly safe and forgettable.
The story begins with Harley breaking up with the Joker off-screen and having to deal with the consequences of losing the protection that being his girlfriend provided her with. Harley, a well-known sociopath, has made her fair share of enemies over the years that now see open season on getting their long-awaited revenge on her. One individual is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a flamboyant crime lord and nightclub-owner who is after a diamond, that is stolen by a child pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco). And while Sionis wants Harley to die, Harley offers to recover the diamond for Sionis in exchange for protection. He agrees but also puts a bounty on the child to increase Harley’s chances of failing. From there, we follow Harley as she violently kidnaps and befriends the child, and eventually teams up with Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Detective Montoya (Rosie Perez) to protect the child and fight back against Sionis and his goons, in a less-than-subtle visual representation of Harley declaring that she does not need to be anybody’s underling.
The strength of this film is the acting. Margot Robbie delivers a performance as Harley Quinn that, in my opinion, puts her in the conversation along with Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, and Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, as the only perfectly casted comic book characters. While she has a long way to go to match their legendary runs, she fits the character in the same fasion. Robbie is perfectly zany, violent, and very funny. She seems to operate with an innocence that happily ignores reality to the point where the world seemingly bends to her warped will. I found it most enjoyable when she seamlessly dishes out her psychological expertise while still maintaining her silly personality. She looks the part and backs it up in every aspect. Robbie is Harley. Perhaps the only other person on the planet who could give this role as much as she would be Harley’s voice actor, Tara Strong, who has been voicing her since the character’s creation in 1992 in “Batman: The Animated Series”.
The supporting cast pulls their weight too. As the main antagonist, Ewan McGregor is very enjoyable. He plays his role well, but again, the idea of the Joker plays such a large role in this film that the character of Roman Sionis feels like a cheap substitute. McGregor gives Sionis many manic ticks and traits that are comparable to what you might expect from the Joker, including slicing faces off, inappropriate laughing, and loud, charismatic public outbursts. It is all done very well, but we all know what it really wanted to be. The remaining members of the Birds of Prey are excellent but in limited screen time. Black Canary and Huntress are given quick bursts of exposition dumps to provide a semblance of backstories, but we aren’t given enough time to witness them grow as we do with Harley. It is a shame because Smollett-Bell is a stoic badass that captivates in every action sequence she is in, and Winstead is really funny presenting herself as incredibly awkward and a highly-lethal killer. I would have gladly traded in Rosie Perez’s storyline for more time with those two.
I find the journey of this film in the real world to be odd. It already faced the task of openly ignoring the franchise’s most successful character, one that has yielded an Oscar to the actor that portrayed him for the 2nd time and make a compelling story for a character that was specifically designed to be a duo with him. That is difficult enough on its own before you consider that it is the first major comic book film to have a majority female-led ensemble. These circumstances are maybe responsible for the initial box-office shortcomings that have been reported. However, like many female-led projects in the era of social media, this film faced online troll campaigns to sabotage the reception, which undoubtedly played some role in the financial returns. The studio seems to have believed that it was a nomenclature issue so the original title of “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” was changed a single week into its theatrical run, a fairly unprecedented maneuver. Comparatively, I believe this film is funnier than “SHAZAM!”, and all-around better than “Aquaman”. If those two films were financially successful, “Birds of Prey” is more than deserving.
I give “Birds of Prey” an 8.0 out of 10
Directed by: Cathy Yan
Starring: Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Chris Messina
Runtime: 1 Hour and 49 Minutes