DC’s latest superhero team-up adds much-needed sparkle to an ultimately flawed formula.
This is a spoiler-free review. To discuss spoilers, head over to the Birds of Prey Spoil Sports.
Birds of Prey is funny. It’s colorful and stylish. Its violence is shocking but not gratuitous, the music apropos but not cliché. In short, it improves on the formula laid down by its disastrous predecessor Suicide Squad in almost every way. But being shackled to that formula is also the film’s greatest liability; a mandate that emphasizes character introduction over character development, and in doing so abandons any attempt at constructing a compelling, self-contained narrative. Casual moviegoers will be satisfied by the film’s slick, flashy action sequences and cast chemistry, but without a strong emotional core Birds of Prey is just another piece of disposable entertainment.
The film starts off strong with a cutesy animated introduction that fills us in on Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) backstory as psychology PhD-turned-supervillain paramour. After being dumped by the Joker for unspecified reasons we pick up with Quinn mid-drinking binge, licking the wounds of her broken heart and trying to figure out how to live a life sans-Joker. “A harlequin’s job is to serve,” she explains in one of the film’s more hamfisted monologues. So right off the bat (heh) writer Christina Hodson (Bumblebee, Shut In) attempts to establish an emotional arc for her protagonist: a woman learning how to assert her own identity independent of a man — the “fantabulous emancipation” alluded to in the film’s full title. Unfortunately the film doesn’t have time to waste exploring the interiority of just a single character. This is a superhero movie, after all, and therefore must make room for the introduction of a flock of additional cohorts, villains, and sidekicks. Quinn’s broken heart is quickly and extravagantly resolved early on, and any lingering emotional attachment to the Joker is barely mentioned for the remainder of the story. The film’s reluctance to even reference the Joker (no doubt partially in response to Jared Leto’s reviled portrayal) makes establishing the emotional stakes of Quinn’s journey that much more difficult. In the film’s desire to place all its focus on the women it seems loathe to acknowledge that the men who wronged them exist at all. In their place is a single avatar for shitty men everywhere, Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis, AKA Black Mask.
Sionis is a caricature of every self-important bro any woman has ever had the misfortune to encounter during a night out. Vain and insecure in a way one might call Trumpian, he prances and preens in his warehouse nightclub, terrorizing women who threaten his fragile ego. Enabled by the supportive laughter of his sleazy sidekick (Chris Messina), Sionis has a penchant for masks — either ones he appropriated from African cultures or those he slices from the flesh of his underworld business rivals. Having lost the protection she enjoyed as the Joker’s girlfriend, Quinn soon finds herself under Sionis’ knife. In exchange for sparing her life, Quinn promises to track down an immensely valuable diamond recently stolen from Sionis.
This is where the film’s aggravating non-linear storytelling makes itself known, because at this point the narrative has to literally stop and rewind in order to explain exactly what this diamond is and who stole it. It’s here that we are introduced to Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a lounge singer at Sionis’ nightclub who also possesses a unique talent for ass-kicking while wearing tight pants. Sionus tasked her with retrieving the diamond only for it to be stolen from under her nose by pre-teen pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
But hold on, we’re not done yet. Quinn and Canary’s quest for the
macguffin diamond puts them in orbit of savvy Gotham Police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who herself is trying to track down a killer murdering local mafia thugs with a crossbow.
If it seems like I’m spending an awful lot of time explaining basic story mechanics, it’s because the script has tied itself into knots trying to justify all of its character introductions. A coherent storyline is impossible when you have to stop and double back to explain characters and plot points you missed the first time around like a guy telling a bad joke at a party. And remember the original arc of Quinn learning to establish her individuality? With a half dozen other characters in the mix, any attempt to explore the emotional journey of any one of them quickly falls by the wayside.
But OK, maybe you haven’t bought your ticket to a flashy, big-budget superhero movie for the plot. Maybe you’re just looking to get your fix on bloody, ass-kicking action. In terms of snazzy visuals, Birds of Prey has them in spades, boosted in no small part by delightfully sadistic bouts of extreme violence. Director Cathy Yan has teamed up with John Wick stunt design house 87eleven to craft fight arrangements that emphasize raw physicality over CGI tricks. You’ll find none of the dreaded blue-tinted, shadow-heavy fight scenes employed by less capable productions. Birds of Prey joyfully plays with a bright, whimsical color scheme emblematic of Quinn’s youthful, impudent aesthetic. A sequence where Quinn unleashes a barrage of glittery neon-colored projectiles from a sandbag gun is particularly memorable. The film adequately balances action with plot until the final 30 minutes which devolve into a single, exhaustingly prolonged mishmash of chase scenes and gunfights.
Between the bouts of action and the meandering plot, the film’s upbeat tone and pacing is sustained by a series of charismatic performances from its lead actresses. Robbie, freed from the dehumanizing sexualization foisted upon her character in Suicide Squad, unleashes Quinn’s irresistibly exuberant punk-rock femininity. Smollett-Bell keeps the group grounded with her no-nonsense, world-weary take on Black Canary; and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the comically over-serious Huntress provides some of the biggest laughs. A gag where she grimly announces her superhero name in front of a mirror conjures images of a mopey Bruce Wayne practicing his own ominous one-liners. The only cast member to strike a sour note is McGregor as Black Mask. His portrayal feels like an affectation, a buffoonish performative version of toxic masculinity that never feels truly dangerous.
Harley Quinn is no stranger to dangerous men, and her popularity as a character has inspired nuanced examinations of her personality as an individual as well as her unhealthy connection with the Joker. Paul Dini’s Mad Love, for example, explores that relationship through the lens of intimate partner abuse. There’s a lot of potential for using Quinn’s character as a conduit for feminist perspectives within the genre. But this level of nuance is apparently still incompatible with a franchise-focused studio model. Individual stories are sidelined in favor of a something-for-everyone approach where multiple characters are offered up in hopes of appealing to every demographic. And within those restrictions Yan has done an admirable job bringing together a talented cast to make a fun, visually extravagant piece of pop diversion. But short-term visual delights are not enough to impart long-term emotional or cultural resonance, and for now Birds of Prey is merely a stepping stone towards broader women’s representation in film.