Birds of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)
Director: Cathy Yan
Screenwriter: Christina Hodson
Starring: Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor
Just like the tune that Black Canary (aka. Dinah Lance, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell) sings in the opening act of Birds of Prey, the Gotham we’ve known in the DCEU up until now has been a man’s world. Thankfully, Margot Robbie decided to change that.
Birds of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn – to give it its full title – picks up sometime after the events of David Ayers’ much maligned Suicide Squad, and it’s here we meet Harley recovering from her break-up with ‘Mr J’.
When everyone she’s ever wronged hears that she’s no longer under Joker’s protection, she becomes Gotham’s most wanted. As she does her best to stay alive, she’s drawn into hunting for a diamond, protecting a young pickpocketer – Cassandra Cain (played by Ella Jay Basco) – and joining forces with three more of the city’s ‘broads’ looking to find freedom.
The first twenty minutes or so of this movie make its intentions clear – the next couple of hours are going to be a freakin’ great time at the cinema.
The action kicks in early, with instantly iconic sequences including a jailbreak with the sprinklers on, a brilliantly choreographed exchange in the evidence room, and the epic demise of an egg sandwich. Robbie looks to be doing an inordinate amount of her own stunts, and Harley’s scrappy but acrobatic fighting style is solidified beautifully.
Much like RDJ as Tony Stark, or Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Margot Robbie is Harley Quinn. She embodies her entirely; the layers of makeup and tattoos are impressive, but more so is her total commitment to the drama and glamour and sorrow and strength of this character. Watching her let loose with Harley’s sparkle and sense of humour is a joy, but what really connects you with Quinn are the moments when the mask slips, when the facade is made fragile, and when we get a glimpse at just how big of a toll has been taken on her by the trauma she’s been through.
Such is the impact of Robbie’s performance, it overshadows everyone else in the film. Harley is so magnetic and enjoyable that interest starts to wane with every second she’s not on screen. Smollett-Bell as Black Canary and Rosie Perez as Renee Montoya, a genius cop who faces a constant lack of respect from her male colleagues, are established as well as they can be given the size of this ensemble, but Mary Elizabeth Winstead is fairly underserved as Huntress. Used more intermittently for impact, Winstead steals the few scenes she does have, combining Huntress’s ruthless mercenary skills with a brilliantly comical social awkwardness.
As for McGregor, the fun he’s having with the role is evident, and there are some beats that show how monstrous his Black Mask really is. But, aside from a particularly nasty scene in a nightclub, he’s largely forgettable and feels somewhat miscast.
This lack of a strong antagonist is felt at points, and the approach in terms of who the women are up against is more ‘horde of henchmen’ than a single powerful villain – but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The way men are portrayed as a threat in this film is interesting and complex. Our heroes never really have trouble beating them physically, though they are shown to be overpowered at times – it’s the coercion and control that the men wreak over Harley and the rest that creates a sense of discomfort when they’re around. Renee is undermined at work by the men who keep taking credit for her successes; Dinah is under Roman’s thumb, having to plaster a smile to keep him happy; Huntress is seeking revenge on the men that ruined her life; and Harley is subject to violence from men who see her as weak without that toxic, abusive clown to ‘protect’ her. As Harley herself verbalises, the very nature of a harlequin is to be mute, to be costumed, ‘to serve’. With every kick, punch and swing of a baseball bat, these women are stepping out from the shadows of men that have defined them, and into their own power.
Gender commentary aside, Birds of Prey is simply a bloody good piece of entertainment, and a much needed injection of sweary, adult fun into the DCEU. The stakes are small-scale and mostly grounded in reality, helping it to avoid the bloat experienced with the world-ending events of Suicide Squad. Its structure is nothing new, but it’s the execution that matters here. Every inch of this movie is stamped with that innate Harley Quinn-ness that made her such a standout in Suicide Squad, and it feels directed; feels part of a vision that Cathy Yan has so effectively brought to life.
There are hints at an even trippier version of this movie though; Harley as Marilyn singing “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” is a wonderfully surreal insight into what’s going on in her head, but the moment feels cut short. Playing with chronology as a way of introducing each character seems to be the film’s approach to standing out from the crowd, but this makes for a frustrating timeline that stunts the pace it worked so hard to build – perhaps simpler storytelling, but more of that fever dream feel, would have really pushed Birds of Prey to the next level.
Sometimes you leave the cinema thinking you’ve got the measure of a movie. But, as time ticks by, your love for it grows and blooms. Birds of Prey is an example of just that; it leaves you smiling as the credits roll, and feels ripe for a rewatch just hours later. Let’s hope this is just the first of many times we get to meet Harley Quinn without that pesky ‘pudding’ of hers, and that we get to know what happens next, now that she is fully, fantabulously emancipated.