Movie Review: ‘Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn’
Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (which moving forward will simply be referred to as Birds of Prey,) is the latest installment in the DC extended universe.
The film also marks the first major release of 2020 in the superhero/comic adaption genre, putting some extra weight on its shoulders. While many of the previously released DC films weren’t received well by critics and fans alike, its fair to say the bar wasn’t placed exactly high, especially in a world where Disney and the MCU hold all the cards. However, I’m pleased to say the film was not only enjoyable and exceeded my expectations, but it seems to be a GIANT leap in the right direction for the future of DC on a larger scale.
Directed by Cathy Yan, and written by Christina Hodson, the film follows Harley Quinn – played by Margot Robbie (reprising her role from 2016’s Suicide Squad). She was also one of the only redeeming qualities of that colossal mess. We see Quinn getting a solo adventure, post breakup with clown prince of crime himself, The Joker. Realizing that the immunity and ‘untouchable’ status she held while with her former puddin’, Harley now realizes how many people want her dead as a direct result of her reckless (and lets admit it, quite enjoyable,) behavior. The top of that list is Roman Sionis, helmed by Ewan McGregor, known as Black Mask. Sionis, being a quarky villain of sorts, relies on his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz, with a great performance by Chris Messina. Audience members are also treated to other key players and fan favorites from the enormous vault of DC characters such as Black Canary and Huntress, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jurnee Smollett-Bell. We also get to see the 80’s cop show one line slingin’ Renee Montoya played by Rosie Perez and Cassandra Cain, the junior of the film, portrayed by Ella Jay Basco. In his attempt to gain power and money to buy and sell out anyone in Gotham, Harley, Huntress, Black Canary, Montoya and Cassandra have to work together to stop Sionis before he becomes what they fear most – rich, powerful, and unstoppable.
It seemed Yan took what worked with previous DC entries and combined them to lend to this film’s success. One of the major upgrades is the lack of CGI, which leads to a more visually believable plot. The action scenes were crisp and clean, and saw our heroes in combat with actual opponents, instead of a CGI-generated disposable lot of baddies. (We have Wonder Woman to thank for that.) On the visual side, the film was bright and loud, and used the aesthetics as a working piece of the film.
It might also be possible that what DC was missing was the grit, language, and attitude that comes with a hard R rating. While 2019’s The Joker received critical success, it hardly counts as an entry in the canon in which this film is a part of, made up of several PG-13, mediocre and poorly animated attempts at a superhero film. It’s also important to note that the female-centric film surpasses its male counterparts in every way. For years, we’ve heard the different arguments about why female superhero stories weren’t being told, or why they weren’t the foreground of a plot, instead, existing as a supporting character or side story of another hero’s tale. Then, in 2017, Wonder Woman debuted, and until now, was one of the only DC films that could be considered “good.” That being said, I think it’s safe to say that putting women in the spotlight works, against whatever reason the ridiculous doubts existed for the in the first place, and 2020 is ready to explore that – with the release of Birds of Prey, being followed by WW84 and Marvel’s own Black Widow.
The casting for the film was wonderful, but I did feel like the characters of Black Canary and Huntress were underused. While the storyline is told and narrated by our main protagonist (more precisely, antihero,) Harley Quinn, and isn’t necessary chronological. I felt like the runtime could have been extended a bit, and Winstead certainly deserved more screen time. While Quinn may have been the only established character of the film, it would have been acceptable to move the limelight to one of these other characters. In fact, getting to delve into the story of Huntress and Black Canary is what led to the production of Birds of Prey to begin with, with Margot Robbie herself wanting to showcase some of the lesser-known DC entities on the big screen.
I also have a few questions with the choices regarding the character-driven plot points. The film is supposed to tell the story of Harley’s emancipation, (seriously, it’s in the title…,) not her redemption. While redeeming some of her mistakes and questionable behavior would make for an interesting story, it’s not the one I think that the writer’s intended to tell, but instead, the lines got blurred a little. It isn’t only Harley’s desire for independence that drives the plot, but all the women in the film, hence the voice-over during the first trailer drop with Harley setting up the film: “I wasn’t the only dame in Gotham looking for emancipation.” This is where I felt like more could have been done with Huntress and Black Canary. While their screen time was enjoyable, I felt like more would have been better – but there’s always the possibility of that being explored in a sequel or related films.
Overall, Birds of Prey has all the necessary parts to make it work. With yet another unforgettable performance by Robbie as the titular character that captured the hearts of fans back in 2017, it was justifying seeing her own tale unfold. The soundtrack was great, editing on par, the film was well-casted and rounded out to be a quite the enjoyable superhero flick, with extra points being added for the films intended agenda of being crude yet woke, and surpassing all of the previous disasters DC has thrown at us. It seems Birds of Prey is step in the right direction, and makes me hopeful for the future of DC’s own extended universe, anticipating the release of WW84 later this year, as well as James Gunn’s entry of The Suicide Squad coming next year.
Well done DC. What else ya got?