On the whole I have not been a fan of the DC Extended Universe, mostly because Zack Snyder is a hack. Over the last year, however, things have noticeably improved, thanks to lighthearted affairs like Shazam, which – like the Marvel Cinematic Universe – leans more into the comedic and human aspects of its characters rather than relying on grit for the sake of grit.
This newfound direction continues with Birds of Prey, which has just been renamed Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey by Warner Bros. because it only grossed $35 million last weekend to win the box office ahead of the Oscars hangover. It really is disgusting how much corporate bullshit can still seep into these proceedings. Not only did every potential viewer know this movie was about Harley Quinn primarily, but we also had the already fun Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn as a subtitle that fed into what we already know about her as a comic book entity. So what was the point of renaming the film? It’s not like the audience needed an extra reminder of who the main character was. This is bullshit studio hubris, because it’s not enough to win anymore, you have to be the greatest thing ever or you’re a failure. It sickens me.
Thankfully, I saw the film before the name change, so I don’t feel the need to judge it against that front office manipulation. The movie itself stands on its own as a fun, and funny, comic book romp that builds on the mystique of Margot Robbie’s portrayal while giving us a few new non-Suicide-y Squad-like sidekicks to get behind. The movie is certainly flawed, particularly in the editing, but on the whole it’s quite entertaining.
The first great decision the film makes is to refer to Batman and Joker by name only. The film opens with a cutesy animated backstory about Harley and Mr. J. breaking up, and the only nod to the Bat is potentially in the name of her new pet hyena, Bruce. I love this move. Harley is one of the most malleable characters in all of DC Comics, mostly because she’s still relatively new, having been originally created for Batman: The Animated Series back in the 90s. She has way less canon from which to mold her actions. As such, Margot Robbie gets to just have a lot of fun and establish new rules as she goes. The film rightly fosters that attitude by keeping the primary protagonist and antagonist of Gotham completely out of the picture. This movie’s not about them. Honestly it was one of the few things I hated about Joker. You’re making a movie about the Clown Prince of Crime. We don’t need tangential drama with the Wayne family, and we sure as fuck didn’t need yet another depiction of Thomas and Martha Wayne’s murders. Thankfully, Birds of Prey keeps all of that shit firmly in the background, or out of the picture entirely.
The second great idea is in basically loading the entire cast with characters that aren’t super. With one exception, the entire main cast, be they hero, villain, or something in between, acts completely within the bounds of human power and capability. Harley has no powers. Primary villain Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor being delightfully unhinged) has no powers; he’s just the head of a crime family. Henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) is just a serial killer. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is just a cop pissed off at sexism. Helena Bertinelli, aka Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) is just really well trained on the crossbow. Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) is just a pickpocket who gets way in over her head. Only Jurnee Smollet-Bell as Dinah Lance, or Black Canary, has any superhuman ability, and rightly, the film holds off on exploiting it until the final act, treating her as a normal singer/bodyguard until absolutely necessary. Again, part of the new fun of the DCEU is exploring the humanity of its characters. What better way than for all of them to be non-extraordinary humans?
Anyway, as far as the plot is concerned, after their breakup, the Gotham underworld considers Harley to be fair game, as she no longer has the Joker’s protection. Meanwhile, Cass steals a diamond from Dinah, one that contains the passwords to several lucrative bank accounts once owned by the Bertinelli crime family, of which Helena is the sole survivor, quickly and unintentionally making Cass the center of a power play involving Sionis and Quinn, as well as the GCPD, to secure the girl’s safety, the gem, or both. As happens in these movies, enemies become friends, alliances of convenience are formed, and a hodgepodge team of kick-ass coalesces around a lodestar lead character, in this case Harley.
All of that stuff is pretty standard. What matters is the journey and the spectacle. While the road itself can be rocky at points (we’ll get to that in a minute), the overall presentation is on point. Between Harley’s outfits, attitude, and pure zest for life – who else would infiltrate a police station with literal glitter bombs? – we are completely strapped in for the ride, and with significantly less fan service than we had in Suicide Squad. Whether it’s a really-well choreographed climactic fight in an old amusement park fun house (think “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease, only lit in neon and ladies are kicking goon ass the whole time) or a comic obsession with a greasy egg sandwich, Harley’s character sings in every scene.
Not to be outdone is the supporting cast, led by McGregor. This is one of the most cartoonish characters he’s ever gotten to play, and he does not waste the opportunity. Presented as an intellectually-devoid short fuse who uses inherited wealth to terrorize the world into doing his bidding (like we’ve never seen THAT before *COUGHTRUMPCOUGH*), he takes to his villainous tasks with aplomb, at times flirting with Joker’s level of insanity. It’s not quite implied, but I did get the feeling several times that Harley was drawn to Sionis (or at least his nightclub) because he was a slightly more put together version of her ex-Puddin’. He’s got Joker’s sadistic streak, but the chip on his shoulder to live up to his family name and assert mafia power at least grants some method to the madness, and McGregor pulls it off admirably.
The rest of the cast have their moments as well. I think my favorite is Huntress, finally introduced after several crossbow hits through a quick gag about how everyone wants to call her “Crossbow Killer” before she asserts herself as the Huntress. It’s hilarious because basically everyone who goes for the CK name is a guy she’s either killed or who witnessed a kill. But when she reveals herself to the other “Birds” – all women – they instantly accept and praise the name choice. It’s a nice touch.
The one area where the film falls flat to me is the editing. Aside from the usual annoying stuff, like an out-of-sequence opening narration or colliding timelines at the GCPD when everyone is after Cass (including multiple character-centric flashbacks once we get to that point), it’s all just a bit too choppy to fully appreciate, mostly because it’s so obvious. For instance, the film uses a catalog soundtrack combined with original songs. Those classic tracks are so well known that there are points where the audience is tempted to mouth along to the lyrics. But then there’s an obvious and jarring cut to a different point in the song in order for a drumbeat to sync up with a punch or a kick. For example, one fight sequence features “Black Betty,” a perfect song for some beatdowns. When the second verse starts, the track goes “She really gets me high…” then the track cuts immediately to the guitar solo in the bridge. It’s just sloppy. It’s like they want the songs to be their own characters, but they end up drawing attention away from the action. Think how they used “Just a Girl” in Captain Marvel, only more blatantly stupid because of the choppy edit.
There also seems to be no continuity in the film. This is especially noticeable in the GCPD. In one sequence, Harley breaks Cass out of a holding cell, but a power shortage causes the other cells to open, releasing the other inmates. Then the sprinklers to go off, forcing Harley and Cass to fight in a downpour (this is one of the few fan service moments, as who doesn’t imagine Margot Robbie soaking wet?). However, after that admittedly fun sequence, Harley and Cass go into an evidence locker in the adjacent room, and they’re both bone dry, as if no water had touched them in days. It’s so brazen of an error that I half think it was done intentionally to make sure we were still paying attention.
Normally this would be a minor gripe in an otherwise great and fun film. However, the errors are so egregious as to reduce the movie from great to simply good. This movie gets a lot right, especially when it seems like there’s about to be a pendulum swing in quality away from the MCU and towards the DCEU, but in a movie like this, about a side character fully coming into her own, there are enough missteps that it can’t quite extract itself from the shadows of its larger figures.
Still fun, though.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a fan of Harley as a character? What’s the most glaring continuity error you’ve ever noticed in a movie? Let me know!