Birds of Prey is an explosion of color, violence and f-bombs that’ll make you want to get your own badass girl gang together.
DC comics characters mean so much to me on an emotional level, and I’ve spent so much time both hyping up and defending the DCEU that, at this point, I’m almost aggressively predisposed to liking these films as a matter of identity.
I’ve also been especially and specifically interested in this particular film for a wide variety of reasons.
First off, it’s one of the few mid-budget comic book movies in this era of oversized blockbuster films — a trend that I hope we continue to see in the coming years.
It’s also the first comicbook movie to feature not just one female superhero in the lead surrounded by a bunch of men, but a whole bunch of women in the spotlight teaming up to defeat the bad guy.
Finally, it features a diverse cast of women not only in front of the camera, but behind it, making it the first female-led superhero movie to also be written and directed by women.
So I was always going to be ready to like this film solely on principle.
However, I’m incredibly relieved and delighted to report that I didn’t just enjoy Birds of Prey because of what it represented; I fell completely in love with it because of what it gave me in terms of story, character, aesthetic, and action.
Or, to put it in words that Harley Quinn would appreciate: I fucking loved the shit out of this absolutely fantabulous movie.
Despite what the main title of the movie might be, Birds of Prey is first and foremost a movie about Harley Quinn. And not Harley Quinn as most of the general audience might know her, or how we last saw her in Suicide Squad, but Harley Quinn as an individual, emancipated from the smothering, self-obsessed figure of the Joker.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) has been billed as a superhero movie — and it absolutely is that — but it’s also somewhat of a break-up movie with elements of a coming-of-age movie. The Harley we meet at the beginning of the film is fresh off a break-up with Joker, on her own for the very first time in a long time and forced to figure out who she is and what she wants now that her entire life doesn’t revolve around another man.
If this were a romcom, some romantic interest would swoop in to show her things about herself that she’d forgotten. If this were solely a break-up story, her closest BFFs would remind her just what she’s capable of. If this were purely a coming-of-age tale, she’d find herself again through some series of grand misadventures.
But, like I said, this is a superhero movie mixed in with elements of a break-up story and a coming-of-age tale, so what happens instead is this: A newly single Harley Quinn — now without the immunity of being the Joker’s girlfriend — ends up having to make a deal with Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis in exchange for her safety, reneges on that deal to protect inadvertent diamond thief Cassandra Cain, then reneges a couple more times on a couple more deals throughout the course of the film.
Along the way she meets, then teams up with, the women who will eventually go on to form the titular Birds of Prey — ruthless assassin Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress, reluctant hero and lounge singer Dinah Lance aka Black Canary and boozy ace detective Renee Montoya.
Together, they not only work to overthrow the big bad guy in expected comic book movie fashion, but they help remind Harley that she doesn’t need a man in her life as well as make her want to be a less terrible person, as per the standard tropes in a break-up story and a coming-of-age narrative.
Told in Harley’s voice — I mean, literally with her voice, as she pushes along the narrative by way of voiceover — and experienced through her point of view, the film is as bright and chaotic and occasionally confusing the way you might expect a story told by someone as unbalanced and erratic as Harley Quinn would be.
This manifests itself not only in her hilarious voiceovers and the film’s way of presenting character details in animated fashion, but in the way Birds of Prey itself is structured.
The movie’s first two acts aren’t told in a linear fashion, with Harley jumping back and forth in time — sometimes by four minutes, sometimes by fifteen years — as she tells the story, inserting in backstories and loose threads whenever she remembers them.
On my first watch (yes, I’ve already seen this film twice), I found the nonlinear structure distracting; on my second watch, I loved it. The storytelling in the first two acts isn’t connected by time but by idea and motif. Harley introduces a character, then backs up to give you their backstory; she brings up a plot point, but then remembers she needs to tell you how we got there.
It’s a little bit like hearing a story from a slightly drunk person, but it works as a conceit for Harley Quinn. I can see it not working for everyone — the way it didn’t for me, at first — but once I recognized that this is wholly Harley’s story, I really liked how even the structure of the movie itself leaned into it.
Also, credit where credit is due — in the hands of a less capable director, these seemingly random time jumps might have devolved into pure chaos.
However, in the talented hands of director Cathy Yan, what we get is controlled chaos. The storytelling remains tightly focused, and it never feels like any one part of the narrative or the scenes get away from her. We may be floating through time, but it never feels like we’re adrift in it.
It should be no surprise given what we’ve seen her do in just about every role she’s had — including a previous turn as Harley in Suicide Squad — but Margot Robbie is absolutely captivating here as Harley Quinn.
Margot Robbie plays Harley every bit as off-kilter and impulsive as you would expect from the character, but because she also imbues Harley with a surprising amount of vulnerability, the characterization never tips into caricature.
Though it does provide a few scenes of Harley coming to terms with the end of her relationship, the movie doesn’t delve too deeply into the emotional fallout of her breakup with the Joker — you’ll need to watch DC Universe’s fantastic adult animated series Harley Quinn for that or read Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s fantastic Harley Quinn comics run.
Rather, Birds of Prey is Harley forced to reckon with the consequences of her own decisions and realize that her actions not only impact herself, but people around her.
Some of that reckoning is played for laughs, as when Harley is literally confronted by the consequences of punching someone in roller derby by nearly having a window air-conditioning unit dropped on her head.
But some of that reckoning packs an emotional punch, as we see Harley attempt to become a better person — or at least a less terrible person — but make mistakes, fall back into old habits and deal with the guilt of making bad decisions.
Birds of Prey puts Harley Quinn in the spotlight, giving her the space to be pure Harley in all her fantabulous, frenetic ways, but it also forces her to grow up a bit, so that we end up with a Harley who’s still completely herself, but not completely and only about herself.
And though Harley Quinn has the spotlight, that doesn’t mean the rest of the characters in the film don’t get their time to shine.
Though comic book movies are often criticized for their lackluster attempts at a convincing villain, Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis and Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz are two of the best comicbook movie villains we’ve ever seen. Given the grounded, gritty nature of the film, it only makes sense that its villains are equally grounded.
Yet while neither man has any superpowers to speak of, the way in which they wield their power is just as menacing as any superpowered juggernaut on the quest for world domination. Roman and Zsasz are a threatening presence, and their combined menace in their best scenes as villains left me feeling unsettled in a way I’ve never felt in a comicbook movie.
Birds of Prey likewise does a great job of introducing us to all members of the Birds of Prey, giving them just enough backstory to flesh out their characters and get us interested.
We get the least amount of time with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress (née Helena Bertinelli) as an awkward assassin hellbent on revenge, but she is absolutely dynamite in the few scenes she has. Tough, talented with a crossbow and surprisingly funny, Winstead immediately made me wish for a 10-episode prequel series on HBO Max all about Helena Bertinelli’s rise to becoming a vengeful assassin.
Rosie Perez is a blast as a hardboiled detective right out of an ’80s cop show, disrespected in her own department but confident in her abilities as a damn good detective. She gets the most facetime with all the other female characters in the film prior to their big team-up, and it’s an absolute joy to see her antagonistic dynamic with Harley and her surprisingly emotional exchange with Black Canary.
Speaking of, as much as I loved all the characters in this film, it is Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary (née Dinah Lance) who was the absolute standout. The Black Mask Club singer turned Roman Sionis driver turned Bird of Prey may not get the screentime that Harley gets, but she’s just as enthralling to watch and every scene with her just makes you want more.
At turns empathetic and exhausted, she’s the perfect straight man to Harley’s wild shenanigans and their dynamic throughout the film was one of the best parts.
She’s also a fantastic fighter — as per Black Canary comic book lore — and I could watch Jurnee Smollett-Bell roundhouse kick would-be rapists into a car window 30 times on loop and never get tired of it. If any character deserves her own spinoff movie (or franchise of movies, I’m not picky), it’s absolutely Black Canary.
The movie takes a while to finally get all the Birds of Prey together with Harley Quinn, but once it does, an already great movie kicks it up to a level you didn’t even realize was possible, and it is just a non-stop party of inventive action scenes, bone crushing fights and women supporting women.
In fact, the final act — when all the Birds of Prey and Harley Quinn band together — is so good and so fun and so exciting that my only real major complaint about the movie is that I wish we had seen more of it. Of course, it’s only because of the first two acts of setup that we were able to get such a fantastic final act of payoff, but that final act could’ve stretched out for another hour or so and I wouldn’t have minded in the slightest.
However, the fact that my biggest complaint of the movie was that I wanted more movie isn’t really a complaint — just a reason that we should get a sequel. And with so much potential for one — and with the movie itself seeming to set one up in the final scenes — I hope that it’s only a matter of time before Warner Bros. announces a round two of the Birds of Prey.