Birds of Prey (and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
One of the things, or at least one of the few things, you could say 2016’s Suicide Squad did immensely well was introducing audiences to Margot Robbie’s delightfully wicked and charmingly sociopathic rendition of Harley Quinn. Now, director Cathy Yan is looking to give us a Harleen Quinzel who’s unshackled from the chains of patriarchy and who finds her own emancipation in a world that seeks to keep her in her place. With elegance and a whole lot of badassery, Yan makes her mark in the DCEU in the colorfully vibrant and whimsically deranged Birds of Prey, one of DC’s most pure-hearted and exhilarating adaptations in recent years.
Birds of Prey is an infectiously joyous and vibrantly dynamic celebration of sisterhood and DC Comics as a whole. Its ensemble cast is a pure joy to see and the visual direction is striking in its grace and inventiveness. But more than anything, this is a movie as much ABOUT Harley Quinn is it is a movie made BY and FOR Harley Quinn, with all her confidence and fearlessness laid throughout in every set piece and every proud instance of female righteousness.
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has broken up with the Joker, effectively severing all ties and connections with him, such as blowing up ACE Chemicals where she was “created.” However, her quest for personal emancipation lands a target on her back for all of Gotham’s mercenaries, crooks, and assassins to see. As such, she winds up in the hands of crime boss Roman “Black Mask” Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who tasks her with finding a missing jewel guaranteed to provide him with enough fortune to run all of Gotham without interference. But her emancipation also permits her to cross paths with a plentitude of other women seeking liberation of their own, such as nightclub singer Dinah “Black Canary” Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), vengeful vigilante Helena “Huntress” Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), rough-and-tough detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and shy pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
From the opening few minutes consisting of a cute and artsy animated sequence, we not only get a summation of Harley Quinn’s backstory but of what we can expect moving forward. Birds of Prey offers an energetic, almost electric radiance that fills every frame. Yan entrances the audience to see Gotham City as nothing more than Harley Quinn’s imaginative and dreamlike subconscious, as if we’re inside the mind of Harley herself. There’s a radiative quality to the cinematography and set design, as if it’s design to be a collection of kaleidoscopic, colorful portraits sewn together. The bright costumes and vibrant visuals give an almost chaotic yet graceful picture of Harley and her band of emancipated ladies. These instances can include Harley walking through pink and blue smoke, or Harley strutting away from a fireworks display of the destruction of ACE Chemicals, or a multitude of others throughout the story.
All of these directorial decisions offer a fresh vision and unique style Yan has for the story and its characters, a style that adds the levity and bubbly sociopathy a story about Harley Quinn needs. The humor even pertains itself to the stylistic choices made by Yan, with enough variety across the room to keep the comedy feeling fresh, and in turn, hilarious. It can stretch from socially awkward and deadpan with characters like Helena Bertinelli, to extravagant lunacy with Harley Quinn and Roman Sionis, to moments of hysterical subtleties.
Margot Robbie needs no introduction with her rendition of Harley Quinn. From her small yet popular introduction in 2016’s Suicide Squad, Cathy Yan provides her with a bit of an expansion into her psyche to make her a far more emotionally complex, human, and resonant character. Robbie’s versatility help make Harley a bubbly sociopath who gets enjoyment from the pain of others as well as a woman overcoming the tragedy of her place in society. This is ultimately HER story, about her desire to fulfill her own identity in a city renowned for its mostly patriarchal rogues gallery and vigilantes. In terms of what the script calls for physically, emotionally, and mentally, Margot Robbie proves once again why no one else can be Harley Quinn like her.
But even though she’s at the center of the story, as she eloquently states in the film, “I’m not the only dame in Gotham looking for emancipation,” and in their own respective ways, every other woman seeking emancipation has a chance to shine and add much more to the story. Smollett-Bell, Winstead, and Perez all have a chance to flex their acting chops and give each of their characters a chance to steal the spotlight. Even though none of them have as much screen-time as Harley Quinn, particularly Winstead’s Huntress, Yan provides each of them with enough depth and weight to give them purpose while also helping each one standout among the “Birds.” It adds to the societal dilemma they all share and creates a sort of connective tissue that bridges their respective traumas and personal demons together.
The major threat they must face, however, comes in Roman Sionis, who makes for a wonderfully exuberant, narcissistic, and dangerous villain thanks to Ewan McGregor’s clear and present conviction to the role. His wacky sense of apparel, pitiful self-indulgence, and unpredictable mood swings (if you want to call them that) help bring a sort of levity as well as menace that make Black Mask the right kind of ludicrous villain for our heroines to go up against. It’s clear that McGregor is having the time of his life, never wasting a single frame to give us an operatically conniving and despicable crime lord who seeks nothing but total chaos and control, which smartly differs from Harley’s more playful and joyous interpretation of chaos.
Often this entanglement of storylines and threads can prove to be a little too much for the film to bear. Rather than utilizing a tradition a three-act structure, Yan relies more on shifting the time frame back and forth, often going to the past and the shifting back to the present. This happens more than once in order to introduce and give narrative context and backstory for our main ensemble. But while I never lost myself in the intertwining of timeframes, I did prove to be a bit of a meandering drag somewhat 2/3 of the way in. The large ensemble also, unfortunately, leaves a couple characters to the sidelines and sadly don’t receive as much development as one would like compared to Harley Quinn. But while the small screen-time can be unfortunate, to say the least, Yan imbues enough likability, charm, and depth to the ensemble to make them worthwhile and likable characters as well as add to the connections they eventually bring into fruition with one another.
It’s this emphasis on the idea of sisterhood that they all experience that prophesizes their eventual crossover and the overarching theme of womanhood banding together in the face of the patriarchal adversity. Each of them is trying to find their way in society and seek their own personal liberation, in one way or another. Some seek vengeance, while others seek justice. But despite their differences in motivation and methodology, it’s their search for personal empowerment that eventually culminates in them banding together for an extravagant and visually dazzling finale that more the fulfills what the film has been building towards.
The action set pieces themselves also prove to be as strong and fulfilling as the characters themselves. Yan’s use of practical stunts and effects can be seen all throughout the film and her reliance on said practical effects is a much-needed breath of fresh air within the bubble of heavy CGI in most comic book films out now. Bearing a strong resemblance to the John Wick series, the action is energetic, ecstatic, and filled with a plentitude of style and humor. Yan makes exceptional use of carefully-choreographed practical effects and camera movements in order to add a kind of fluidity and smoothness to the action, keeping our characters in focus and at the center of the conflict. With that in mind, the action is marvelously tracked and makes great use of its R-Rating, with its rather wicked sense of humor and bone-crunching sound effects and CG. The action is certainly not for the faint of heart, but more than suits what the film requires.
Birds of Prey does Harley Quinn justice by giving us an all-around dynamic and high-spirited action romp that serves to expand on what DC is capable of. Cathy Yan adds a worthwhile palette-cleanser to the many CGI-Heavy, world-ending superhero blockbusters. The action is tirelessly bombastic, the humor is ever-so wickedly on point, and Yan carries enough confidence and assertiveness through her direction and characters to make for a unique entry in the DCEU as well as among every other DC adaptation. But most of all, Yan proves why Harley Quinn is as beloved as she is complicated and why her popularity has endured for over two decades. Much like in the film, she started off as simply the Joker’s henchwoman/girlfriend. With Birds of Prey, Yan further cements exactly why, as she confidently asserts in the film, she is “Harley F-ing Quinn!”