DC Movies

Birds of Prey Review: The DC Experiment Continues

There’s a moment in Birds of Prey where Harley Quinn sits down with a young girl and eats sugary cereal while watching Looney Tunes. The moment isn’t all that different from experiencing the film itself – only swap out the Fruit Loops knockoff for Captain Crunch. Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is an absurdly long title for a film that celebrates excess. For better or worse, the film goes for camp and dives in head-first, creating a dizzying romp that is high on calories, light on subtlety, and resigning itself to never take things too seriously.

Often, this approach leads to genuine joy, yet there are times where the film’s attempts at gaudy spectacle are undercut by poor humor and haphazard execution. Birds of Prey is the metaphorical representation of an energetic stand-up comic going all-in on every punchline, whether it gets a laugh or not. One has to admire director Cathy Yan’s audacity and confidence. Even if not all the risks land, Yan has delivered an energetic thrill ride that carries no dull moments.

The film is narrated by Harley herself (Margot Robbie) as she details the aftermath of her emotional breakup up with the Joker. She’s completely distraught and depressed, resigning herself to a small apartment above a Chinese restaurant with the little savings that she has. She keeps telling herself that this is the start of a new life, but her ugly crying and binge drinking tell the story of someone who is not yet ready to move on. Making matters worse – news of the breakup goes around Gotham, which puts a target on Harley’s back since her enemies don’t have to worry about retaliation from the Joker.One such enemy is Gotham detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). If the name doesn’t give it away, Montoya is a stereotypically hard-nosed, by-the-book, no-nonsense police officer who talks in cliches and is pissed off by the fact that she was passed up for a promotion by a male colleague (they really ran the gamut on the female-led police drama starter kit). The movie gets plenty of mileage and fun out of how dated Montoya’s persona is, especially compared to the younger characters.

The paths of Harley and Montoya not only intersect with each other but also with Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). A notorious crime lord, Sionis is after a very unique diamond with contents that are invaluable. Somehow, through a slew of mishaps, misunderstandings, and robberies, the main cast of characters are all caught in this intricate hunt surrounding the diamond, made all the more complicated by where the MacGuffin happens to be located.

Director Cathy Yan has made a crime caper in a DC setting, an apropos combination given how colorful these comic book characters are. McGregor, in particular, is having a blast. He comes off as a cross between Norman Stansfield in The Professional (1994) and a flamboyant casino owner. He’s easily disgusted, prone to random shouting, violent, but also timid and situationally passive. You can tell a lot of thought has been put into this characterization, leading to a bizarre villain who in one scene can force a patron to nervously dance for her life on a table, but this is also the same guy who spends a quarter of the 3rd act in pajamas. He’s also heavily implied to be homosexual, but I’m sure there will be various think pieces on the significance of that subject.

But as much attention will be paid to McGregor, it is Chris Messina who comes off the top rope with the film’s most bizarre performance. He plays Sionis’ right hand man – Victor Zsasz. While Sionis teeters between psychopath and sociopath, Zsasz is just batshit insane. Messina infuses every syllable of dialogue with so much inflection and over the top flavor that you wonder if he actually believes he can steal the movie from all the main stars who are more famous and charismatic than him; if he have given his character a nervous tic, I would be completely convinced of this theory. Sometimes it’s amusing, often it’s just perplexing, but this performance is less Heath Ledger’s Joker and more Colin Farrell’s Bullseye.

The eccentric nature of the various characters permeates the entire film. Both in acting and visual execution, this is what it’s like to see a DC cartoon translated to live action – which I mean as a compliment. Much of the film’s visual language has been lifted from Suicide Squad (2016), including each character getting their own on-screen descriptions. Luckily, we’re not bombarded with redundant character intros this time, but the back stories we do receive are efficient and entertaining, including one centered on Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) that completely upends the initial impressions of her character while remaining true to the film’s tone.

The inclusion of Huntress, and her encounters with Harley, Montoya, Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a young teen girl, make up the heart of the film. This is ultimately a story about women who have been wronged in some ways by the men in their lives, and the women slowly coming to the realization of the obvious solution to their struggles. When we’re introduced to Harley, she’s alone and downtrodden. Over the course of the story, we see her saved by various women from sexual assault, violence, and death. It’s clear what message the movie is trying to send, and our main 5 female characters have enough chemistry to make their unintended camaraderie feel like something the audience should root for.

However, this isn’t to say the movie is perfect. While it has easily digestable edicts, it often comes off as too shallow to tackle some of it’s deeper themes (police corruption, assault, gender power dynamics). Clearly a film with a lot on it’s mind, but Birds of Prey may be too stylish for it’s own good at times, sacrificing genuine pathos for neverending gags. Early on, we see a drunken Harley show anguish for her crippling isolation during a conversation with Black Canary. But that side of the film is rarely touched upon, Harley’s grief only coming up when the action has died down and the film needs some dramatic energy.

These issues put a cap on the film’s potential, but does not ruin the fun. Cathy Yan is certainly a director to keep an eye on. Her cavalier style, including some clever tracking shots and a unique scene where a flashback and the present are combined, show the potential of wowing audiences in not just the superhero genre, but anything she plans to do next. But I feel we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg for her visual flair. Birds of Prey as a whole feels like it’s only touched the surface of the potential within it’s characters and world. The film feels like a breakup song with better lyrics than you anticipated; it’s still pop, with all the accompanying pros and cons. Now that this transition is out of the way, maybe Harley and friends have better art on the horizon.


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