When you think about it, the most interesting thing about the Batman franchise isn’t the caped crusader himself or his alter ego, Bruce Wayne. It’s the colorful cast of characters that keeps Gotham City mired in a cesspool of crime and corruption.
But watch out, Catwoman: Gotham’s current “It” girl is Harley Quinn.
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a spinoff from 2016’s abysmal, testosterone-laced Suicide Squad. For those who spared themselves David Ayer’s cinematic wrist-slitting, Harley (played by real-life Hollywood “It” girl Margot Robbie) is the psychologist-turned-psychopath girlfriend of Batman’s archnemesis, The Joker (played oh-so-disappointingly by Jared Leto). In stark contrast to its predecessor, Birds of Prey is a feminist funhouse ride through the amusement park of Harley’s psychotic mind, complete with colorful graphics and quirky narration.
After being dumped by “Mr. J,” Harley throws herself a boozy pity party. But without the protection of Gotham’s criminal mastermind, she soon finds herself the target of every crook, gangster and mobster in the city — each of whom has at least one creative grievance with her. At the head of the line is narcissistic, misogynistic nightclub owner, Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). Along the way, Harley forms an unlikely alliance (our “Birds”) with three other pissed-off women and a young pickpocket in possession of a valuable diamond.
At one point, Harley explains that a harlequin is a comedic entertainer meant to serve the public and her master, but that without a master, she is nothing. This is how Harley sees herself until she teams up with the Birds. Unfortunately, the flock doesn’t really come together until three-quarters of the way through the movie, and, while sketched out well enough to get the general gist of each one’s backstory, their characters are woefully underdeveloped. All indicators point to sequels and spinoffs, so, as was the case with Harley, maybe we’ll learn more about them in future films.
Infused with a hefty dose of kick-ass girl power, Birds of Prey shirks the toxicity of Suicide Squad and the referential tone of many DC Extended Universe titles. Director Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) and screenwriter Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) make a point to keep a sense of humor throughout, which masks some moments of pretty gruesome violence (a rather harlequin-esque quality, actually). Aesthetically, Birds of Prey legitimately has the feel of a comic book, and some of its best moments are almost cartoonish. However, a nonlinear chronology and some pacing issues do the film no favors.
Robbie, who also co-produced Birds of Prey, clearly loves playing Harley and she sparkles throughout, even when her antics make you cringe. She’s not exactly a role model for young women, but armed with roller skates, a baseball bat and gymnastlike athleticism, she realizes her emancipation and ends up — at least temporarily — on the right side of the law.
The fact that Birds of Prey makes mincemeat out of Suicide Squad doesn’t make it fantabulous, but it does make it rather entertaining for those who can stomach a carnival ride through Gotham City.