03/10/2020

‘Birds of Prey’ gives Harley Quinn and Margot Robbie the attention she deserves — if not a coherent plot

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is the latest installment from DC Films, a would-be rival to Disneys Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movie is a direct sequel to 2016s flop Suicide Squad, considered the nadir of the franchise. It stars the only character worth keeping from that misbegotten experiment: Margot Robbies Harley Quinn, and is the first female-led superhero film that is neither a period piece nor a prequel. Its also the first of four superhero films to be helmed by a female director in 2020 (Cathy Yan), and one of three blockbuster franchises in 2020 written by women (Christina Hodson).
This all-woman superhero film is just as loud, scattered and mindlessly violent as its predecessor. But it has a lot more fun and heart then Suicide Squad, suggesting DC Films has finally found a way to turn the franchise in the right direction.
This all-woman superhero film is just as loud, scattered and mindlessly violent as its predecessor. But it has a lot more fun and heart then Suicide Squad.”
The current DC universe, at least on the big screen, began with 2013s Man of Steel. Initially envisioned as a the first of a trilogy, Man of Steel was supposed to remake Superman as a dark anti-hero, like The Dark Knight had done for Batman. But the success of Marvels box-office smash The Avengers in 2012 meant that, overnight, standalone comic book trilogies were rendered last centurys news in favor of multifilm interconnected universes.
As it turns out, reorienting an already bleak and fascist-leaning Clark Kent to be the basis of an entire franchise was a bad idea. The follow-ups, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, were laughed at by critics for their pouting powered people, as the series attempted to make superheroes into disillusioned souls.
Suicide Squad went a step further, taking comic book villains and giving them the anti-hero spin. But the result was a hard-bitten, pessimistic and grotesquely violent horror show more interested in making sure audiences could hear the bones crack than follow the plot.
DC Films has recently had a few more hits, like Wonder Woman and Aquaman, which succeeded by leaving behind that early cynicism for idealism and hilarity. Both of those, plus a third hit, Shazam, were all the beginnings of new trilogies within the overall universe, not sequels to previous failures.
Unfortunately, Birds of Prey does not excise the ugly of its previous outing. Nor does it abandon the reimagining of Harley from a Harlequin-bodysuit-wearing cartoon into a Lolita sexpot. Considering how badly Suicide Squad was received, its a little surprising how much Birds of Prey leans into the originals chaotic and violent tendencies.
So Harley is still fighting in Daisy Duke shorts, but shes cut her pigtails short and is clearly having a blast with a new wardrobe thats still pretty impractical and a lot more sequined. The film begins right after Quinn breaks up with Joker, blessedly relegating the already overplayed character to offscreen. (Sometimes you have to throw the whole man away, no matter how many Oscar nominations he has.) To celebrate her freedom, Quinn blows up Gotham Citys toxic chemical waste plant, goes on an epic bar crawl and finds the ultimate hangover breakfast sandwich.
But Quinns lack of a love life is not all thats happening in Gotham. It would be impossible to sum up the convoluted, ridiculous plot in a few words. The important bits include a new serial killer in town (Mary Elizabeth Winsteads Huntress), a police detective who is tired of being passed over by her departments boys club (Rosie Perezs Renee Montoya) and a singer who is becoming more and more enmeshed in the citys underworld (Jurnee Smollett-Bells Black Canary). Most importantly, theres a kid, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who just swallowed a diamond belonging to Gotham kingpin Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who also happens to be the supervillain Black Mask. And he really wants that diamond back.
Quinns lack of a love life is not all thats happening in Gotham. It would be impossible to sum up the convoluted, ridiculous plot in a few words.
Chaos obviously ensues, as do several fight sequences that revel in Quinns love of baseball bats and her Harlequin hammer. But though Robbies Quinn is the films selling point, shes not actually the title character. (The films absurdly long subtitle exists to fit her in.) The titular Birds of Prey are Smollett-Bell, Perez and Winstead, which means all three get plenty of solo screen time. Perez and Smollett-Bell take up the bulk of it, leading to long stretches depicting two women of color kicking butt.
Its a little disconcerting that, like Suicide Squad, the violence is so in your face. Its also remarkable that after the bright spots of Wonder Woman and Aquaman, Birds of Prey goes back to the dark and rainy Gotham established in Man of Steel. But at least Yan uses this gritty milieu as a canvas for her brightly dressed heroines to pop against as they wreak havoc.
By the time the film gets to its main showdown five women again Black Masks assembled Men of Gotham the action has melted down into a funhouse romp featuring women taking down male attackers in increasingly ridiculous and enjoyable ways.
Birds of Prey serves as a reminder that the Suicide Squad concept wasnt wrong; it was just badly done. The new film finds a bit more joy amid the cracking limbs, and a lot more family. Also, random footwear changes during major fight sequences. Trust me, youll be glad Quinn found time to put on roller skates. Alongside the talented Robbie, this big-screen franchise may finally be rolling in the right direction.