Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is about coming back from rock bottom. In one sense, this is quite literal – the story features a drunk and forlorn Harley Quinn coming to grips with the potentially deadly consequences of her breakup with Mr. J aka The Joker. But in a larger sense, this is figuratively true for the franchise. Birds of Prey is a quasi-sequel to WB’s Suicide Squad, a film that can easily be considered the lowest moment in the DCEU. That another production was to come out of one so misguided was a bit of a shock. But it’s also no surprise that the franchise had nowhere to go from that moment but up, salvaging potentially the only working part from the wreckage of its predecessor.
Birds of Prey leaves us somewhere after the events of Suicide Squad, with Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) reeling from her breakup with the Joker. She goes through the montage of generic breakup moments, from an impulsive haircut to scarfing down Cheez Wiz from the can in a onesie. But for Harley, the consequences are much more serious: most of Gotham has a bone to pick with her, and the only reason she’s lived this long is that she’s been under the Joker’s protection. When she gets drunk and spontaneously decides to send the whole town a message about her new relationship status, she finds herself surrounded by villains with an ax to grind. One of those axes belongs to Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a crime lord with a penchant for gruesome violence. When Harley offers to help Sionis in his quest to track down a valuable heirloom in exchange for her own life, she gets mixed up in a MacGuffin chase alongside Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Cassie Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
So, the bad news first? That “suddenly getting mixed up in a MacGuffin chase” part of the plot description is where things get messy for Birds of Prey. From even its conception, it’s a difficult needle to thread: the film is sort of about a group of women coming together, but it’s also mainly about Harley Quinn. When it’s focused on the latter – Harley Quinn and her villain – Birds of Prey is simpler, and therefore at its best. But Birds of Prey’s plotting is confusing and disheveled at times, with Huntress, Black Canary, and Montoya getting barely enough room to really do their own thing. Their interactions feel more like a backdoor pilot than the titular aspect of the film. This is the movie’s single biggest weakness: in attempting to give us both Harley Quinn’s debut feature and a team-up movie, it bends over backwards with plotting to introduce so many core characters. If we’d had a solo Harley movie first, followed by Birds of Prey to follow, I think every character could have benefited.
But now let’s do the good news! Despite its overstuffed plot, Birds of Prey hits on the tone, look, and humor it needed to feel like a nice breath of fresh air in the DCEU lineup. It piggyback’s off Shazam!’s bright and exuberant energy by existing as its own weird, charming little movie. Like Shazam!, it seems likely that Birds of Prey was given a significantly smaller budget than the likes of Wonder Woman, Superman, or Batman are used to seeing, and while that sometimes is reflected in more basic looking set pieces, it’s also perhaps a blessing in disguise. As a result, the stakes are nice and small – no more or less than the lives of the anti-heroes involved – there’s no forced romance or rebound love interest with A Leading Man, and there’s not a CGI slogfest in sight. Birds of Prey also manages to embrace its R-rating with swearing and violence without reveling in it as an overall mood, leaning more towards adult than dark.
Director Cathy Yan infuses the movie with a million small, realistic touches of feminism (like offering a teammate a hair tie in the midst of action) instead of clunky big ones (like a bunch of female superheroes awkwardly joining together for 10 seconds in the middle of an epic battle). Paired with writer Christina Hodson’s eye for injecting generic blockbuster stories with that little something extra to help them stand out, the duo craft a film that manages to be all about the little things. For every illogical or overworked concept at large, there’s a barrage of strange, interesting, and downright funny dialogue to distract from the more confusing big picture. Add to that a heaping spoonful of bright, interesting costumes, glittery gunfire, and Robbie’s pitch-perfect performance as the Jimmy Palmiotti/Amanda Conner reinvention of Harley; the fine details work together to successfully overcome any larger miscalculations. McGregor’s deeply weird and chaotic evil energy performance as the film’s villain serves as the proverbial cherry on top.
Birds of Prey isn’t perfect, especially in its plot mechanics. It’s also arguably a much better Harley movie than it is a Birds of Prey movie. But it manages to successfully salvage Harley from the wreckage of its predecessor and give us enough of an outline to want a whole lot more from these characters.