“Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” can be easily summarized by it’s gratuitous violence and neon colors. It’s a film of high energy and low substance.
The newest installment to the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), “Birds of Prey” continues the story of Harley Quinn, who was first introduced in the 2016 movie “Suicide Squad.” Margot Robbie reprises her role as Harley, who serves as the film’s narrator, often tells scenes out of order, gives random exposition or simply adds witty commentary to characters entrance. The effect of character titles and editing which was used in “Suicide Squad,” is also seen here, although it’s not used for exposition but is instead mainly for humor.
The film follows a newly single Harley, as she has just broken up with the Joker again and has to deal without the immunity their relationship gave her. This proves difficult as the mob boss Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) is after her head. The story spirals out of control as Harley takes foster kid Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) under her wing and works with Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to keep her safe.
It took more than half of the movie for all these characters to come together but when they do, their dynamic is enjoyable to watch. Even so, the pacing drags the movie down. The soundtrack and costume design is stellar and solidifying the over the top vibe the movie already oozes. The fight scenes are snappy and frankly, incredible to watch.
There are striking similarities between “Birds of Prey” and “Deadpool 2” in both characters and general plot. Considering Harley has been altered to resemble Marvel’s “Merc with a Mouth” more and more over the years it may have been intentional.
This film may perceive the audience to think this is an ensemble film like “Suicide Squad” but really it’s Harley’s movie. However, “Birds of Prey ” seems so jammed packed with wild fights and Harley “outrageousness,” it seems to forget to have an emotional center. Sure, there’s the message of women rising up and defining themselves independent of men but there’s no emotional weight. There was potential with characters like Canary or Montoya but they never get explored well enough for the viewer to empathize with them.
There’s a sweet scene where Huntress references back to her tragic past to comfort Cass but then it’s straight back into battle. Harley gets heartbroken and the plot just moves on as if the movie forgot about having an emotional arc too.
An easy arc for Harley would’ve been with her relationship with the Joker. “Suicide Squad” portrayed their relationship as romantic, the exact opposite of what it is. Harley and the Joker are toxic and abusive. For a movie with the title of “the emancipation of Harley Quinn,” the viewer never gets to see what she’s being freed from. For those who don’t know the context of a toxic relationship with the Joker, the title means nothing. Even for those who do know, it’s a slap in the face to not see it adapted correctly, as it is the very basis of Harley’s character.
Harley is characterized as a typical heartbroken girl who just got out of a relationship, as opposed to someone who’s just left a toxic environment. It’s also made clear to the viewer that the two have broken up before and that Harley has always gone back to him. But this time, she stands firm in the decision that they’re over for good, without any explanation as to how this time was any different. What this film lacks is context. Again, had “Birds Of Prey” properly shown how terrible her relationship was, Harley would be a more relatable character with more depth.
It’s not to say that the DCEU has wrecked her character entirely. While it’s true no justice has been done to her relationship, other parts of her character were done right. She is briefly confirmed to be LGBT+, as well as another character. Unfortunately that representation is in a very ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ sort of way but it does give hope for any future films. Her past as a psychiatrist is also brought up a lot as well, with Harley psychologically breaking down other characters.
Black Mask is creepy and his goon Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) is an equally uncomfortable character to watch. Both are depicted as entitled perverts with no other qualities. It’s obvious that they aren’t meant to be serious villains used in future movies but the lack of effort put into their characterization isn’t justified by that. It’s pretty easy for the audience to hate the villain because he’s the kind of woman-hating jerk often seen in a 90s cartoon.
Anyone who would want to watch this film and is hoping to see faithful adaptations from the comics will be severely disappointed. Cassandra Cain is not even close to how she is in the comics and instead resembles another character entirely, especially considering the erasure of her disability. The movie also isn’t particularly funny, with a lot of its black humor missing its mark.
The movie is rated R for extreme violence, strong language, brief drug use and sexual references. An important note to remember is that there’s a graphic torture scene early in the film which is quite hard to watch. There is also another uncomfortable scene which might even be triggering to some, in which a woman’s dress is being cut from behind her. Although there is no actual nudity shown at any time, it’s still hard to watch. So if you’re squeamish at the sight of blood, broken bones and the extreme or somewhat revealing outfits the leads wear, this movie isn’t for you.
That being said “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” is one crazy ride. Like any other comic book film, it lacks stakes but is easily made up with crazy clothes and even crazier fight scenes. All in all, it’s a thrill ride with a forgettable story but with unforgettable visuals.
This story was originally published on The Pearl Post on February 11, 2020.