Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is an unexpectedly delightful flick that approaches the superhero genre through a burlesque angle, filled with wacky humor, frantic action scenes and glows a ray of hope for a brighter future for DC’s cinematic universe.
To be completely honest, from the very first trailer I had the lowest expectations possible with this movie and I was actively trying to avoid it as much as I could. For a while now, the superhero movies are starting to hit me more like a last decade fad that has lost its novelty whilst it’s getting increasingly oversaturated, formulaic, uninventive and repetitive. Thus, what was once a rewarding pastime, it’s now getting a bit uninteresting and boring. Added to that, Birds of Prey was far from a prestigious position due to DC’s terrible track of misstep through its attempt to replicate Marvel’s success at establishing a massive cinematic universe. It goes without saying that one of this film’s worst problems lies in the fact that its origin is deeply rooted in a universe established by cursed prequels that faced terrible reception and harsh responses from both critics and audiences.
Although it had sparked to me this movie was foredoomed to a complete flop I couldn’t decline a friend’s invitation to a movie double date, and I tried my best to put on a happy face and make the most out of this experience. And boy, oh, boy, I never felt so wrong in my life.
Contrary to my previous beliefs, Birds of Prey is an ingenious bold project. Against all odds it manages to divorce itself from the shameful Suicide Squad and all the damaging reputation surrounding it. Clearly, a lot of smart creative choices were made in order to achieve a much needed course correction. The most noticeable change I can spot is that Birds of Prey goes great lengths to reinvent itself through satire, reenacting the superhero genre with a comic spice, and it is even able to mock heavily on its own cinematic universe with subtle roasts. It is refreshing to see that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously and that, in comparison to some previous titles, feels almost off-brand for DC’s live action standards, and I mean it in the best way possible. It just shows that they learned a lot from their previous mistakes and moved beyond their now laughable past. So, what to expect from a movie where the main villainous protagonist is also the comic relief in a room full of grumpy antiheroines? Miraculously, Birds of Prey reveals an exceptionally competent storytelling, with charming characters and a catchy action-packed story with a lot of replay value. But, before you jump to it, there are maybe some things you need to know just to be really sure if this movie fashions you, because, let’s be honest, It doesn’t seem suitable for everyone’s taste. That said, I guess the best place to start is from the beginning.
The movie starts with Harley briefly narrating her tragic backstory while a 80’s cartoon is rolling. Personally, I interpret this opening scene as a warning that either (A) this particular universe operates on unrealistic cartoon logic and some nonsensical shenanigans, or (B) Harley is a very obviously unreliable narrator suffering from a delusional lunacy and most of what we see is passed to us through her subjective perception of these events with very few commitment to the truth and high doses of whimsical absurdity. For me it is the last option, or maybe a combination of both. It’s pretty much operating on the Joker’s rules, but one film is a well crafted examination on its protagonist’s psyche, and the other one is just a senseless joke. I’ll let you decide which one is what.
Unlike Joker, you are not getting an elucidatory flashback montage anytime, but Birds of Prey is not shy about its nuttiness either, leaving a few intentional cues. You should guess your narrator is possibly more scatterbrained than trustworthy from the very first scene, where a very tipsy Harley opens her act getting wasted and summoning havoc, and pretty much every moment after that somehow manages to keep getting into all sorts of altered states of mind through the weirdest methods possible, such as accidentally getting stoned on a cocaine fog, suddenly being sedated by poison dart, and even just casually vividly hallucinating in the middle of a beat up. The hints get even more painfully self-explanatory when approaching the climax of the movie, located on a circus themed park attraction inside a building shaped like a clown’s face, which not only provides a fascinating lysergic scenario that hosts one of the most intriguing well choreographed action scenes of the past years, but also did not spared any visual metaphors. So, in a very literal way, a great deal of events happens inside a slightly malfunctioning harlequin’s head.
That said, expect that – in order to make things cool – at times cohesion and consistency are thrown out of the window very unceremoniously, which can be understandably a huge drawback.
At the beginning of the movie, I thought things were going to be more nuanced and that I’d be left with enough room for reasonable doubt to either question or accept Harley’s viewpoint. So, for most part I didn’t feel I was losing grasp on my precious suspension of disbelief. Personally, it took me a short while for my thought process to synchronize and start to operate on the same wavelength as Harley’s brain and realize things were not just superficial aesthetic choices that fit the protagonist’s theme, and maybe some cognitive dissonance I was facing was part of a schizophrenic immersive experience. My clicking moment finally arrived at the first time she grabs her inconceivable caricatural cannon-like oversized weapon and shotguns a blast at a cop’s face that explodes into a glittering confetti supernova, immediately followed by a scene in a room full of mortified brawny dudes staring at her. That is the time I immediately thought “oh, ok, that definitely didn’t happen, she just blew up that guys head. Points for not being graphic, I guess”. So, be warned there will be seemingly impossible deeds and inconceivable laws of physics going on that may trigger you into a disoriented state, like when Harley Quinn attempts to chase after cars on rollerblades. Just try to roll with that, it will eventually feel right if you embrace the fact that you are participating in a surreal event. For me, it seems the movie invites you to see through some layers of absurdity and start to giggle at how ludicrous everything seems, as If it is telling a joke and wants you to get it.
Sadly, the plot is far from being lore heavy and filled with world-building. Frankly, if you write it down, it’s almost too simple. After her off-screen breakup Harley goes rogue, gets herself into way too many cat-and-mouse chases thanks to past mischiefs, and has to pursue a MacGuffin while facing stiff competition to get over it, eventually teaming up with the rest of our girls almost by coincidence. Or it would be that simple, if not by Harley’s tortuous ways of explaining things in the order she sees fit, causing constant interventions on the natural course of the narrative. This going back and forth style may feel convoluted and sloppy sometimes, but in a good way. It is believable she would talk like that, and not like a Morgan Freeman professionally scripted voice-over. Narration is strategically structured and casts an aura of playfulness, creates some mysteries, feeds your curiosity, and adds a lot of humanity to the character while keeping you invested. Harley is like that friend everyone knows that always has a nice story to tell, yet sometimes they are too clumsy to get directly to the point. Still, this gimmick is skillfully well handled and adds a lot in rhythm with dramatic cliffhangers, surprising twists, and loads of personality to the story.
In the same manner, this is especially beneficial to character introduction. The main group only teams up for the third act and before that are living their parallel arcs with a lot more freedom of movement, only occasionally running on each other. Going back in time for each one of them manages to cover a lot of ground on different fronts and makes sure everyone has its fair share of screen time, even granting proper reintroductions when needed. This is one of many lessons learned from Suicide Squad’s mistakes, where the group teamed up from the first act and everyone got locked inside a single campaign, making the narrative too linear, predictable and stiff.
On the note of lessons learned the hard way, the horrendous “presentation cards” screens from the previous film got rightfully mocked and debunked. Even though it’s not completely abandoned, at least this time it’s used in a more sensitive minimalist way, leaving some room for narration and flashback montages to take place during main characters’ first impressions. Also, I’m thankful for how “show, don’t tell” became a law written on stone that rules all over this realm. In every first appearance, characters instantly reveal what their main traits are in a very efficient characterization. Unfortunately, for most of the characters their development stops there, and none are fully flashed out to their maximum potential. To some extent, everyone is a reduced to simplistic cookie cutter version of well established tropes. And yet, it kind of works a lot. I don’t know if I’m overthinking the movie, but it felt a lot like a meta commentary. Unfortunately I am unable to discuss that without going into a spoiler-heavy character study that would challenge the purpose of this review, but since this film has a very satirical nature I can very well see some shades being thrown hard at Batman’s universe.
To be honest, the interactions among the main squad is where the movie really shines, so much that even the lack of complexity on the characters, if ever noticed, can easily be atoned by that. And I’m firmly convinced this was possible due to its woman only team and focus on female experiences. Currently, we already have some expectations surrounding crowded superheroes movies, and as long as they are disproportionately male dominant it is very predictable that when there is tension between heroes it instinctively tends to manifest as battle of butt hurt egos and allegorical dick measuring contests. On the other hand, when there is harmony it is celebrated with sober “no homo” postures, giving the appearance that they are mere colleagues acting professionally at their workplace. In contrast, Birds of Prey is about subverting competition among women and doubles down on personal bonding and empathically caring. The quintessential example of that is a grandiose out-of-character moment Black Canary has when she renounces her reluctant hero indifference in order to save one of the girls from being sexually assaulted. But even the smallest gestures of kindness makes them likable, funny and convincing, like offering a hair tie in the middle of a tumultuous battle. In the middle of all the chaotic nonsense Birds of Prey throw at us, their relationships is the one true thing that feels very realistic, believable and humane. One of the greatest achievements of Birds of Prey is showing to us a glimpse of what a superhero female squad can bring to the table.
Lamentably, not everything is rainbows and butterflies, and when this movie misses it misses hard. One of the most integral parts of any superhero plot, the villain, in this case, Black Mask, is the lowest point of the movie, and not even all Ewan McGregor swag can redeem him. I can bear that he is written as a unidimensional antagonist, with poor backstory and weak motivations. A lot of his problems are already addressed by Harley Quinn herself, which reinforces the self roasting tendencies of the movie. On paper, I really enjoyed his choice as the main bad guy, since Batgirl’s assassination by his hands is a notorious textbook example of the “women in refrigerators” trope in comic books. So, in many ways his fall to a group of female superheroes is a bigger than life symbolic victory. And even though the movie tries hard to present itself as progressive and diverse, showcasing a admirable main team of women that defies traditional gender expectations, some of which are openly LGBTQIA+ and POC, it is just inexcusable to contradict all of these efforts by displaying him as gay coded villain. Seriously? Why? It is 2020, people. Needless to say, I cannot help but feel profoundly disappointed with such a missed opportunity since, thematically, the message of women emancipation could be enhanced to another level of power were the villain addressed as an archetypical paragon of classic toxic masculinity. Instead, we are left with an inappropriate cliché. It is a tiny misguidance on the bigger schemes of things, but it still stains badly.
To summarize, I’m positively surprised with Birds of Prey. It’s a fruit that didn’t fell too far from its tree and some of its worst problematic aspects just shows in flashing lights. And yet, some wins triumphantly shines brighter, as it managed to check some boxes only a handful of its pairs did, such as Deadpool, Wonder-woman, Black Panther, and even Joker, at least in terms of humor, empowerment, representation and creative storytelling, while being very little presumptuous about it, which leaves me thinking it’s deeply underrated and deserves a hole lot more appreciation. Birds of Prey not only turned over a new leaf on Harley Quinns story, but also achieved everything Suicide Squad was supposed to be. I’ll be looking forward to a sequel, and even though I credit it as a great movie, the plot isn’t the pinnacle of character driven, leaving the aftertaste of a prologue from a much bigger epic yet to come. I hope our ladies have another opportunity to fight their inner demons and reach some real personal growth next time – and, of course, I just wish for some Poison Ivy action, so that I can ship hard my favorite DC one true pairing. Beyond that, I’m glad the bar has gotten higher on what to expect from a superhero movie, mainly in the subject of representation and experimenting with all women protagonists. I hope some big titles follow these tracks. It is always nice to be remembered there is a whole other spectrum of human expressions yet unexplored by traditional male narrative, even frolic ones, and they deserve to be told.