The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (From the Dour DCEU)
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) / Cathy Yan / R / Comic book film / 109 minutes / February 7th 2020
by Marcus Ogden
Birds of Prey is everything Suicide Squad (Ayer, 2016) should have been as the film is fun, fresh, and energetic while balancing light and dark tonal shifts. However, the film still has some notable drawbacks and pacing issues leaving it just short of great. In this film, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has split from the Joker and is navigating the heartbreak whilst trying to find her own place in the world. When word spreads that she’s no longer under the Jokers protection, she is entangled in a scheme involving a priceless diamond.
Birds of Prey dives into the pop-art aesthetic that Suicide Squad timidly tried to embrace, and places it within an urban world of punk excess. The film is the most visually loud and stylized entry in what’s left of the DCEU, bringing lots of vibrant colours into the universe's palette. All of the characters have very definitive designs that make them all parts of rich rogues gallery. Where the film really shines is in its action scenes, often long takes with slow motion shots featuring ACTUAL fight choreography that’s energetic, seamless, and visceral. The soundtrack features a lot of familiar songs, but they’re deployed in a way that feels more genuine than Suicide Squad’s ill-fitting uses of Eminem and Queen.
When considering writing, there are areas where the film shines and others where it doesn’t. To touch on the comparison to Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey also has an issue of having an uneven quality among its characters. Margot Robbie, Jurnee Smollet-Bell, Ewan McGregor, Ella Jay Basco, and Chris Messina all shine in their roles and their characters are well defined, while Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress is hardly given screen time until the final third of the film. Rosie Perez’s Montoya is another weak link as she isn’t played up enough as the straight-man character they were going for, and she often feels out of place among the rest of the over-the-top characters in the film.
Birds of Prey maintains an even flow between darker and lighter scenes. Being R rated, the film has a lot more freedom in how far it can go and what it can say. Comparable to Deadpool (Miller, 2016), the film has a playful relationship with the fourth wall and has some pretty funny moments of its own. The film has a bunch of fun and cartoonishly violent fight sequences, one example featuring Harley wielding a blunderbuss loaded with glitter bombs. However, other points of the film (particularly with Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask) are genuinely chilling and carry a lot of weight. The story itself is treated with enough seriousness that it feels like it matters while the film is also able to detour into fun, creative moments where it shines.
The pacing of the film needs some work. In an attempt to poke fun at the mess of editing that Suicide Squad was, the film is narrated by Harley in ‘whatever order she wants’ which was a good punchline but a bad structure. There are times when the diversions from the story are brief and handled well, but there’s one particular moment where the film feels like it’s starting to really move only to abruptly flashback to more exposition. The film at that point chokes up and starts to feel very front-heavy.
It’s a letdown that Birds of Prey is not as feminist or progressive as it advertises itself to be. The film has very surface level themes around controlling patriarchal figures and woman-woman solidarity, but doesn’t take the opportunity of having a mature audience to say anything really substantial or nuanced. Despite how diverse the cast is, issues of race and sexuality are inferred but never really picked up. One could even argue that the film goes too far or
mishandles scenes where assault, abuse, and exploitation are touched on, Or that the film relies too heavily on those as a threat in an otherwise light comic book action film.
Those looking for a decent and fun action film, Birds of Prey will for the most part satisfy despite dragging on in the beginning. While it has its issues, film is at least well intentioned, fresh, and different.