Birds of Prey kickstarts a new era of comic book movies with Cathy Yan’s intense and colorful direction yielding pure magic.
When Wonder Woman debuted in 2017, it showcased how a long-gestating and universally beloved female superhero could finally break through and please audiences. The film became a clarion call for the need to see more women not just on-screen but working to tell these stories. Cathy Yan, director of Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), doesn’t give us a clarion so much as a call to arms on the electric guitar. Birds of Prey is a colorful and rollicking story that puts women front and center seeking autonomy, not just from their comic book origins but the fandom seeking the same old thing.
After the Joker breaks up with her, henchwoman extraordinaire Harley Quinn just wants to enjoy an egg sandwich with her new hyena, Bruce. But the Joker’s protection comes with the relationship, and now that Harley is single every person she’s ever made mad has come to collect.
Though the movie is called Birds of Prey, it is, for better or worse, a Harley Quinn movie. But Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson utilize that to deconstruct and divorce the character from her past (a few references to Suicide Squad are great examples). Harley certainly understands nobody in Gotham City likes her, and yet she goes out and draws attention to herself to be liked. It’s an unspoken question: Why is the Joker’s garishness a source of fear yet hers isn’t? When she gets mixed up with club owner Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), it forces Harley to realize that nobody, especially the men of the city, has her back.
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Hodson’s script gives everything a peppy tone, embracing the R rating and blending jokes with skillful dialogue regarding gender issues. Harley’s “harlequin” speech is one thing to see in the trailer but another to experience at the specific point it pops up in the film. Comparisons have been drawn to the scripts of Guy Ritchie or Martin Scorsese, and it’s apropos considering that, like those directors, Yan also goes for broke with the film and the rating.
The fight scenes in here are so brutal as to induce audible groans in the audience, compliments of the John Wick fight team. And yet all the violence takes on a sumptuous beauty through Matthew Libatique’s cinematography and K.K. Barrett’s production design. Barrett, especially works with Yan’s sensibilities perfect, creating a Dali-esque world, from Gotham City’s bright streets to the third-act funhouse filled with trick mirrors and rubber hands.
Birds of Prey stands on its own more than most comic book movies. References to the Joker and Batman are few and far between. In fact, one of the script’s sharpest barbs is reserved for a certain character not knowing who anyone is. This allows the story to give us a true Harley Quinn arc. When Roman tells Harley she must bring in a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (played by Ella Jay Basco) or be killed, it compels the clown princess to figure out what she really wants in life. Cassandra isn’t as loud and brassy as the other characters; she’s a kid, drawn into extraordinary circumstances. Her relationship with Harley is one of two lost souls looking for some fun, even if that comes from just sitting on a couch watching cartoons.
Once Harley and Cassandra team up, it brings in the other women. This is where the movie might lose points as the introduction of the eponymous Birds of Prey, led by Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Huntress, aka Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Black Canary, aka Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), is brief and the team-up is fairly relegated to the third act.
The film does come alive once everyone is assembled, the “sleepover” Harley Quinn always wanted. This isn’t to say the movie is bad before, but this is a movie about cooperation and banding together, so the arc feels more complete. On their own, each actress is just as perfect. Perez’s drunken cop whose glory is constantly stolen by her male captain is pitch-perfect while Winstead’s socially awkward assassin draws some interesting comparisons to Bruce Wayne himself.
The scene-stealer, though, is Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary. Positioned as Roman Sionis’ “songbird” and driver, Dinah Lance is a woman constantly ignored and pulled by others. Smollett-Bell gives her character fire and a voice, literally, that has power. Like Robbie, she can work with the dialogue in a way to give it force and humor in equal measure. It makes sense that the film’s strongest scene comes as the result of the two women working together in a way only a female writer would think of.
Robbie, to her credit, seems more comfortable with her character here than in the previous incarnation, maybe because the film doesn’t treat her as a psychotic sexy babe but as a woman with flaws. On the male front, both McGregor and Chris Messina as his henchman, Victor Zsasz, are delightfully overwrought in their villainy. McGregor is especially broad as Roman Sionis, a bitchy, pampered little boy upset that he can’t have what he wants.
Birds of Prey is a deliciously luscious comic book entry that embraces big color and bold characters. Robbie leads an amazing cast of talents, particularly MVP Jurnee Smollett-Bell. This is a must-scene in all its gleeful insanity.