It’s fair to say that opinions are divided on the movies of the so-called DC Extended Universe. One thing both critics and diehards seem to agree on, though, is that Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was a bright spot–maybe the only bright spot–in Suicide Squad. Between that movie, the Batman Arkham games, and a multi-media assault from all sides, Harley has exploded in popularity in recent years. A character that was once just a walk-on in a cartoon is now big enough to hold up a movie: Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). And boy does she hold this movie up. Birds of Prey is a solid, entertaining movie, but there’s no question here: Margot Robbie is the very definition of star power. Light spoilers follow.
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe is generally considered to be a smoothly-running movie-making machine, DC films have gone through a few more changes. Birds of Prey sits right in the middle, with a character as bright as the more recent batch of movies but weighed down by her connection to the worst of the first four.
Birds of Prey works hard to shrug that off and to shift the focus off of her time in the Squad and onto her new life. Hence the title. It mostly works, and what doesn’t work never overwhelms the strongest parts of the movie.
The Harley Quinn Show Starring Harley Quinn, featuring some people
Let’s get one thing out of the way because I know it and you know it: despite the title of this movie, Harley is the star of this show. The story starts as it always does, in a roller derby ring. Harley is out of her relationship with the Joker, but she hasn’t told anyone – except us. Like Deadpool, Birds of Prey is about its mentally-unstable character breaking the fourth wall as much as possible. Harley isn’t just the star of this movie, but the star of the movie she lives in from day to day, too.
Harley walks us through her breakup in a cute animated sequence that clearly is a workaround for the fact that the Joker she romanced may no longer be in the DC cinematic universe, and the one that fans are now familiar with is not part of the same corner of the universe that Harley is. But that also means that the Joker we do see is the classic Clown Prince, not the edgy grillmaster or the tortured martyr. The movie smartly avoids showing us any kind of live-action Joker; not even a green head of hair from an over-the-shoulder shot.
While Harley works through her sudden breakup, she ends up in a club owned by one Roman Sionis, known to Batman fans as Black Mask. The rest of the plot spirals out from here and ends up with Harley chasing after a very expensive diamond and finally stepping into the anti-hero role she holds down so well in the comics to protect a young girl caught in the middle of all of this.
Harley Quinn: Action Star
Where most DC movies sit firmly in superhero territory, Birds of Prey is a more grounded story to match its characters, who are only larger than life if you’re standing on the ground. And so while this is a comic-book movie, it’s not a superhero one. No, Birds of Prey is an action movie, and it’s a fun one.
There are two major setpieces during the movie’s relatively brisk one hour, forty-nine-minute runtime, with the first set in a police station. This one is an absolute blast and on its own makes a case for the whole rest of the movie existing. Margot Robbie is in prime Harley mode here as she effortlessly takes down cops with her grenade launcher/bean-bag gun. She launches colorful gas canisters and glitter canisters, filling the screen with vibrant colors, and then flips and kicks her way through the police station.
The big finale brings all the characters together, but I want to talk about those other characters before we get to that.
I bet you’re wondering how I got here
Throughout the first half of the movie, Harley is narrating everything that happens. While this definitely feels authentically Harley, this movie lives in a post-Deadpool world. Is this movie copying the Merc with a Mouth? No, of course not. But it lives in his fourth-wall-breaking shadow, and it’s almost impossible not to compare the two.
That’s especially the case as the story stops and starts over and over. The gag here is that Harley can’t decide where to start the story, so she keeps jumping ahead and then having to jump back. I kept thinking of that scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the characters start telling the movie to ‘get on with it.’ The story has so many needle-drop record-scratch moments that it could back an indie rap album.
The movie uses these moments to introduce the rest of the characters: Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). I enjoyed all the characters, actors, and performances, but the movie struggles with its large cast of characters.
It’s tough to care about anyone beyond Harley, and that’s not great for a movie called Birds of Prey. The other women get only the most minimal backstories; we know, for example, that Montoya is a detective who is so stereotypically straight and narrow that characters keep talking about how she sounds like she’s from an ’80s cop movie. The movie even makes fun of how perfunctory their backstories are at least once.
Like Liberace, but with stabbing
The only character apart from Harley that truly stands out is Sionis. McGregor plays Roman Sionis with an over-the-top zeal, and he’s dressed in clothes that shout even more than he does. The character doesn’t feel like anything else I can remember McGregor playing. He’s of a joyous insanity that only Harley can surpass, and he makes for a great villain in this movie. He’d be unimpressive in a Batman film, but he shines here.
The biggest disappointment I have is that the movie hints at a relationship between him and his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz, but never explores it. There were articles about this while the movie was in production, but the story does little more than gesture at it. Zsasz has an almost obsessive devotion to his boss, but little more.
I’m not sure if the expanded relationship was filmed and cut, never filmed, or if it was problematic or uninteresting, but I noticed it missing. Not just because I’m aware of the controversy over it but because it felt like an empty space in the movie.
Sionis also has this fascination with masks, but the movie never gets into why. When he finally dons the Black Mask, it’s this big moment, but the movie never takes the time to explain why.
Aside from Sionis, my next favorite is definitely Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress. They make an interesting choice to play her as intentionally awkward and stilted. Huntress has, like Batman, devoted her life to beating up criminals, but instead of being a rich guy with money to spend, she’s all training. She’s poorly socialized and comes in just a second late to jokes and bits. It works pretty well for the most part.
Once we meet all the characters, it doesn’t take long for the movie to put them in the same room. In fact, it’s not long after that that the final showdown starts. One thing the movie does very smartly here is to put all four of these characters in a huge fight scene and then give them each a distinct fighting style. Harley is her tumbling acrobatic self, while Huntress feels a bit more like something out of Ninja Warrior. Black Canary is very much a trained martial artist, while Montoya fights like a cop and holds her own doing it.
Not only does it make the whole battle more legible, but it gives some much-needed characterization to each of the women. It’s a creative fight that helps make for a satisfying third act.
That name sounds familiar
The one character I haven’t talked about yet is Ella Jay Basco’s character, the young girl Harley is trying to protect. I want to talk about her place in the movie before I drop her name, and you’ll understand why if you follow Batman comics at all.
Basco’s character is a ton of fun. She’s a young pickpocket who accidentally ends up with a very important diamond in her possession. Harley swoops her up to get the diamond back, but ends up with a sort of protege. Basco is fun and firey and likable. For some reason, though, the writers decided to name her Cassandra Cain – a name shared with one of the many young women to wear the mantle of Batgirl.
Despite the identical name, she doesn’t appear to have any meaningful connection to this character, so it seems like an especially weird name choice. This character could’ve had any name. It feels like one of those moments the Arrowverse likes to occasionally stumble into where they name a character after someone from the comics for a ‘fun’ easter egg that just comes off as a hollow nod to fans.
Harley makes good on her promise
My gripes with the movie are minor. Margot Robbie carries this movie but in the best way possible. She has the chops to carry it with aplomb as a talented physical comedian and charismatic actress. She pulls off the intentionally ditzy jester that hides a genius-level psychologist perfectly, and can make sitting and eating cereal compelling. The action sequences are fun, acrobatic, and frenetic enough to feel like Harley. We get generally entertaining performances aside from hers, and an extremely watchable villain in Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask.
I’ll forgive the start-stop story and weak characterizations. I will say that this movie doesn’t really inspire me to want a Birds of Prey standalone film, but I’d be curious to see Warner Bros. try to pull it off all the same.
Birds of Prey is easily one of the better movies among the modern, interconnected DC cinematic universe, and I’m thrilled Harley Quinn got her own movie. Oh, and stay through the credits. It’s worth it. Harley has a secret to tell you.