Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020) Review

It’s no secret that the DCEU is a struggling franchise, and in more ways than one may expect. Although it has produced landmark films (such as Wonder Woman) and even broken the box office with the release of James Wan’s Aquaman, the franchise is still trying to figure out a formula that works for the universe as a whole. In fact it often feels like each film is the beginning of its own self contained franchise, something which remains true today with the release of Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey. 

Produced by and starring Australian actress Margot Robbie, the film presents a follow up story to David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, one of the more chaotic entries in the series. After being broken out of prison by her beloved “puddin’”, Harley soon finds herself alone and isolated when the clown prince of Gotham’s underworld leaves her high and dry. Soon realising that she is now at the disposal of various crooks and criminals, Harley teams up with a gang of bad-ass DC heroines to knock the reigning crime king from his bloody throne. In a nutshell Birds of Prey isn’t anything amazing, it’s story is basic and even formulaic in its execution and yet it does almost everything right. Robbie returns to portray our leading crazy clown and she also returns holding more creative power than she ever did before, acting as producer to the overall project. And in many ways you can see Robbie’s influence in both the story and tone, with the film presenting itself as the love child of both Suicide Squad and I, Tonya, a film that Robbie also helped to produce. And this combination actually works, providing a glimpse into a perfect world where David Ayer’s villain filled romp actually provided some form of decent entertainment. The fact that Robbie also chooses to build from Ayer’s previous work also helps not only to keep the character true to her DCEU iteration, but also provides some much needed continuity within the overall universe. Robbie should really be commended for not only relishing in the gritty charm of Suicide Squad, but also using it here to create a much better and realised story.

Beyond her strong creative input, Robbie should also be praised highly for her performance, which she seems to have honed since her first time playing the role. Whereas before the accent was wonky and the character’s look felt more objectified than empowering, now we have a beautifully concrete presentation of the beloved DC villain. Robbie plays the role with wit and charm and seemingly blossoms before your eyes as the only true actress who could have played this role on the big screen. It has been almost five years since the release of Suicide Squad, and in that time it is clear that Robbie has learned more and more about her craft and the industry, with all that gathered knowledge coming together to create this joyous film. 

And she is supported by three other strong actresses who also provide entertaining performances for the overall film. First let’s mention Jurnee Smollett-Bell who almost rivals Robbie in terms of her star power and leading lady chops, here she plays the iconic Black Canary and gives a beautifully layered and likeable performance. Not only does she deliver on the emotion and venom but she also has great comedic timing, delivering one of the funniest lines in the movie. While on the other side you have Mary Elizabeth Winstead also giving a wonderful performance as the hardened assassin Huntress, who will also have you grinning with her social awkwardness and anger issues. The only issue with Winstead’s character is that she is sadly the most overlooked in the movie, only having a handful of scenes before the film’s conclusion. I do hope that there will be a Birds of Prey 2 in the future, one not dwarfed by Quinn’s character, where Huntress can have more time to breathe and grow. Another shot out should also be given to Rosie Perez, who gives a funny and hammy performance as Renee Montoya, a character that I am shocked hasn’t appeared in a DC film before this one. 

But alas, behind every powerful woman there is also a hungry psychopath looking a diamond. Here I am referring to Ewan McGregor’s role as Black Mask, which delineates greatly from the comics to create a more campy and queer coded character who’s favourite pass time is chewing on scenery. McGregor is truly having fun with this role and you can see that, honestly its a shame that his stint in the DCEU has been cut so short because I’m sure many people would love to see him return. Chris Messina also gives a decent performance as Victor Zsasz, but he also suffers from lack of time. 

The direction on this movie is also something worth noting, because this is the first time that Chinese-American director, Cathy Yan, has been asked to create such a high-budget and note-worthy film. And yet she delivers a film that gives the audience everything they may expect from a Harley Quinn led all-female superhero bash. Beyond that she also injects the film with some truly striking and even beautiful visuals, from confetti canon guns to the bubblegum pop feel of the locations and characters. The photography here should also be noted, with some shots in the movie beautifully capturing the characters at their height. The shot of Harley descending through a cloud of pink and blue smoke could, and should, go down in history as one of the best shots in any comic-based film. It was truly a delight to see a creative team who knew what they were doing in terms of colour and visuals. In many ways the film comes together as something of a female -friendly Deadpool installment, quite apt considering that Harley is quickly becoming the DCEU’s answer to the spandex clad goon. The fact that DC has released an all-female comic-book movie should also be praised, as it is their roster of amazing female characters that has somewhat set them apart from the MCU, which has only recently started giving solo films to it’s more iconic female leads. 

But sadly this film is not perfect and there are some slight hiccups that do poke a few holes in its bright pink armour. One of these being Cassandra Cain and her presence in the movie, not only do they take an iconic member of the ‘Bat Family’ and reduce her to a foul-mouthed pick pocket, but they also make her Harley’s sidekick. Although this relationship is handled well, it does make you question as to why they couldn’t just create an original character for the film, instead of using such a well-known figure. Beyond that she is also poorly portrayed by Ella Jay Basco, who is somewhat inconsistent in her performance. Sometimes she excels with her comedic timing, and at others she seems disinterested in everything happening around her. The film’s non-linear and disjointed narrative is effective but again it also leads to a majority of the supporting characters also having very little screen time (more Huntress is definitely needed). 

But in the end Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) still provides an enjoyable and satisfying outing to the cinema. It may not reach the heights of the Oscar-nominated juggernaut that is Joker, but it will still be remembered more fondly than Suicide Squad. Part of me now wonders what is next for Harley in the grand design of the DCEU? We know she is set to reappear in James Gunn’s sequel The Suicide Squad, and talks of  a Gotham City Sirens film have been circling since her introduction in 2016. I do hope that in the future we get a Harley Quinn movie where she finally meets (and maybe even falls in love) with her bestie and girlfriend Poison Ivy. If Robbie is willing to break this much new ground in terms of comic book movies, then I’m sure she won’t be against brining some more diversity into the world of superhero flicks as well. 

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