Director: Cathy Yan
Writer: Christina Hodson
Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina, Ali Wong
Once upon a time, a girl fell in love with a guy. This love was not really reciprocated, but the girl did everything the guy asked of her. She would kill for him, causing people to think she was crazy. But who was the real crazy? Eventually he grew tired of her and he gave her the boot. Tale as old as time, right? And what became of the girl post-break up? That’s what Birds of Prey is here to tell you, as the break-out star of 2016’s Suicide Squad, the titular Harley Quinn, goes it alone (before amassing a team that dub themselves the Birds of Prey). Suicide Squad wasn’t the biggest success (though it does have a James Gunn-helmed sequel on the way, which is promising), but Harley was. Does she do better in her own movie, or was she better off sticking with the OG squad?
With Harley Quinn (Robbie) acting as narrator and part-time fourth wall-breaker throughout, Birds of Prey sees her team up with other female criminals and crime-fighters to keep a young girl, Cassandra Cain (Basco), from being captured by gangster Roman Sionis (McGregor). Cassandra just so happens to have something Sionis wants, and Harley initially promises to get said item for Sionis in return for not killing Harley; now that she’s no longer under the protection of the Joker she is free for the killing by anyone she’s ever pissed off. As a result, she has no choice but to join forces with Huntress (Winstead), Black Canary (Smollett-Bell) and detective-turned-vigilante Renee Montoya (Perez). But can they all trust her? Can Harley even trust herself?
If Birds of Prey has taken a step in one right direction, it’s the direction of a very much female-fronted (cast and crew) action movie that has a rating higher than a PG. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Widows and Oceans 8, we’ve got some badass multicultural women who are also very LGBTQ+ friendly, and they hold their own in a film that will attract people of all genders (i.e. it’s not off-putting to men, which seemed to be movie studios’ main problem with female-centric movies, apparently concerned that it’s only men that spend money on action movies…). Taking the most popular character from Suicide Squad and giving her her own movie was also the way to go – Robbie’s Harley Quinn spawned many a cosplay, with fans loving how unique and independent her character is (even though Quinn is something of a sociopath). In Birds of Prey she becomes an anti-hero, perhaps in a bid to make her even more likable and marketable, but she doesn’t lose that which endeared audiences to her in the first place.
Production-wise, Birds of Prey is stronger than Suicide Squad, but not by much. Newcomer Yan, in her Hollywood directorial debut, has created something visually fun and entertaining, but writer Hodson’s story itself is lacking, perhaps due to the focus on the action which, although entertaining, is overdrawn at times. There are some great performances mixed in with some not-so-great, but at times a character’s story arc (or lack of) can let them down. Take Cassandra’s story line, for example. In the comic books that character is almost entirely different, and although she’s still rather an enjoyable character in Birds of Prey, she’s really just something of a McGuffin, something to just get the story from A to B, as though she’s there just for the sake of having as many popular DC females in as possible. Basco turns in a fun and engaging performance, but the character’s reasons for being there aren’t really solid enough to justify her appearance. Perhaps in a future Harley movie (a Gotham City Sirens film is rumoured to be in the works) she could reappear and develop better as a character. On the other end of the spectrum, the strongest character is probably Huntress; she’s understated and doesn’t appear very much until the third act and has the most interesting backstory of all the women, but the blend of mystery surrounding the character and Winstead’s performance actually creates one of the best characters of the movie, arguably outdoing Harley herself.
While Robbie was fantastic in bringing Harley to the big screen in 2016, there’s nothing wholly new about 2020’s Harley; her dialogue and actions aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. It would be fair to say that DC and Warner Bros. are just giving fans more of what they loved, but there’s no real development for her. Yes, she’s single and trying to prove she can go it alone, but she still pines after the Joker and is unable to survive without having someone to lean on. If anything, she’s grown softer, which is fine but confusing at times: is she good, or is she bad? It’s probably the ultimate quandary when it comes to Harley Quinn. Surrounding her is a pretty strong group of women: Smollett-Bell is an excellent Black Canary, playing her with a depth that Harley lacks; Perez is a diverse Renee Montoya, endearing us to her with the crap she has to put up with from her male colleagues at the Gotham Police Dept., even if she doesn’t deal with it in the right way; Basco is, as previously mentioned, an enjoyable Cassandra, it’s just a shame the character wasn’t entirely necessary; and Winstead’s Huntress is excellent and potentially the stand-out of the film (there have been calls for her own spin-off already) And then we come to McGregor’s antagonist, Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask. Many have praised his performance, but I don’t think McGregor is the most able of actors to portray a villain. He just doesn’t have the evil spark that actors such as Alan Rickman had or Jack Nicholson has that naturally make or made them excellent at faking villainy. Apparently, Sam Rockwell was one of the first choices for Black Mask, and he too has something that makes him great in this kind of role, but McGregor just doesn’t quite do it for me. He could also have done with working on the American accent a bit more (which is surprising, because his accent was fine in Doctor Sleep). I’ve said before that McGregor is an excellent actor (one of my all-time favourites, in fact), and that his versatility means he can be cast in anything, but perhaps villainy is the one thing he could do with working on.
If Birds of Prey is to be a setup for more movies featuring the women of the DCEU, then it can stand in good stead despite not being the strongest of films. Otherwise, it comes across as rather redundant overall. Harley was indeed a fun character in Suicide Squad, fully deserving of her own movie, but if we’re to see more of her it would need to be in a more crime-centred setting. A production of Gotham City Sirens, where she teams with two of Gotham’s most popular female criminals, Poison Ivy and Catwoman, would therefore be the next logical step for this branch of the DCEU. It would also be good to bring back Yan on directorial duties, but perhaps seek a writer with a bit more experience in writing for an action movie (and still preferably female, or at least co-written by a woman).