Sitting down to watch Birds of Prey is an interesting experience. It’s like obtaining the ability to peak into an alternative realm; as though you’re watching a piece of work broadcast from a parallel reality where Suicide Squad (2016) received numerous more rewrites before reaching the production phase. Be it the style, tone, story, or character focus; this feels like a revised take on the 2016 David Ayer vehicle. Director Cathy Yan certainly has a better handle on how to steer this particular corner of the DCEU it would seem; something that’s made apparent fairly early on. One reason as to why it’s important to mention this up top, is because it makes it almost impossible to discuss Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn without constantly comparing it to that film. While it’s unfair to view each movie as if they are one and the same, this feature unquestionably feels as though it’s an expansion to what came before it. Birds of Prey is a spin-off that probably wouldn’t have existed or functioned in the way it does here, had it not been for Suicide Squad. Therefore to talk about one without referring to the other would be an impractical task. I’m sure some have managed to review Margot Robbie and Cathy Yan’s 2020 instalment independently, however that’s not something that’s going to be attempted in this article.
Birds of Prey focuses on Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) life shortly after she’s dumped by the Joker (Jared Leto). Shortly after Quinn publicly declares her separation from Mr J – an act that’s executed in quite a dramatic fashion – the various residents of Gotham’s underworld become quick to take advantage of her recently-expired protection policy. Amongst the gallery of rogues is a face-pealing lunatic who goes by the name of Black Mask (Ewan McGregor, not to mention his equally homicidal henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). In an attempt to escape Mask’s & Zsasz’s profile-degloving blades, Quinn agrees to hunt down teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who’s concealing a beloved diamond from the crooked madman in the depths of her bowels. During her journey to literally save face, Quinn will go on to meet an underworld singer-turned-bodyguard, Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet); the revenge-starved Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and ill-treated officer Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez). All of whom will go on to form the crime-fighting squad known as the Birds of Prey.
Whether or not you’ll enjoy this movie ultimately boils down to your personal opinions on the character of Harley Quinn, not to mention the style initially sold to audiences during the marketing phase of Suicide Squad. Birds of Prey adopts the overall shape, style and feel of Warner Brother’s initial attempts; donning the same quirky ticks and sporadic flow, only this time around, it dishes out the radiant bite we never quite got the first time around. If you enjoyed what Suicide Squad was going for before disappointment over the finished product settled in, you’re probably going to love this one. If that campy, off-centre, flashback heavy vibe rubbed you up the wrong way the first time around, on the other-hand, it’s unlikely you’re going to get much from this.
In addition to being the main protagonist, Quinn is also the narrator of the film, taking charge of the ways in which the direction and style of the story unfolds. Due to Quinn’s finite attention span and unbalanced nature, she has a frequent habit of taking the story on sporadic tangents from time-to-time. Whether it’s flashing back to earlier points in the story, or remoulding the feature into a briefly barmy musical number, the narrative has a keen habit of abandoning any attempts it makes of maintaining a linear flow. We saw this in Suicide Squad, particularly during the first act, only it’s used with a little more logic this time around. The reason it works a little better here is largely because it’s fitting for Quinn’s persona to zigzag like this. It’s still used to unload clunky avalanches of exposition onto its audience, and it still feels painfully jarring for the most part, only it makes more logical sense for this to happen now, what with a scatter-brain protagonist responsible for delivering this tale to us. Last time we had Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) serving out the disarranged info dumps; a decision that felt as clunky as it did out-of-place for a character of her nature. Shifting narrative responsibility onto Quinn allows this style to be executed whilst also maintaining some form of internal logic from a storytelling point-of-view.
Narrative conveyance isn’t the only area in which Birds of Prey has revised some of Suicide Squad’s previous shortcomings. Tone-wise, the film feels like a rough and rugged cartoon; one that’s not afraid to shock its audiences by packing a hefty number of violent punches amidst its vibrant backdrop. The R-rating means the language is harsh and the brutality is grim from time-to-time. Whereas making a film R-rated isn’t a surefire formula to make something successful, it works well here. Quinn as a character works better as a cartoon with that explicit bite. It’s one of the reasons why the Harley Quinn TV series (2019-present) has turned out to be as successful as it is. Frame it like your usual Saturday morning kids cartoon, throw in some not-so-child-friendly themes into the mix, and hey presto, you’ve got yourself a vulgar comic-book anti hero. It gives her character that anarchist edge so commonly associated with her. She’s designed as a kids character, only she’s not exactly playing by the rules.
Bite or no bite, opting for a cartoonish tone in this manner fits into the post-Justice League (2017) DCEU universe pretty well. Ever since Warner Bros chose to venture away from the doom and gloom palette of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and venture into the more wacky realms of Atlantians riding shark-back or teenagers transforming into adult superheroes resembling some sort of cereal box art; this fictional landscape has started to make a lot more sense on a stylistic level. Depicting this particular timeline as a multimillion dollar comic-strip suits the whimsical nature of the surrounding landscapes. We certainly wouldn’t get away with this in Christopher Nolan’s universe, but in an alternate reality where space wizards and Kryptonian superhumans battle it out, an animated feel to the whole affair works a charm. Birds of Prey fits into this crowd with considerable ease, something which extends also to the film’s lead act.
For all the problems Suicide Squad faced, Margot Robbie was by far the best thing about that film (as many people have endlessly pointed out). Whether you love or hate this particular character, it’s hard to really criticise Robbie’s performance. She nails the persona of Quinn for all the reasons mentioned above. She’s playful, silly and ready to strike at any moment. Flippant and fierce in equal measure. There’s a daft danger to her performance which feels natural to the story she’s part of. The same can be said for Ewan McGregor, who plays the film’s villain Black Mask.
On paper, Black Mask is your cardboard cutout, run-of-the-mill baddy. He’s creepy, heartless, psychotic, and fundamentally unlikable right from the moment we meet him. He loves to dance around and pretend he’s performing in some sort of pantomime, only for him to turn around a few seconds later and mutilate whoever’s closest to him because they sniffled a little too loudly. The second time we see him on screen during this movie, he happily tortures an entire family by peeling their faces off while they are still awake. It’s an unsettling and cruel scene which paints this character as someone who’s undoubtedly designed to be detested. There’s no depth or sympathy to Black Mask or his henchman; Victor Zsasz. Fortunately McGregor manages to spice up the role considerably, thanks to a simple technique he utilises called ‘having the time of his ruddy life’. He’s clearly having a blast playing this part; a fact which shimmers through each time he’s on screen. The exaggerated and animated demeanour he adopts brings life to an otherwise one-note baddie. It’s a fun performance, and much like Robbie, it’s entirely suitable for the nature of this story. He’ll dance around and act like some sort of giddy mafia boss who’s been plucked straight from the Joel Schumaca DC universe, only he’ll also happily mutilate you if you ruffle his feathers in even the most trivial of ways
While a lot of Birds of Prey works in terms of its style, it does have its failures. One area in which this is the case is its wider gallery of characters; particularly when it comes to the other members of the so-called Birds of Prey gang. Despite Renee Montoya and Black Canary playing a sizeable and justifiable part in much of the movie, there are times in which their inclusion feels a little forced; especially when it comes to Montoya. It’s not so much that they shouldn’t have been in the film per say, it’s just the script can’t decide whether it’s a film about the formation of the Birds of Prey, or whether it’s one about Harley Quinn outrunning all the people she’s pissed off during her time as the Joker’s partner. There’s a lot of pulling back and forth within the narrative. One moment it’s about Quinn trying to retrieve a diamond whilst outrunning angry criminals, the next it’s back to Montoya and Canary attempting to deal with their own problems as citizens trapped within the clutches of Gotham’s corrupt society.
As for the third member of this gang, The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), she barely fits into this script whatsoever. There is an air of redundancy to her role for a lot of this. She randomly pops up throughout the film, without really having any connection to the large plot until the end. The character feels considerably out of place for a majority of time, not really having much for her to do other than add a touch of mystery early on and provide an extra punch during the final battle.
In relation to the final act, all three of these side characters suddenly become central to the plot. Only by this stage, it feels a little forced. Quinn even has to deliver a clunky form of exposition, clarifying for the audience why all of them need to come together to take down Black Mask and his henchmen. The formation of this clan doesn’t feel organic or central to the plot. Instead, they all run around for much of the film’s runtime, sharing the same fictional space while bumping into one another as the narrative progresses, before ultimately coming together for the last few minutes to defeat the final boss.
For all the improvements Birds of Prey exhibits in comparison to the product it was born from, the script certainly needs tightening up a little more in some areas. Huntress’s involvement barely feels justified, plus the Gotham-wants revenge subplot does feel as though it out-welcomes its stay after the main plot line kicks into gear.
All in all, Birds of Prey is a significantly improved version of a film we probably should’ve got in the place of 2016’s Suicide Squad; at least from a tonal perspective. While it does struggle to decide whether it wants to be a ‘Quinn outruns the mob’, ‘Quinn buddies up with a kid who reminders her of herself’ or an ‘anti-heroes assemble’ flick, there is a feel of correction to this which we haven’t quite seen before in this particular subsection of the DCEU. Instead of reacting against the failings of the cannon’s previous attempts, it strives to refine them. Certainly nothing to write home about, yet a far more improved effort from the predecessor responsible for bringing life to this particular project.