It’s no secret that the DC Extended Universe has struggled to find its footing, but one of the biggest missteps in the franchises history was “Suicide Squad” which many pegged as uneven, poorly constructed and badly written. However, one aspect of that film that shined was Harley Quinn, the female sidekick of the Joker played by Margot Robbie. So naturally it seemed appropriate that DC would give Harley her own film and see how well she could carry a picture. Thus we have the first comic book movie of 2020, “Birds of Prey”. Based on the female DC comics team of the same name, “Birds of Prey” sees Robbie return as a now-single Harley Quinn and team with Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) to take on the misogynist crime lord Roman Sionis AKA Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). Teaming with female star power and with a female director at the helm in Cathy Yan, does “Birds of Prey” shed the sins of its predecessor or is this just another “Suicide Squad” with a little more female flair? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Birds of Prey”.
Taking place some time after “Suicide Squad” where Harley Quinn has been dumped by the Joker and is now on her own, “Birds of Prey” sees her joining her own team of flawed heroes to take on a new villain in the form of Black Mask who is an over-the-top dominant male figure who looks down on women as possessions. Just by that description alone you can probably tell where this movie goes. It’s an action-oriented feminist narrative that pits Harley, who had a very abusive relationship with the Joker, against a possibly more abusive and chauvinistic figure in the crime underworld who wants her dead for daring to defy him. Teaming with a new crew of strong female figures in the form of Huntress, Back Canary, Renee Montoya and Cassandra Cain, the story is heavily themed around the idea of a woman rising up to stand against her male oppressors to finally find her own place in the world. However, while this message does come off a little strong it feels like a fitting concept to tackle not only for the time but also for the character.
The heavy handedness of the movie’s message against abuse and in favor of female empowerment will surely turn some people off, but to each their own. For me I feel like the concept was handled tastefully and aggressively enough to get its point across without going too over the top. It’s the main motivation for not just Harley but almost all of the female characters in one form or another. I think the real issue with “Birds of Prey” is that it feels a little too familiar. It’s colorful, witty, and the R-rating allows it to go over the top with the language and violence but in today’s world these are things that have become tropes of sorts for superhero films especially lately as studios try to go the extra mile for authenticity. I very much enjoyed the film but the whole time it just felt like there needed to be a little more of…something. More creativity, more character development, I don’t know maybe even more spectacle. It just felt like it was lacking that special something. But that’s not to say it’s an unwatchable or bad movie. In fact, I’d go so far as to call it one of the best movies in the DCEU to date and while that’s not saying much given their track record it is a huge compliment nonetheless. It should be noted that in my opinion this film and “Wonder Woman”, both female led movies, stand as the best two films in the franchises cinematic universe although “Wonder Woman” gets the edge as its feminist themes weren’t quite as in your face.
But beyond it’s theming I just genuinely enjoyed pretty much every minute of this film in spite of the overarching sense of familiarity. It’s entertaining, it feels so much more focused than “Suicide Squad” with a clear agenda and concept to build off of and while I wish there was a bit more attention paid to properly developing its titular team every actress and heroine gets their chance to shine. A lot of the same ideas, including flashback intros and name graphics, are borrowed from “Suicide Squad” but used much more effectively proving just how much better the previous feature could have and should have been. The action, comedy and even the villain are so much more enjoyable and polished. The soundtrack feels better incorporated into the film enhancing and complimenting the action rather than feeling out of place. Also the R-rating feels appropriate rather than gimmicky with each F-bomb and swear feeling like natural language from the speakers rather than forced into the script just to justify the rating. The pacing is effective and engaging with a tight 1 hour and 45 minute run time and the script makes for some fun conversation and banter between the characters.
Margot Robbie of course steals the show as Harley Quinn but the likes of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, and Ella Jay Basco also hold their own making for a fun and female cast who are completely on board. Ewan McGregor (shown above) also provides a fun against-type performance as the villain Black Mask even if his character could have done with a little more subtlety. Director Cathy Yen does a fine job injecting style into the film even if it’s clearly derivative of the previous movie for the sake of consistency and having a female touch makes for more properly handled characters and story when putting women front and center. Overall, I think the best thing about this movie is that it feels like what “Suicide Squad” should have been embracing many of the same approaches but doing it so much better and feeling like a much more thought out and focused product. Even the idea of flashbacks introducing the characters feels more appropriate seeing as Harley Quinn is the narrator and her psychotic mind would see a story in jumbled pieces. This whole experience feels like a formula perfected and in that vein it’s biggest advantage may be that it truly does make up for many of the sins that “Suicide Squad” left behind.
“Birds of Prey” may not be an absolutely perfect comic book movie but it’s an entertaining ride that more than makes up for the mistakes of its bland predecessor. At the risk of redundancy, this is everything “Suicide Squad” should have been with a memorable cast full of completely on-board performers led by the charming Margot Robbie, a witty and hilarious script, plenty of engrossing action and a plot with a point. It’s R-rating and sense of humor truly makes this DC’s answer to Marvel’s “Deadpool” helping the once dark franchise lighten up even more as DC continues to find its strength in standalone stories rather than the need to create a more cohesive universe. It’s no “Wonder Woman” which remains the best DCEU film in my opinion, but it’s a close second. While it’s heavy handedness might be a little much for some to bear, it’s easy to overlook how up front its themes are when you’re laughing your ass off and having a genuinely good time in the process. It might not be DC’s best film but it’s one of their best and a continued sign the studio is finally headed in the right direction.