Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is juggling a lot. It’s a sequel/spin-off hybrid of Suicide Squad, a movie it does not drop-kick out an open window but one it does have to push off stage and make the audience forget. It’s a reimagining of Harley Quinn and an introduction to the Birds of Prey, and it has to work as part of a larger whole but also stand on its own. This is a very busy movie, and so it’s something of a minor miracle that Birds of Prey WORKS. It’s a hugely fun, very stylish comic book movie that manages to keep all the balls in the air without ever feeling overburdened by story. If anything, the story is on the thin side, but between the brisk pace and fun tone, Birds of Prey doesn’t get bogged down in the details.
The movie catches up sometime after Suicide Squad, when Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has left the Joker again, but this time, she swears, it’s for good. After overhearing her friends gossiping about her tendency to glom onto “alpha males”, Harley decides to send a message that she and the Joker are dunzo, but in so doing, she inadvertently leaves herself open to attack by any and everyone she has ever crossed. The Joker protected her from consequences, but without his reputation to hide behind, it’s open season on Harley. One such person determined to get Harley is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a Gotham City club owner making moves on the criminal underworld. Bargaining with Roman gets Harley tied up with a teen pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), and well, there’s just a lot happening.
But Birds of Prey never lags or worries overmuch about the audience keeping up. Harley maintains a steady voice over, and animation pops up to highlight key details, which helps keep who’s who straight. And the whole thing moves forward so relentlessly there’s just no time to second guess anything. It also helps that there actually aren’t that many characters in the movie. There’s Harley and Cassandra, and the Birds of Prey: Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And there’s Roman and his henchman Victor (Chris Messina), and that’s it. Between the relatively manageable cast and the action-oriented plot, Birds of Prey almost feels simple, even as it tries to pry Harley out of the Joker’s radius and let her stand on her own.
To that end, Birds of Prey is mostly successful. The movie, scripted by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan, is entirely concerned with Harley’s survival and confidence. This is a woman who threw away everything for the Joker, and now that she’s dumped him, she has to rediscover who Harley is when she’s just…Harley. Birds of Prey doesn’t really delve into Harley’s psychology—though she does often spout psychological observations, in keeping with her past as a psychiatrist—but it at least pays glossy lip service to the idea of Harley finding a path for herself. She does find her independent groove and gain confidence in her ability to defend herself, and she makes a few friends along the way.
The real joy of Birds of Prey is having the Birds together, which unfortunately doesn’t happen till the end. They are great together, and Winstead steals the show as the Huntress, a mega-badass assassin who hasn’t quite worked out her vigilante voice yet. Birds of Prey is not a mile-a-minute joke-a-thon, but it has some great humorous touches and Huntress’s vigilante voice is one of the best superhero movie gags in recent memory. Birds of Prey also has fantastic action, with imaginative, stylish set pieces that have a very Looney Tunes flavor. (Yan collaborated with the coordinators and directors behind John Wick in her second unit, and it shows in the stylized, long takes of the action scenes.)
Birds of Prey is a fun movie that rollerskates past Harley’s deeper issues as an abuse survivor, but it does give Harley a voice of her own, and sets her up as a promising stand-alone figure, though I’m not as confident in the potential of the Birds without a magnetic central figure like Harley to rally around.They are likeable as an ensemble, but that’s largely down to how each character bounces off Harley. She is definitely the critical element here, even if her pain does get short shrift. Birds of Prey is a girl power comic book movie centered on women who have been disenfranchised, and while I wish it had done more with that concept, the punky fun of Birds of Prey is hard to deny.