Emancipation is a befitting word to summarise the latest entry in DC’s largely mismanaged counter to Marvel’s cinematic universe. Sure the film posits itself as a breakup movie, but it’s more about corporate retooling and franchise liberation. Kicking 90% of the ill-conceived Suicide Squad fiasco to the curb, while championing the 10% that audiences actually took a shining to. The Margot Robbie portion. By mostly forgetting that Suicide Squad exists and leaning hard into adult content both foul-mouthed and grotesquely violent, Birds of Prey is granted the freedom to fully embrace the choatic and anarchic freespirit that is Harley Quinn.
That’s not to say that all of Suicide Squad’s sins have been completely erased or course corrected for this pseudo sequel. The previously disjointed, befuddling structure makes a reappearance here and while it may prove disorientating or ineffective at times, it doesn’t appear to be the result of poor editing or producers drastically altering the final product. Rather, by adopting Robbie’s Quinn as the world’s worst unreliable narrator, Birds of Prey is using Harley’s scatterbrained inner workings as a framing device to justify every single sudden stop, start, flashback, rewind, correction, reframe and pause. If the film reads as a non-linear smattering of nonsensicality; that’s by design. And if we view the film, as an extension of Harley’s very own worldview and stream of consciousness it makes it a lot easier to just sit back and enjoy the vibrant femme-powered absurdism that’s on display.
Freed from having to labour together and connect to a franchise, and freed from the legacy of the Joker, the film focuses squarely on Harley rising up on her own two skates and asserting herself as someone not to be messed with. Director Cathy Yan’s sophomore film, while incredibly light on narrative (it’s practically nonexistent), just wants to wave her freak flag high and have brutal, rainbow coloured fun. Faces are cut off, grenade launchers filled with glitter and confetti shoot up police stations, all while a bedeviling Robbie gets to relish every second as a bubblegum-chewing, baseball-wielding psychopath with a Betty Boop accent. It’s impossible not to love every second of this feverishly committed performance. Especially when she’s kicking ass. And believe me she kicks and breaks much ass in this film.
With consultative support by John Wick director Chad Stahelski, the fight choreography is over-the-top, inventive, savage and, at times, wonderfully balletic, showcasing that the character’s gymnastic flexibility can be as equally deadly as her gleeful penchant for breaking bones.
Teaming up with Robbie, and forming the rest of the Birds, are Huntress (a socially awkward, easily on the spectrum Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Each of these ladies, a victim of trauma and abuse, unite through a series of altercations both with themselves and the rest of Gotham’s underworld, to eventually take on Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). While the famed Obi-Wan actor may appear as generic and bland initially, it doesn’t take long for Ewan to reach his full petulant, camp, mobster mode. Whining about his possessions and retching about a victim’s snot bubble, Ewan makes for an entertaining adversary, but not an iconic one. Which in a film with limited stakes, is fine.
Filled with bombastic aesthetics and a wonderful carnival-esque production design, including a rousing musical theatre number, Birds of Prey is precisely the type of film that DC should be making right now. A giddy piece of stand alone escapism that owes nothing to the rest of the company. A film that enables screenwriters, directors and performers to experiment with their own style and an opportunity to reject the dogmatic house style guide. Detractors may reduce the film as being nothing more than the female-answer to Deadpool, but such comparisons are far too limited and lazy. It doesn’t possess the smug, self aggrandising of the Deadpool series. It doesn’t halt the proceedings every few seconds to drop a pop culture reference and then pat itself on the back in doing so. Birds of Prey is simply, a euphoric and playful celebration of colour, femininity and sisterhood in a comic book world that’s mostly dominated by male characters and male perspectives.