Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a film that nobody expected to hit the big screen; even fewer people really knew what they wanted out of it. So entering this flick with expectations best described as “????” is probably for this film’s benefit. It follows the story of Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) as her recent breakup with the Joker results in the gangs of Gotham converging on her for her misdeeds, namely the villain Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
The question of what I wanted out of this film is simple. Insanity. That’s the answer. Archaic, unruly, and batshit crazy, this is the territory where Harley Quinn is at her best. She flourishes in the bizarre and deranged. So, how do you turn all of this into a movie? Well, you make it a jumbled mess, or… a controlled explosion and that’s exactly what Birds of Prey is. Its cutty, quick, and everything feels heightened like its micro-dosing on a class A drug — I mean this in the best way possible.
I don’t often say this about films, but Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) stands at its best when it doesn’t know which direction it’s going in. The first 30 or so minutes are a cocaine-fueled fever-dream of editing and pure lunacy, every moment of it is brilliant. Though as the film progresses the story (and Harley herself) grow more sane and unfortunately as a result the entertainment value begins to wane. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a film that is begging to be fully unshackled from the standard comic book movie prison – a prison that demands to abide by the typical hero/villain tropes. Once that first act is over, you can’t help but feel like something slowly fizzles off. Call me greedy, but I wanted more lunacy; instead the squiggles of this narrative begin to become lines and the result by the end is essentially what you’d expect from any standard hero flick – minus the anti-hero twist.
Margot Robbie brings to the table quite the arsenal of acting prowess, broadcasting that this role belongs to her, that Harley is her. I wouldn’t be surprised if this actress will own this role in its entirety, much like Ryan Renolds owns Deadpool or Downey Jr. owns Iron Man. Ewan McGregor brings a tasteful zest to the role of Black Mask, making him funny, scary, and unstable all at once – even if the inclusion of a big bad felt ultimately unnecessary. As for all the other birds, Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a standout, and the rest are mostly forgettable, Black Canary especially.
Margot mentioned she believed Harley is at her strongest when she’s surrounded by other characters; much like Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow. However the reality we see on screen begs to differ – for at every moment where Harley went off-screen, my full attention went with it. Now, while Harley certainly shouldn’t have been the only character in this film, this film should have been a Harley movie only – there’s more than enough color in her personality to replace an entire cast.
The film immediately establishes the visual aesthetic it wishes to achieve, and for the most part, it achieves precisely that. Borrowing from the visual style of the Suicide Squad (2016), it overlays the frame with visual text and illustrations that inject kinetic energy from scene to scene. The style of this film allows the film to operate at a fast pace and further supports its main character – Harley Quinn. While I appreciate that Cathy Yan incorporates a distinct and fun style, there is room for improvement which I hope to see in the future. The action flows similar to its pace, flooded with energy and creativity as it enhances the visual aesthetic that it has previously established.
The set design doesn’t quite reach the heights set by the overall visual aesthetic that the editing and imagery. The lack of creativity behind the selection of sets and the limited range of sets ultimately, do not help match the energy of its aesthetic. There are areas where it is quite impressive such as capturing a near-accurate depiction of the neo-noir, vaguely Gothic appearance, however, without the feeling of it being a crime-ridden city. The soundtrack somewhat feels very similar to recent films using classic, iconic songs injected into action sequences. I would have preferred the film to more heavily rely on its tempo-heavy techno music to compliment its fast-pace and creative energy. Some of the song choices (such as tracks) are questionable, though most of them work with the scenes well enough.
Director Cathy Yan was fortunate that she is not pinned down and cuffed like Suicide Squad (2016) director David Ayer was – this is her project and it looks as though full creative freedom has been given. With all this said, it feels apt to say that we live in a post Suicide Squad (2016) world, one where any DC film can slam a home run or crash and burn in gruesome fashion like a flip of a coin. Birds of Prey proves that with the right team and fine-tuned vision, even minor comic book characters can produce a better story than the heavyweights. To see Birds of Prey succeed spells good news for the upcoming sequel of The Suicide Squad by James Gunn, it means creative freedom is perhaps something that has been finally given at DC, and it shows.