Although I could be wrong, this might be the first movie I’ve ever seen where two female characters exchange a hair tie on-screen. It’s a small moment, but it’s also something totally unique to mainstream films that doesn’t get enough recognition.
This superhero crime comedy film was released in theaters worldwide by Warner Bros. on February 7th, 2020. Made for the relatively small budget of around $82 million, it has gone one to gross just over $202 million at the global box office. While this is undoubtedly a big success and could see a sizable profit, it’s been on a slower role than expected. Following the relative underperformance of the opening weekend, the studio changed the film’s title to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey for some markets. In spite of that, it has amassed some very positive reviews from critics and audiences alike.
Directed by Cathy Yan, the film was one of several DC projects announced after the commercial success of Suicide Squad. The main actress set up her new production company, LuckyChap Entertainment, so that screenwriter Christina Hodson would have more creative freedom in pre-production. The studio had multiple different properties involving Harley Quinn in development, including Gotham City Sirens, but this was the only one with the main actress’s direct involvement. Yan’s hiring, only her second feature overall, also makes her the first female Asian director to helm a theatrical superhero movie.
Picking up a little while after the events of Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie returns as Harley Quinn, a former psychiatrist turned violent criminal psychopath. After the Joker dumps her and ends any connection between the two, she goes on a citywide bender to keep the breakup a secret as it would remove any protections she has. Word of their breakup soon reaches Roman Sionis, played by Ewan McGregor, a ruthless Gotham crime lord in Gotham who goes by the name “Black Mask.” Harley eventually crosses paths with four other women on Sionis’ radar- mob daughter-turned vigilante Helena Bertinelli, burlesque singer Dinah Lance, alcoholic detective Renee Montoya, and street-wise thief Cassandra Cain -and soon find a way to team up and bring him down.
This was one of those potential superhero projects that I was skeptical about when it was first announced, as DC has had many films in and out of development. My best guess is that most of them are still being made but this one was simply the first one to make it out of the gate. But in any case, it’s finally here now, it’s out in the world, and it’s up to us to talk about the ultimate results of it.
Regardless of your opinions on the movie Suicide Squad, it’s hard to deny that Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was absolutely fantastic. And hearing that she was gonna headline an all-female team-up movie with various other heroines in an R-rated adventure sounded like a true breath of fresh air for the genre. And lo and behold, Birds of Prey is a really fun time at the movies that inverts a lot of classic superhero tropes.
Make no mistake, this is not a movie either to be seen with the whole family nor taken very seriously. Just the full title, And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, illustrates how irreverent it’s gonna get and, credit where its due, Hodson’s screenplay commits to it. The film fully utilizes its R-rating with numerous F-bombs and scenes of bloody violence without becoming immature; to be honest, I don’t know if it would have still worked if it were PG-13 instead.
However, after seeing Birds of Prey, it is fairly easy seeing why the studio changed the name in some markets. Harley Quinn is undoubtedly the protagonist of the story and the other four women are more or less just along for the ride. The script often has trouble finding a good balance between multiple storylines, constantly having to cut back to different timelines to keep the continuity flowing. It’s a little frustrating, but it’s hard to resist the charm of what Yan and company set out to do.
Margot Robbie is the definitive live-action version of Harley Quinn, and no recasting will ever change that. Here, she has her trademark sense of macabre humor and aloofness, more often than not unaware of how much destruction she’s leaving in her wake. While she clearly has zero interest in doing the right thing or helping people who need it, she’s desperate to find a sense of belonging after the only person she’s ever had a connection with has abandoned her.
Meanwhile, the other four “Birds” are absolutely fantastic and fun in their respective roles. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollet-Bell, Rosie Perez, and newcomer Ella Jay Basco all fulfill their duties with flying colors and create different and interesting personalities. Basco is particularly excellent as Cassandra Cain, a highly resourceful petty thief who only wants to find a place of belonging, much like Harley.
Ewan McGregor is also fantastic and flamboyant as crime lord Roman Sionis, A.K.A. “Black Mask.” He’s a complete narcissist who has no qualms about torturing, killing, or humiliating others to get what he wants and always tries to become the center of attention iin the room. McGregor is clearly having a grand time in the role and while it may seem a bit over the top, it perfectly suits the villain’s personality.
The supporting cast is also great and isn’t afraid to ham it up to match the over-the-top nature of the film. This includes Ali Wong as Montoya’s ex-girlfriend of a district attorney, Chris Messina as Black Mask’s psychopathic killer and right-hand man, Steven Williams as the apathetic Captain at the GCPD, Dana Lee as a friendly restaurant owner in Harley’s building, and François Chau as a rival crime boss threatening Black Mask’s operations. All of them know exactly what to do with their respective roles and get one or two good lines in for good measure.
And from a technical perspective, Birds of Prey showcases a unique style that sets it apart from other films in the genre. Shot by the versatile Matthew Libatique, the cinematography is very colorful and saturated, perfectly in the right tone with its wild protagonist. The film makes use of many different techniques throughout, including sudden dolly-ins and roving swoops during action sequences. Numerous primary colors are enhanced to make Gotham feel like a twisted Wonderland playground for Harley and her friends to mess around in.
The editing job by Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff is frenetic and highly reminiscent of Guy Ritchie’s style. There are multiple freeze frames throughout the film so that Harley can wryly catch the audience up on a brand new plot point. And for the most part, during action scenes, it’s cut together in a way that’s easy enough to follow but still filled with enough style to feel unique.
Bolstered by committed performances and great visuals, Birds of Prey is a fun R-rated romp that can sometimes be too fluff and flair. Freed from the normal constraints of a franchise blockbuster, Cathy Yan is able to make an impressive studio debut that proves comic book movies have a future in going beyond what’s family-friendly. Even when the film gets bogged down by an unnecessarily complicated script, Margot Robbie and the rest of her crew are more than willing to hold it together with all the charm and charisma that can be afforded.