When I told a friend that I was leaving to see Birds of Prey, the new Harley Quinn movie in the DC Extended Universe, his face contorted into a mixture of confusion and repulsion, an expression that stemmed entirely from the memory of 2016’s Suicide Squad.
Because I shared the immensely disappointing experience of having been excited for that movie’s release, I understood his reaction, and shared his worry that this new spinoff was little more than the studio’s misguided attempt to salvage the one redeemable aspect of their train wreck: Margot Robbie’s take on the beloved Batman villainess. Though I had hope for the fresh perspective the overhauled, heavily female creative team (including Robbie serving as a producer) would bring, I kept my expectations low and departed for the screening with some trepidation.
I am happy to report that, while it has its flaws, director Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey is no train wreck. Though the script juggles multiple plot lines as it works toward the forming of the titular vigilante group, the story is chiefly concerned with the fallout of Harley’s breakup with the Joker, which nullifies her immunity with the many Gotham criminals she has antagonized over the years. The film uses a semi-linear, multifocal structure to mimic Harley’s shattered psyche— her voiceover declares the right to start her story anywhere she pleases, and she’s forced to bounce around a bit to fill us in on necessary plot-points as a result. This could have been disorienting, but the gleefully manic, Deadpool-esque framing device is one of the film’s most enjoyable features.
In fact, all the film’s most enjoyable features can be described as gleefully manic. The performances that work best push their characters to the edge of sanity, with standouts Robbie and Ewan McGregor, playing the antagonist Roman Sionis/Black Mask, taking so much pleasure in their wrongdoing that they’re impossible to dislike. The action sequences, thankfully frequent occurrences, are well-directed, thrillingly choreographed and lean into the film’s R-rating to often humorous effect. When combined with the production’s strong use of color, these scenes alone make Birds of Prey worth seeing and will likely be what audiences talk about most as they leave the theater.
However, what keeps Yan’s film from fully capitalizing on these positives is a fundamental misconception of how to approach the storytelling. Despite being officially narrated by Harley, the script isn’t locked into her perspective, giving substantial screen time to characters that aren’t nearly as compelling (or, in some cases, as well-acted). While this is done to make the film more about the team than one individual, this would have been more effectively accomplished by uniting the characters more quickly, allowing their personalities to develop through friction and rapport.
Once they do all come together, characters that struggled to hold their own suddenly become interesting when forced to play off Harley, and the entire experience feels somewhat elevated. The breakneck pace of Birds of Prey might ultimately handicap its ability to resonate emotionally, but it still could have been more consistently fun than it is, and the small taste of that better movie we get at the end is all the more frustrating for it.
What’sUpRI Rating: 3 out of 5
What’sUp Ratings Guide
5- Excellent – Don’t miss it
4- Very Good – Well worth your time
3- Good – Solid, but not earthshattering
2- Fair – Not quite ready for prime time
1- Poor – Don’t waste your time or money