This is a comic book movie that plays fast and loose with the source material’s canon, feeding the IP beast without getting tripped up into unnecessary world building.
DC’s movies feel like they’re constantly undergoing some kind of brand identity crisis compared to the smoothed over aesthetics of Disney’s Marvel machine, which can result in some embarrassing lows, but the benefit of actually taking risks on occasion is that sometimes they pay off. Birds of Prey is just such a gamble.
Spinning out of the messy but entertaining Suicide Squad, the film brings Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinnback to help push the DC Extended Universe’s Stylistic Overton Window further away from grimdark and firmly into more playful territory. It’s right there in the film’s mouthful of a title, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). This is a comic book movie that plays fast and loose with the source material’s canon, feeding the IP beast without getting tripped up into unnecessary world building.
Ostensibly, the film splits the difference between being a solo Harley film, dealing with the fallout of her off-screen break-up with the Joker since the last time she was on the big screen, but it’s also a team-up movie for some new characters in the Gotham City subsection of the DCEU. Director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson weave a non-linear crime-dramedy with Harley as the central figure at odds with new Gotham crime boss and club owner Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). She crosses paths with a veteran GCPD detective (Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya), a nightclub singer (Jurnee Smollet-Bell’s Black Canary), a vengeful mercenary (Mary Elizabeth-Winstead’s Huntress) and the MacGuffin-wielding teenage pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain) they all must come together to protect.
Robbie’s take on the character is endearing and her work here surpasses that of her last outing, but by definition, a movie based entirely around her persona would exist in a Deadpool-like sphere of lol-random Hot Topic irritation. By allowing Harley to be the film’s messy narrator, her energy is felt throughout the whole picture, but she shares the spotlight with enough other interesting characters that she doesn’t wind up grating on the audience. The result is a wacky feeling movie that never gets so off the rails its deeper notes can’t resonate, looking and feeling like an episode of the ’60s “Batman” series choreographed by the John Wick guys.
Yan and Dodson’s approach structurally borrows from the Quentin Tarantino/Guy Ritchie toolbox of elastic timelines and over-the-top character introductions, but the visual flair feels idiosyncratic, and in a truly authentic way. This is Yan’s second feature, but she’s written her own ticket here, confidently managing the shifting tones between each character’s subplot and proving as adept at framing action as she is at mixing charming comedy with some truly discomforting horror elements. McGregor has a blast playing a scenery-chewing villain, but at times, Yan counterpoints how entertaining he is with a real malice few other comic book movies allow their antagonists to have.
Basically, every element that toxic fans seem to hate from the advanced marketing material (the costume design not being designed around the male gaze, a shot where Harley hands Canary a hair-tie in the middle of a fight sequence) is what makes Birds of Prey feel so special. The movie possesses a palpable feminine energy in a way neither Wonder Woman nor Captain Marvel quite exhibited, weaving in themes of sisterhood without feeling like empty gestures towards representation.
DC continues to push their properties into more niche directions, willing to let each franchise appeal to different audiences and not forcing them all into one easy-to-replicate house style, an approach that more closely mirrors how the comics industry works in the first place. Here’s hoping this quirky little corner of their universe is one we can all return to.