***WARNING! The following contains certain spoilers for Birds of Prey!***
With the release of Aquaman and Shazam!, Warner Bros. proved that its budding comic book universe— better known as the DC Extended Universe—wasn't out of the fight just yet.
By putting less emphasis on building a wider mythos and placing more care into solo, character-driven stories, the studio has found a rhythm that seems to be working…and working very well at that. The tried and true Marvel Studios formula, it turns out, wasn't the right fit for the DCEU, which (over the last year or so) is getting better and better with each film it produces.
Aside from a cute little reference to Captain Boomerang and a quick throwaway line about saving the world, Birds of Prey (in theaters Friday) might as well exist in its own pocket universe. Written by Christina Hodson (the scribe who helped revamp the big screen Transformers franchise with 2018's Bumblebee), the film serves as a sequel to 2016's Suicide Squad, although, to be fair, the two aren't even in the same league.
Having a story play out from the perspective of an antagonist is always a solid set-up, but proper creative execution is also very important. That's the key distinction between these two flicks.
Unlike its muddled and mostly boring predecessor, Birds of Prey completely understands how to navigate its precarious world of vibrant color and pop chic needle drops. This is the movie Suicide Squad wanted so desperately to be, but director David Ayer (he serves as a producer on BoP) couldn't quite manage it.
Even their soundtracks are incomparable. Suicide Squad had a mish-mosh of famous tracks, but no sense of why they were there. Birds of Prey, on the other hand, uses music to complement its story, like using the famous romantic stylings of Barry White to highlight Harley's love of a breakfast sandwich.
That's just one of many bizarre elements that await you in this movie.
If I'm being totally accurate here, the latest DCEU release is fully titled Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
It's a ridiculously extravagant title that cheekily refers to the extravagant approach director Cathy Yan ended up taking with this project, which turns Gotham City into Harley Quinn's personal playhouse: a beautiful and gritty urban maze of neon lights, open-air markets, corner Chinese restaurants, and fog-covered piers. I'd go so far as to describe the film as “neon-noir.”
Not only does Birds of Prey breathe some fresh life into Batman's iconic (and let's face it, tired) hometown, it all reflects the wonderful contradictions of the titular character, who—after being dumped in a vat of chemicals by the Joker—isn't the most secure-minded individual in Gotham. While this is Yan's first big studio feature (she's known for the 2018 indie darling Dead Pigs), you wouldn't know it unless someone told you.
None of her neophyte status shows through in this confident blockbuster, which knows how to let loose and have fun in ways only Marvel's Merc with a Mouth could appreciate.
Ok, so what about the story itself?
Picking up some time after the events of Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie is back in the role and better than ever, now that she's got the spotlight all to herself) is dumped by the Joker, her puddin'.
Absolutely heartbroken, Harley gets her own apartment, impulsively buys a pet hyena (she names it Bruce “after that hunky Wayne guy”), takes up roller derby to release pent up aggression, and spends her evenings getting drunk at a posh nightclub owned by one of the city's most feared crime bosses, Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
Aside from Robbie, McGregor shines as the movie's big bad. Clearly having the time of his life, the actor steals almost every scene he's in. Sionis is a psychotic and flamboyant gangster, who loves peeling off the faces of those who refuse to work with him.
He's like Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs if Mr. Blonde was a germaphobe high on bath salts. Roman is scary, funny, unnerving, and, in the end, just a little too cocky. More importantly, Sionis is what makes BoP such an improvement over Suicide Squad. He helps dial down the stakes, keeping things grounded and relatable. He's not some evil witch trying to conquer the world, he's just some schmuck who f***ed with the wrong ladies.
Back to the story: Harley's got bad blood all over town, but thanks to her romance with the Joker, she's untouchable. This was actually a really interesting look into the inter-baddie politics in Gotham. I guess it's true what they say about “honor among thieves.” When Harley makes a tactical decision to blow up Ace Chemicals (the toxic plant that helped drive her and Joker insane), her enemies now know that she and Mistah J. are kaput-ski and that they can openly hunt her down to settle old accounts.
Nevertheless, the destruction of Ace Chemicals is our main hero's (or antihero's, I should say) big “emancipation” moment. It underscores the film's female empowerment message after Quinn overhears some friends saying that she'll always need a “big strong man” to protect her and give her purpose in life. From there, Robbie, Yan & co. set out to smash the patriarchy with a baseball bat and later, a mallet. I don't blame them, because Gotham is a bubbling cesspool of men who are downright disrespectful, violent, misogynistic, and rape-y. You know, just like in the real world.
While comic book films are often thought of “less than” when compared to other works of “cinema,” Birds of Prey is a relevant and bold exclamation point of filmmaking in the #MeToo era.
And if you think I'm jumping around too much here, don't worry—this is how Birds of Prey does things, too. Employing a non-linear approach, Hodson's script allows Quinn to be our (somewhat unreliable) narrator and with a mind like hers, the story is, especially in the beginning, always jumping backwards and forwards in time like some sort of out-of-control amusement park ride. Sure, you could compare her temporal leaps and fourth wall-breaking winks to the audience to Deadpool, but they do feel authentic to the former Doctor Quinzel.
Who knows, maybe we're supposed to be the voices she hears in her head.
So yeah, let me praise Robbie's madcap performance one more time. She is so in control of this persona, that it's hard to tell where Margot ends and Harley begins. She's a buzzing hornets' nest of emotion, violence, and naiveté that can manifest one at a time or all at once.
It's a real treat to see Robbie flex her acting muscles and switch gears at the drop of a hat. Overall, Harley's detachment from reality keeps things light and enjoyable, leading to many comedic situations as everyone else around her stays serious.
Back to the story once more, yeah? Alrighty!
The hunt for a MacGuffin-ish diamond inscribed with precious bank account information leads Harley to team up with some of Gotham's other mistreated women: Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer at Roman's club; Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a crossbow-wielding assassin with an axe to grind; and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a Gotham police officer whose accolades keep going to her former male partner.
Together, they combine their various talents to protect Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a young pick-pocketing orphan who has swallowed the diamond that Sionis wants with every fiber of his black mask. The chemistry between the Birds screeches with the ferocity of a hungry raptor, but the problem is we don't get enough of it. By the time we come to love the team and see them work, bond, and crack jokes as a unit, the film is over.
In any case, the origin story is now established, the groundwork set for future installments.
Besides from Cassandra, Dinah, Helena, and Renee are not one-dimensional stock characters—they've all got interesting backstories that deal with powerful themes of loss, duty, revenge, and sexual inequality.
In particular, Smollett-Bell gives a standout performance. An impassioned exchange with Montoya not only cements her as one of the best characters, but it also pays subtle tribute to the first iteration of Black Canary in the comics: Lance's mother, Dinah Drake.
Despite the fact that the Birds of Prey don't actually assemble until the last 20 minutes or so, the final battle at Amusement Mile (a location from the comics) is explosively exciting.
In fact, all the fight choreography in this movie (a lot of it comes in badass slow motion) is just incredible and so easy to watch. For example, a sequence where Harley beats the living crap out of every male officer at Gotham PD headquarters is one of the best cinematic action scenes in recent memory.
In a smart move, Jared Leto was not brought in to play his “Damaged” interpretation of the Joker. I don't say this as a jab at his acting, but because his presence would have overshadowed Harley's journey of personal growth.
This story isn't about Joker—it's about Harley learning to live without him—and anyway, it would've been super jarring to see the Clown Prince of Crime so soon after Joaquin Phoenix's Oscar-nominated take on the villain. Anyway, Birds of Prey only ever shows us the back of Mistah J.'s head or an illustration of his face that Quinn throws knives at in her apartment.
However, I would have loved a scene in the third act where Joker asks Harley to come back and she refuses.
Thanks to the runaway success of R-rated comic book projects like Joker and Deadpool, it's nice to see a studio like Warner Bros. begin to relax its rating demands for movies like Birds of Prey. They could have taken the easy route and made it PG-13 to ensure more patronage, but the deluge of F-bombs, exploding body parts, and broken limbs feel vastly different from what Marvel is doing with its own content.
Both companies churn out quality movies, but the DCEU needs to stay different, wacky, and out-of-the-box in order to carve out a unique niche for itself in the ever-growing market of comic book cinema. And I wouldn't say that violence is a gimmick, if that's what you're thinking. Thanks to the groundwork laid out by Zack Snyder, the DC Extended Universe is a darker, grittier, and more realistic place, so why shouldn't the bodily harm within it feel real, too?
While far from perfect, Birds of Prey is another great sign that Warner Bros. is still on the right track with the DCEU, and that Aquaman and Shazam! weren't just flukes. Not only is it a delight to see Robbie back in the role she was born to play, but the movie also shows off the filmmaking prowess of Yan, who is definitely a talent to watch.
The scatterbrained style on display here is lightning in a bottle and probably wouldn't work with any other characters in this universe. As such, WB would be out of its mind to not green-light at least one sequel and a spinoff or two.
I'd flutter back to the theater to see them all…
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) hits theaters everywhere this Friday (Feb. 7).