Ah shit, here we go again. Harley Quinn’s back in another bleh DC blockbuster.
After the crime against humanity that was Suicide Squad, it’s kind of a shock. That juiced-up Dirty Dozen wannabe is the worst entry in the DC Extended Universe—and that’s saying something. But hey, money talks, and that movie netted half a billion dollars worldwide... so why not?
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) picks up sometime after the dumb events of Suicide Squad. And yes, it’s as kooky and convoluted as the full title suggests. Via voiceover and a little bit of fourth wall-breaking, Harley (Margot Robbie) informs the audience that the Joker kicked her to the curb. Without a boyfriend or crew for the first time in forever, Harley goes even more off the rails. You know: clubbing, getting drunk, blowing up a chemical plant.
When word of her big breakup hits the streets, Harley realizes she no longer has Mr. J’s protection—which means every Gothamite she’s ever wronged is now out to kill her. That includes rich kid/club owner/supervillain Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), also known as Black Mask. Fortunately, Sionis’s henchman, Zsasz (Chris Messina), gets pickpocketed, losing a diamond worth a fortune, which Harley is expertly equipped to get back. But when she finds out the gem was swiped by a young orphan (Ella Jay Basco), things get (even more) complicated.
Birds of Prey has a few big issues, though its unnecessary complexity tops the list. In addition to Harley’s deal, we also get a full origin story for Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a sort-of fleshed-out subplot for Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and a wasted opportunity with Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), whose bit part here belies her Justice League status. Of course, this is supposed to be a Birds of Prey movie—not a Harley solo outing—so it makes sense to bring the team’s different pieces together. It’s just that things get sloppy in execution and therefore entirely out of hand. The focus never really leaves Harley, and a nonlinear storyline doesn’t do the film any favors.
Beyond that, Birds of Prey tries way too hard to be Deadpool. The R rating allows for extra-cool comic book-y violence, but after some solid early tone-setters, the action becomes perfunctory and even boring. The devil-may-care approach to absolutely everything undermines any real depth, which wouldn’t matter if Birds of Prey just said, “Fuck it, let’s be stupid and goofy.” But as with Suicide Squad, there’s this forced, “You’re my new family” emotional appeal that goes against the movie’s own internal logic.
That’s not to say a bonkers/deep story can’t be pulled off. Batman: The Animated Series did a significantly better version of the Joker-Harley split almost 30 years ago. Which raises a question about Birds of Prey: If Warner Bros. is really decommitting from a strict, shared universe (as Joker suggests), why not make the Joker the big bad instead of Black Mask? It’s one thing for the Birds to come into their own against a random Batman villain, but imagine how profoundly empowering it would be for Harley to confront her longtime abuser and kill the Joker instead. If only.
Given Joker’s success and Robbie’s heavy hand in the production, I had high hopes that DC was moving in the right direction. Sadly, Birds of Prey feels like more of the same. Bad news for people like me; great news for people who like other DCEU movies.
Birds of Prey is better than Suicide Squad, but that’s a low, low bar.
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
Director: Cathy Yan
Theater: Area theaters, now playing