Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Ella Jay Basco
1 Hr., 49 Mins.
Birds of Prey February 20, 2020
uicide Squad (2016) was comprehensively joyless — in hindsight among the worst movies of the decade, so mechanical and forcedly fun that one couldn’t be sure if it was directed by David Ayer or a robot with David Ayer's namesake. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out the other night that Suicide Squad’s first follow-up film, the long-windedly titled Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous
Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020), was its opposite — pretty comprehensively joyful and one of the more invigorating DC-sanctioned superhero features in a while.
It was smart, on DC’s part, to put a focus for its first Suicide Squad sequel on the Joker’s psychologist turned unsound moll, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who was badly written in the latter movie (she was a caricatured, babydoll wild child) but was nonetheless its most interesting facet. In Birds of Prey, she no longer has to be the most compelling thing in a bad movie: the film is good and we never feel like Robbie is frantically working overtime to enliven a rotting script.
There are no Deadshots, Killer Crocs, or Jokers in Birds of Prey. As the film opens Harley is alone, post-Suicide Squad victory and also post-Joker, who has just dumped her. (She celebrates the end of their abusive relationship, which was ickily romanticized in Suicide Squad, by blowing up the chemical plant at which they first pledged their allegiance to each other.) After the movie’s animated prologue recapitulates her life story the film drifts back into her present-day “what now” situation, where, sans Joker, Harley has started renting a dilapidated flower-wallpapered apartment above a second-rate Taiwanese restaurant, adopted a pet hyena (whom she names after Bruce Wayne), and taken up roller derby as a pastime. She is fantabulously emancipated, all right — but is she satisfied?
It doesn’t take long, in Birds of Prey, for trouble to again come finding the trouble-magnetizing Harley. Being the wingwoman of one of Gotham City’s mightiest antagonists grants you some protection for a while, but once you no longer fill the position nothing is much stopping hapless victims and the double-crossed alike to decide to make real pent-up revenge fantasies. Often in the movie a scowling brute comes out from behind a street corner; the screen freezes, then cartoonish font over the image lets us know what their grievance against Harley is. (Harley always bests them, providing yet another grievance to add to the list, which otherwise might include "having a vagina" or "voting for Bernie.") A series of rehashed clashes, of course, cannot make a movie. What Birds of Prey eventually comes to be is an ensemble movie in which Harley, like in Suicide Squad, is forced to team up with a handful of other morally cloudy toughs in the name of a small good.
The morally cloudy toughs in Birds of Prey are Renee (Rosie Perez), a sardonic, alcoholic detective who has turned into such a parody of her old self that she speaks almost exclusively in cop-show platitudes; Helena, a.k.a. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the daughter of a doomed mafia don who has spent the last few years of her life enacting revenge on those who wronged her; Dinah, a.k.a. Black Canary (Jurnie Smollett-Bell), a disillusioned nightclub singer who has a *killer* voice and also killer fighter instincts. After quick, efficient introductions to each (screenwriter Hodson skillfully uses flashbacks and other chronology-damning plot devices), the disparate women come together for a couple of interconnected reasons: to best mutual enemy, the buffoonish crime kingpin Black Mask (stiltedly over-the-top Ewan McGregor), and also protect little-girl pickpocket Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco), who has stolen (and swallowed for safekeeping) a very valuable diamond Black Mask really wants.
The bouncy, fleet Birds of Prey has more in common with Joel Schumacher’s rollicking, candy-colored Batman Forever (1995) than it does Suicide Squad or even other additions to the modern DC-film canon. It’s a bracing oddity within the current crop of superhero movies. It prefers a vaguely surreal comic-book look. It's also very light on its feet, abundant in sight gags (taxidermied beavers in tutus, hermetically sealed bags of cocaine as weapons in fights) and humorous flashes of things like fourth-wall breakings and more-comic-than-earnest slow motion. We can escape into it with the assurance that this is a one-off adventure, though we finish it fairly hopeful for a sequel. Second-time director Cathy Yan helms with tireless zip. What she’s doing here is most in sync with what Peyton Reed did with the Ant-Man movies, Taika Waititi did with the Thor sub-franchise. Obligatorily, a climactic battle sequence is set inside an abandoned funhouse.
How much one likes Birds of Prey may depend on one’s affinity for the Harley Quinn character, who might strike some as laboredly cartoonish and others as charmingly irreverent. In Suicide Squad, as portrayed by Robbie, I thought the first description was most suitable. But in Birds of Prey it was the second, in contrast, which felt most apt. I think part of this has to do with how much more credibly Hodson humanizes Harley than previous writer Ayer. There are just enough moments feauring her about to break down into tears presented without a note of jocularity, for example. But Robbie (who co-produced the movie) also seems more comfortable in the part — like she’s really figured out Harley’s mannerisms and has deciphered how to make her caricature-ripe persona seem above all else like a physical and performative manifestation of vulnerability. Robbie — New-Yawker accented, always sartorially bombastic like a clown in a cheesecake-style photograph snapped by David LaChapelle — is pretty delightful. So are the supporting players, who are badasses in essence but are not above good-natured ribbing. (Helena, as coolly played by Winstead, is humorously one beat behind everyone else.)
There is pressure on Birds of Prey, since it’s been written and directed by and primarily stars women, to be a kind of feminist statement cum better-than-usual superhero movie — yet another project that must prove to the indeterminate “people” that women can "do" superhero movies well, too. The movie has done so-so, by superhero-movie standards, at the box office, which by design comes with the nonsensical interpretation that this is supposed to disprove gendered ability. Readings of the movie as some sort of failure don't apply to its playful artistry, though: Financial success aside, Birds of Prey is idiosyncratic enough to function as an unusually vivid exercise in the superhero-movie machine, which increasingly specializes in putting out features that feel just like exercises. It’s also a salve to recent, similarly marketed features like Captain Marvel (2019) and Charlie’s Angels (2019), which, while enjoyable, were far more ample with heavy-handed corporate feminism. (One doesn't much notice it here.) Birds of Prey, to my eye, doesn’t seem so fixated on proving something — impressive, too, considering it’s also following up such a terrible franchise movie. B+