It’s no secret that the DC films have had their ups and downs over the past few years. The House That
Superman Batman Built (you’re forever my #1 guy, LEGO Batman) tried the whole “interconnected cinematic universe” thing and failed rather spectacularly at it, but the company has found larger-than-average success with leaning into what their comics are known best for: being kind of a potluck of everything, a dash of quirky here, a pinch of super-hero-ish types, a splash of violence there, mix it all up with some dark comedy and don’t take yourselves too seriously.
On the heels of last year’s critically-acclaimed ‘Joker‘ comes a tale about his best-gal sidekick – oops, I mean this film is about the Gotham City-based crime-fighting trio of ladies, and a certain Clown Queen just happens to be… along for the ride to… oh, who are we kidding, this movie is a Harley Quinn film first and an “everybody else” flick second, regardless if Daddy’s Little Monster’s name doesn’t come until a ridiculous TEN words into the film’s actual title.
That title officially is, for the record, ‘Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).’ Moving forward in this article (and for the rest of my life), the film will simply be referenced as ‘Birds of Prey,’ even though said Birds take a clear back seat to the Harley show – but really, did anyone expect anything less?
The plot of the film is straightforward enough: set loosely sometime after the events of 2016’s ‘‘Suicide Squad,’ Harley (Margot Robbie, reprising her role from that film) has decided that the time has come to break up with the Joker (not physically present in ‘Birds of Prey,’ mercifully) and make a name for herself solo. Predictably, she gets into a bit of trouble and ends up on a mercenary mission on behalf of mid-level Gotham villain Black Mask (Ewan McGregor); when she realizes that she doesn’t really want to be on the bad guys’ side for this one, she is forced to work alongside disgraced cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), lounge singer with super-powered pipes Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and archer with a vendetta Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to protect an innocent young girl and validate themselves in the process.
Overall, the film really is an up-and-down ride, with moments that will blow viewers away and prove that DC has got some extremely well-executed on-screen ideas but also extremely clunky parts that can’t help but conjure up thoughts of the “Extended Universe” mistakes that aren’t quite as bygone as we’d like. The action scenes, in particular, are a definite high point of this film; the title ladies kick several asses and take many names, although I could have used with a little less beating of the viewer over the head with the “female empowerment” aspect of the film – not that it isn’t important and great to see, of course!
I thought this point was implied to the intelligent movie-goer who can clearly see that the quartet of female main characters who band together towards a common goal is indicating, in no uncertain terms, that this is a tale of ladies taking charge and fending for themselves. But I guess the creative types behind the film thought that some people needed that fact mansplained to them (or would this technically be womansplaining?) via the climactic fight scenes where a group of 50 henchman dudes all show up – all in nondescript masks, no less, so that we can focus solely on the fact that they are men and not their race, age, facial expressions, etc. – and Black Mask (also in a mask, obvi) starts his big bad-guy speech by addressing them as “Men of Gotham” and then they all get their asses kicked by a bunch of girls non-lethally (only one gun in sight and it belongs to one of the “good guys,” what a crappy bad-guy mob this is!).
Surprisingly, for a film with very little character development, I must admit that the characters are amazing to watch on-screen, and I’m confident this owes more to the talented actors and actresses bringing them to life than the serviceable-but-not-mind-blowing direction of Cathy Yan and the script from Christina Hodson. Robbie clearly has a firm grip on how to bring Harley effectively to life, and it’s not really her fault that snarky, tongue-in-cheek, fourth-wall-breaking anti-heroes are starting to hit the cinematic-market-saturation limit. If anything, I could have used about 60% more Birds of Prey, because they were all amazing: Smollett-Bell shined (and belted) as Black Canary, I would watch an entire film with Perez alone playing her ’80s-action-movie cop, and Winstead is simply divine in pretty much everything she does and if I can’t have a direct sequel to ‘Sky High‘ made then I guess every other movie she’s been in, including this one, will have to do. Sorry, what was I talking about? I got distracted by a random ‘Sky High’ reference…
There are a few males in the movie as well! McGregor is clearly having fun playing the masochistically-sadistic Black Mask, and he’s a pleasure to watch on-screen, even if I did have to physically restrain myself from jumping out of my seat and saying “Hello there, General Kenobi!” throughout the entire film. Black Mask is likely a one-and-done film villain, but he seemed to be a fairly big deal in Gotham… and lots of stuff blew up throughout the film around town… which begs the question: not even one Bat-signal flashed in the sky? I mean, come one, we are in Gotham City, right?
‘Birds of Prey’ clearly leans into it’s “connected but only sorta” status in the DC Extended Universe or whatever we’re calling it these days, and that’s fine, I suppose. Overall, it’s incredibly engaging despite its obvious deficiencies; it’s designed to be a film that’s not to be taken too seriously, and that is simultaneously a benefit to minimize nit-picking and a detriment to read this tale as anything other than fan-centric self-service. It’s up to the movie-goer to decide for him or herself if the “plus” or the “minus” is the larger part of their personal equation.