Review: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Director(s)Cathy Yan
Principal CastMargot Robbie as Harley Quinn
Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis/Black Mask
Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Dinah/Black Canary
Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Helena/Huntress
Rosie Perez as Renee
Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra
Release Date2020
Running Time109 minutes

They should’ve just called this movie Harley Quinn (and the slight inclusion of the Birds of Prey) because that’s what this movie felt like. Despite great production value, neat action sequences, and some fairly good performances from Robbie and McGregor, Birds of Prey feels like a sloppy amalgamation of story ideas and plots hamfisted into a movie that feels empty at its core. If you enjoy Robbie’s performance of Harley Quinn in the current DCEU, this movie should hit some of the right notes, but for anyone hoping for more you’re sure to be left feeling a bit disappointed.

The story picks up some time after Suicide Squad, with the Joker and Harley breaking up. The story is narrated by Harley (to interesting effect) and chronicles her tale of trying to survive in a world without her beau or the protection his sphere of influence granted her. The plot is fairly simple and there are no big twists or turns. There are some fun action sequences here and there and Robbie narrates the movie in an Deadpool – esque way, breaking the fourth wall whenever she feels the need. It gives the movie some much needed character and helps cover up a lot of the more obvious narrative flaws.

The movie is really pretty and the color palettes used are vibrant and pop off the screen. Harley has a scene early on that’s bursting with color. I had a blast watching it and feel like it would be a ton of fun to watch in IMAX or 4k. Action sequences are over the top and make full use of the comic nature of the universe. For example in one scene , Harley bounces a bat off a wall like a boomerang to hit an unsuspecting foe. Moments like these showcase the potential at play and I wish the movie had more of this.

Each of the other “Birds of Prey” are incorporated into the story with varying degrees of success. Because the movie takes place from Harley’s point of view, it’s hard to understand how and why certain sequences are even known to her but that’s besides the point. As Harley introduces each member of the titular squad, you can tell there’s something off. Their inclusions in the story feel weak at best and awkward at worst, as they magically just keep finding themselves all closer to the heart of Black Mask’s scheme. Huntress gets shafted the most and her inclusion into the larger narrative feels like an afterthought. Furthermore, no other character has a genuine change of arc besides Harley, so it makes caring about their eventual team up hard to do.

McGregor is great as the main villain and brings his full energy to the role. Black Mask is narcissistic and fueled with over confidence. Watching him react to fickle circumstances demonstrates how fractured and on the edge he is. Unfortunately, like most of the Birds of Prey, McGregor is rarely given a chance to shine, so his cruelty and manic personality only feel comical and not threatening. I wish we really got to see him fully embrace his dark side and be more present. If you’re going to have this level of talent might as well make use of it.

The main issue with the movie is it doesn’t know what it wants to be or do. The movie wants to be feminist and tries to channel in some faux female energy by having “bad ass” female characters, but the characters never work because their powers and personalities never feel justified or developed enough to persuade you to care about them. The movie shows us sexist microaggressions and a comically hyper masculine bad guy almost as if to show us that it’s woke and against the masculine world order, but it doesn’t ever justify that take or develop it.

The movie is rated R, but I rarely felt like the rating was justified. There’s not a lot of violence , and most of it feels overly comical when it does happen. There’s a serious tonal imbalance between the tension and comedy. The movie wants to make you nervous or scared that something will happen, but constantly makes wisecracks or goes to over the top too ever let that feeling set in. The way that the more serious moments are edited also makes them funny, and I laughed more than once at the way certain bits of dialogue played out. I wish the movie either pulled a full Deadpool and ramped up the comedic violence and played more things for jokes, or toned back the comedy and tried to inject a real sense of high stakes pressure.

Report Card

TLDRBirds of Prey feels like a re skin of your typical superhero team-up movie, this time featuring Harley Quinn with some small moments from the other members of the titular gang. The production value is nice and the action scenes are enough fun to watch, but the story, tone, and theme all feel underdeveloped and all over the place. I’d only reccomend watching if you’re a hardcore DC fan or love Margot Robbie’s interpretation of Harley Quinn. Hopefully, she gets a movie that really demonstrates what she can do with the character. One can dream.
Grade D

Go to Page 2 for my spoiler-full thoughts!

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