I really like the idea of Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) was one of the few bright spots in the abysmal Suicide Squad, and it made sense to give her a spinoff where she could shine. The main problem with Birds of Prey is that it’s never exactly sure how to do that. There are times when it seems like it’s a film that’s supposed to have Harley squaring off against Joker, but Joker’s not in the film, so she’s fighting a bad guy who’s a stand-in for Joker. There are times when it seems like it would be wiser to make her part of a team again like in Suicide Squad, but also she’s the protagonist so the film struggles to carry her plotline forward while also introducing new characters. Then there are times when it seemed like some studio exec said, “Just make it like Deadpool,” and so you’ve got a convoluted timeline with plenty of irreverent narration combined with R-rated language and violence. This schizophrenic approach oddly kind of works for the character of Harley Quinn, and yet the film overall feels like it’s straining for adequacy when it could have been something special.
Picking up an indeterminate amount of time after the events of Suicide Squad, Harley Quinn and Joker have called it quits, but she doesn’t want to tell anyone because being the Joker’s squeeze affords her protection from Gotham’s other psychos. However, looking for closure, she blows up Ace Chemicals, which pretty much announces that her and the Joker are over. This puts a target on her back especially from crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Sionis forces Quinn to retrieve a valuable diamond from pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), but this causes Quinn to cross paths with struggling detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), nightclub singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and vigilante Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). What these ladies have in common is they’re all looking for some emancipation, and the best way to get it is to bring down Sionis.
I’m going to postulate a theory (and if anyone at Warner Bros. who’s reading this wants to go on the record to tell me if I’m right or wrong, let me know). Cut back to November 2016 and Warner Bros. hires Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) to write the script for a Harley Quinn/Birds of Prey movie. Move forward to December 2016, and now there’s also a Gotham City Sirens film in the works that would reunite Robbie with Suicide Squad director David Ayer. Skip ahead again to August 2017 and now there’s word of a Joker and Harley Quinn movie from the directors of Focus. Even in December 2017, Robbie noted there were three different Harley Quinn projects in the works, and noted how Harley “needs a little girl gang.” Not long after this, Robbie scores critical acclaim and her first Oscar nomination for I, Tonya, which gives her greater bargaining power, and I’m betting that the various Harley Quinn scripts that were swimming around were condensed into Birds of Prey.
Why does this matter? Because Birds of Prey plays like a film that’s struggling to have a clear idea of what it wants to be. For example, it’s a movie that kind of needs Joker, but also needs to reject him because Joker would not only overshadow Harley Quinn, the Joker situation over at Warner Bros. is a mess. It appears that the studio believed it would be better to cut Jared Leto‘s Joker loose and give a solo movie to Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix (financially, that was a very smart bet since Joker made over a billion dollars worldwide and earned 11 Oscar nominations). But for Birds of Prey, that’s a problem because it needs to insert Roman as a Joker surrogate. Roman and Harley don’t have a tortured history; he’s just a bad guy who doesn’t like her very much, but he represents a man who controls everything in Gotham (Batman must have been sleeping on the job). So the tension between Harley and Roman feels perfunctory and a stand-in for a livelier conflict between Harley and Joker that the film could not pursue because of other WB projects.
The film then makes another error by not trusting that Harley Quinn can hold her own movie. I get Robbie’s desire to basically do another Suicide Squad, but this time it’s all women, and these are good characters. The problem is that the script isn’t quite sure how to balance them all. Robbie’s Quinn remains outstanding and one of the finest realizations of a comic book character. I’d love to see her play this character 10 more times because she knows how to tap into Quinn’s chaotic energy without losing her humanity. But the supporting cast is kind of at a loss. There’s nothing wrong with the other performances, and some, like McGregor and Winstead, are a lot of fun. But they’re all working with paper-thin characters who need to be in Harley’s orbit but never steal the spotlight, so the film rarely achieves the balance it needs in this regard.
The result is largely Harley Quinn and Friends, which would be fine if the film wasn’t so totally reliant on imitating Deadpool, especially in its first act. For a movie that’s ostensibly about how these women learn how to stand on their own, Birds of Prey leans heavily on what made Deadpool a success: irreverence, loads of narration from the main character, rapid-fire editing, lavish and violent action scenes, an obsession with a particular food item, and a first act that keeps circling back on itself to try and keep the pacing upbeat. I get that studios like copying other successful films, but Birds of Prey, with its all-female team of heroes, had the potential to be its own thing instead of a copy of a thing that already exists. It’s not until you get to the third act and the gang’s all together that Birds of Prey finds its own energy.
Overall, Birds of Prey feels like a movie that almost has its act together, but has far too many hurdles. Cathy Yan‘s direction is serviceable enough, but like the film itself, it doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what it wants to be. You’ll have Harley traversing streets and interiors that look like they’re taken out of the real world, but then the climax of the movie takes place in a over-the-top funhouse that feels more in line with the bombastic editing and tone. While Birds of Prey is a far cry from the utter mess of Suicide Squad, there’s a pervading sense of missed opportunities.
I didn’t hate Birds of Prey, but I didn’t love it either. There’s certainly potential for all these characters going forward, but the filmmakers and/or the studio seemed at a loss for what to do with Harley Quinn, especially as the DC universe rapidly started changing in the wake of Justice League‘s failure. The solution, as seen in movies like Aquaman and Shazam! has been to “just make it fun”, and in that sense, Birds of Prey carries on that new direction. It is a fun movie. It has fun performances. I like spending time with these characters. But at some point Warner Bros. is going to need to do more with their DC movies than create a pleasant, muddled distraction.