Despite its (severe) shortcomings, the DCEU has always had one thing over Marvel: They seem to have an easier time trusting female directors. Sure, Chloe Zhao may be directing Marvel’s The Eternals, but DC giving Cathy Yan and Christina Hodson the control to completely reboot a famous character is something that Marvel has been too scared to do. Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is the result when you let women have a shot at writing female characters. It’s a bombastic rollercoaster ride that focuses on female companionship and what can be accomplished if men just let women do their “thang.”
Despite having “Birds of Prey” in the title, make no mistake that this is a Harley Quinn movie through and through. Margot Robbie is back as the dynamite Harley Quinn, fresh off a breakup from Joker and trying to find her place in the world without the protection from an infamous gangster. It turns out that Joker’s absence has put a pretty big target on her back, particularly from Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor)—a psychopath who prefers to communicate by slicing faces off.
Harley has a chance to redeem herself in Roman’s eyes by retrieving a priceless diamond that was pickpocketed by foul-mouthed preteen, Cassandra Kain (Ella Jay Basco).
In order to take on Roman, Harley has to partner with three unlikely allies who have their own vendettas against the egomaniac: the disgruntled detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), the ass-kicking songstress Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and the socially awkward assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). From hitting up the local taqueria to lending out hair ties, Hodson and Yan create a dynamic that feels genuine and not just something to shut up the female viewers (looking at you, Avengers Endgame). Birds of Prey may have initially been a ploy to attract female fans, but it left us with a distinguished group of women who are both relatable and likable.
Instead of solely existing to assist Joker, Harley is shaped into an actual person. She loves greasy breakfast sandwiches, votes for Bernie Sanders, and pronounces the word espresso as “expresso.” Hodson goes the extra mile to give the character a personality that is both culturally relevant and spot-on for the Harley Quinn brand. As her personality unfolds little by little, it’s hard to be surprised by the character decisions because you know that that’s how Harley would act in real life. Hodson has frequently mentioned that Harley Quinn is her favorite comic book character, and it’s easy to see her passion for the clown queen.
Birds of Prey is less about molding a formulaic “hero defeats villain” story and more about illustrating women embracing their inner (and outer) strength. From the vibrant animated opening to the climatic funhouse fight, we see Harley go through a rollercoaster of development starting from feeling empty and small (“Harlequins without their masters are nobody,” she drunkenly laments) to becoming a larger-than-life personality who “don’t need no man” to start some shit.
The film utilizes flashbacks to move the story forward. While at first effective and fun, this structure quickly loses its momentum—making the first half feel somewhat sluggish. It’s jarring to go from a jam-packed action scene to dull exposition, and the film suffers from it.
Thankfully, Birds of Prey has creative action sequences to make up for the lull in its narrative. Suicide Squad promised lively fight scenes and a rocking soundtrack but severely under-delivered. Birds of Prey makes up for this previous failure by putting Harley front and center with color and glitter exploding in every corner. Drawing inspirations from John Wick and classic Bugs Bunny cartoons, Yan dabbles in stylistic violence to create fight sequences that are genuinely eye-pleasing. The vibrant cinematography, props, and slapping soundtrack radiate the feeling of a punk rock circus act with Harley Quinn leading the mosh pit.
Instead of focusing on the toxic masculinity of male superheroes, Birds of Prey allows women to be in the spotlight without the shackle a male presence.