Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

2020, R, 109 min. Directed by Cathy Yan. Starring Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco.

REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Feb. 14, 2020

Harley Quinn contains multitudes. Initially created as a throwaway character in the Nineties for Batman: The Animated Series, Quinn has come to represent the different inherent contradictions of the Batman universe. Batman villains hit people on the head with giant wooden mallets; they also peel off faces with a carving knife and cut tally marks into their flesh. Quinn has always served as a bridge between the goofy and the grotesque. In Birds of Prey, we see what happens when the character is handled by filmmakers who understand how to address both sides of this coin.

After a terrible breakup with the Joker, Harley Quinn (Robbie) is stuck alone on the streets of Gotham City. Ousted from the protection of her ex, Quinn finds herself in the crosshairs of every second-tier gangster and murderer she once mocked – including Roman Sionis (McGregor), the child of wealthy parents angling to create his own criminal empire. To survive Sionis, Quinn must defeat Sionis, and that will require the help of a few friends, including singer-with-a-secret Dinah Lance (Smollett-Bell) and vigilante Helena Bertinelli (Winstead).

With all due respect to Robert Downey Jr., there may be no better bit of superhero casting than Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. In Birds of Prey, she is allowed to double-down on the best qualities of her lovable antihero. Robbie’s Quinn is sexual but not objectified; eccentric but not a caricature of mental illness; amoral without ever becoming immoral. Even her unreliable narration throughout the film – the narrative stops and starts that have been played to death in other action-comedies – feel like an essential part of her character development. How would you react if you, too, viewed the world through a kaleidoscope of spandex and concussions?

And while Birds of Prey is unequivocally her film to lead, Robbie is surrounded by a handful of dynamic actors in memorable roles. Christina Hodson has crafted a fantastic script, balancing a half-dozen characters without ever feeling like the film is overcrowded. What’s more, by wisely choosing to stagger how the other Birds of Prey are introduced, Hodson can avoid the third-act fatigue that settles into so many other films. Right when we start to grow comfortable with Robbie or Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya, in swoops Winstead as the perpetually furious Huntress to give the movie one last jolt of energy to put it over the top. More screenwriters should learn to keep a superhero or two in reserve.

The steady across-the-board character work is essential to the film’s success, as Birds of Prey has no interest in compromising either its cartoonish energy or its surprising amount of violence. This is a film where a dead character has his detached face thrown at his wife in a scene that is played for laughs – laughs that the scene successfully earns, I might add. Yan and Robbie lean into both sides of Quinn’s personality throughout the film. This allows Birds of Prey to earn every bit of its R-rating while still feeling like a Looney Tunes cartoon.

None of this suggests that Birds of Prey transcends the conventions of the superhero genre. There are origin stories, there are callbacks to other films, and the moment when a ragtag band of vigilantes must come together to form a super-team. If you’ve seen one comic adaptation from the past decade, you’ll have a sense of where this whole thing is headed long before the group assumes their first power poses. But even if Birds of Prey doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it sure as hell gets it spinning. Those who wish their superhero movies had a little bit more Lisa Frank and a whole bunch more female gaze may find themselves falling in love with Harley Quinn all over again.

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