It feels like old hat to drag Zack Snyder’s early attempts at launching a big interconnected franchise of films based on the characters from publisher DC Comics for Warner Brothers for the dour, joyless and colorless slogs they were. And even while Warners has been making steps away from that esthetic the last couple of years, there is no starker contrast that illustrates how far removed their films can get from the early Snyder oeuvre than with the new Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Birds Of Prey (for short) is a joyful, colorful riot of a film with action set pieces that don’t try and hit us over the head with a sense of their own self-importance.
As the girlfriend of the homicidal maniac supervillain the Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, reprising her role from 2016’s Suicide Squad) has been able to run amuck across Gotham City without any pushback from the rest of the criminal underworld. But after the pair break up, and word gets out on the streets that she no longer enjoys the Joker’s protection, Harley discovers that life in Gotham has suddenly become very dangerous for her. And that is before she finds herself meeting a young pickpocket by the name of Cassandra Cain, who had made off with a diamond being sought after by crime boss Roman Sionis, aka the Black Mask (Ewan McGregor having the time of his life making ham salad out of the role).
While Harley and Cassandra are trying to avoid the killer that Black Mask has sent after them to retrieve the diamond, they cross paths with three other women who hold grudges against the Black Mask. Dinah Lance, aka the Black Canary, sings in his nightclub but is not happy with the pawing affection he shows towards her. Police detective Renee Montoya has been trying to get the goods on Black Mask for years. And Helena Bertinelli, aka the Huntress, has her own reasons for wanting Black Mask dead. As Roman’s goons close in, the women band together to protect themselves and take care of him.
This is director Cathy Yan’s first time at bat in the big budget world and she hits a solid triple. The director keeps things light and moving through the film, whether it is a sequence involving Harley’s love for the perfect egg breakfast sandwich, a raid on Gotham City’s police station to free Cassandra from custody or to the film’s climactic showdown in an abandoned amusement park’s dilapidated fun house. Yan also let’s a fine eye for detail infiltrate these set pieces in moments like where we see Harley hand off a hair-tie to Dinah while in the midst of a fight scene.
One of the key themes of this film, outside of all the usual comic book movie action and spectacle, is how all of these female characters outgrow their current station in life to become more self-actualized and independent. The roles that some of these characters would have played in the past would to be just arm candy for the villains. But while this is their starting point in Birds Of Prey – Black Canary is as much under the thumb of Black Mask as Harley was with the Joker – they soon break free of that limitation and grow into badass characters in their own right. Any stakes for the characters are on a much more personal level here, rather than the heroes fighting to stop (once again) some glowing, world-ending MacGuffin.
Now admittedly, some comics fans may find the film’s title a bit of a misnomer. In the four-color print world, the Birds of Prey are a superhero team consisting of a Black Canary, Huntress and the occasional other female DC superhero, with a paralyzed Barbara Gordon calling the shots via radio from the headquarters. In this film, however, although Huntress and Black Canary are featured, the main focus of the film is on Harley and it could be frustrating to see the headlined character actually regulated to being supporting characters in what should be their own film. It really isn’t until the film’s third act that the group solidifies as a team and delivers on the promise of the title. Perhaps a sequel will allow us to see their dynamic together more thoroughly explored.