REVIEW: Birds of Prey (2020)

Theatrical Release Poster – Warner Bros. Pictures

The following is a review of Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) — Directed by Cathy Yan.

In 2016, David Ayer’s messy and displeasing Suicide Squad embiggened the then fairly new cinematic universe from DC Films and Warner Bros. Pictures. Although it somehow won itself an Academy Award, the film was rightfully panned by critics, including me. I often think back on that film as being one of the absolute worst superhero films of the last decade. Therefore, at first glance, a spin-off from Suicide Squad, which is exactly what Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey is, shouldn’t appeal to me at all. However, this film promised to not just focus on the most entertaining character from Ayer’s film, it also promised a more colorful, more fun, and more feminine approach to a cinematic universe that could benefit from some levity and brightness. Thankfully, although I have some issues with her film, Cathy Yan has successfully brought the film’s characters to life in an entertaining way.

Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, seemingly, takes place not long after the events of Suicide Squad. At the outset of Yan’s film, Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) has broken up with her fiendish paramour, the Joker, but she still enjoys the protection that her being associated with the Joker gives her in the criminal community. But that protection suddenly goes away when she drunkenly announces their break-up by blowing up Ace Chemicals, where Harley Quinn and the Joker’s journey together began. Now every person Harley Quinn may have wronged with the clown prince of crime can freely try to take her down. Several criminals, including Gotham City crime lord Roman Sionis (played by Ewan McGregor) now desperately want to take out Joker’s former harlequin.

As you may gather from my description of the premise, though the film is named after a female superhero team, Birds of Prey is, as the excessive subtitle of the film indicates, really more about Harley Quinn finding herself after having been set free from an abusive relationship. The film is narrated by Harley Quinn, she sometimes breaks the fourth wall in true Deadpool-fashion, and the film even opens with an animated sequence detailing her origin story as a psychologist who became an accomplice and lover of Joker, the jester of genocide. Though it certainly introduces audiences to several heroines, this is Harley Quinn’s film through and through.

Birds of Prey is a film about female empowerment. This is evident not just from Harley Quinn’s character arc, but also from supporting characters like Dinah Lance (played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who is not able to harness the power of her voice (her voice, or scream, is superpowered) until she has freed herself of another abusive relationship. As a side-note, I would also, however, add that sometimes the soundtrack is a little too on-the-nose, with “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” being just one example. The film also clearly treats the Harley Quinn-character with more respect and as a more fully-formed character. Looking back on it, there are certain uncomfortable scenes in Suicide Squad, like the airport scene where everyone stops to stare at her putting on her clothes, where it is pretty clear that Harley Quinn was, in that film, designed to be a flirtatious character that others drool over. One might say that Birds of Prey treats her as more than an object of desire.

Though it is sometimes dimly lit, Cathy Yan’s film, unlike Suicide Squad, is unafraid of bright colors and costumes. Costume designer Erin Benach has done a great job with several costumes that highlight personality. Birds of Prey embraces the wackiness of Harley Quinn, and the film’s more colorful style (when compared to other DC films) works really well. This is also a really entertaining film. It isn’t as fun as, say, Deadpool, but even though it isn’t a laugh-a-minute comic book film, Birds of Prey is a ‘good-time-at-the-movies.’ The action scenes are hard-hitting and are choreographed really well. I caught myself wincing in certain scenes because the film was unafraid of showing extreme violence. Make no mistake, this is not a film for children of all ages, even though the female empowerment theme and the bright colors may make you think otherwise.

My one major problem with Birds of Prey, however, is its needlessly exhausting and confusing structure. The structure of Birds of Prey resembles that of certain flashback-heavy films. As Harley Quinn narrates the film and tells the story, she jumps over a few details that halt the narrative momentum of the film because Harley Quinn eventually stops the story, again and again, to backtrack and explain this character or story detail. It is a decision that I understand to some length, as it makes the film feel as chaotic as a story told by Harley Quinn would be. However, this constant start-and-stopping becomes tedious eventually. This flashback-structure makes the film feel much longer than it is. The first thirty-to-forty minutes are almost frustrating because of the film’s structural design, and this decision also makes you wait much too long for the team-up teased in the title.

This is, of course, Margot Robbie’s film, and she is really fun to watch in it. I would be remiss if I did not mention in the review that I, at one point in the film, caught myself thinking that I would love for her to play this character for years and years and basically own the iconic role. Robbie is a star, and she can definitely lead her own comic book film. The two supporting actors that, however, steal scenes here are Ewan McGregor and Jurnee Smollett-Bell. Of the ‘new’ characters introduced here, Smollett-Bell, whose character I have already described, was the one actress who made me interested in a spin-off with her character. Ewan McGregor clearly had a lot of fun with his character, Roman Sionis, who McGregor plays as a narcissistic, petulant, and ostentatious man-child.

Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey is, from top to bottom, head and shoulders above David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. Though I think this spin-off film does suffer from a serious structural problem, Birds of Prey is still, on the whole, a very entertaining film about female empowerment. Cathy Yan’s delightfully energetic film has kick-ass action, is unafraid of brightness and colorful costumes, and it has a chaotic but magnetic leading character that is always fun to watch.

7.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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