The ‘Birds of Prey’ Take Flight, Even If It’s Only Below the Clouds

While not a “golden egg,” DC’s latest comic book adaptation still hatches into something decent

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NYCKOLE LOPEZ

Harley Quinn's solo venture is a humorous film that's not meant to be taken too seriously.

By KEVIN STOLL, Staff Writer

Genre experimentation seems to have become a common theme among the majority of DC adaptations, so much so that many of their films have become more focused on seeing if something sticks rather than conforming to the status quo. Regardless of what certain viewers think of “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman,” “Shazam” and especially “Joker,” there is no arguing that these films were doing something different than what The Avengers and friends were cooking up across the street in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 

Under the creative control of up-and-coming filmmaker Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson, “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” aims to justify its existence — and its humorously lengthy title — by embracing a feminist message through the lens of characters that are anything but superheroes. It’s a film that constantly stresses its “uniqueness,” even if it doesn’t always work. 

After getting dumped by the Joker, the psychologically insane, yet fashionable, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) finds herself in a state of both physical and emotional vulnerability, especially considering that practically every gangster in Gotham City wants her dead now that her “puddin’” is out of the picture. Throughout the course of the film, Quinn begins to form a friendship with young pickpocketer and foster child Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who just so happened to steal — and purposefully swallow — a valuable diamond. The diamond, unfortunately for Quinn, is being sought after by Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), one of the most sadistic and misogynistic mob bosses in Gotham.

Eventually being joined by Sionis’ personal chauffeur and singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), alcoholic detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and a mysterious vigilante who goes by the name of Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Quinn seems to finally have a newfound purpose in life in not only protecting Cain, but having a group of girlfriends to finally keep her company again. 

As a Harley Quinn solo effort, the film delivers what fans of the character are looking for. With the majority of the humor coming from Quinn’s “Deadpool-esque” voiceover narration, it’s clear that Yan wanted to double down on the character’s spotlight, considering how much audiences enjoyed Robbie’s portrayal of the character in DC’s previous anti-hero film, “Suicide Squad.” But as an actual “Birds of Prey” adaptation, Yan’s vision seems unfocused and not nearly as developed as it can be. Both Canary and Montoya’s arcs are clearly established, but they never really find their way to a satisfying conclusion. Cain and Quinn’s relationship doesn’t always feel as earned as it thinks it does, primarily because the majority of their screen time together is spent emphasizing Quinn’s psychotic charisma instead of Cain’s own personality and background. And Huntress, despite actually serving an integral role in the overall story, feels partially sidelined until the film’s third act. 

But above all else, the film’s feminist message, while well-intentioned, is not exactly handled as well as other female-led comic book films such as DC’s own “Wonder Woman.” When practically every male character in the film is almost as cruel and mean-spirited as the film’s own misogynistic antagonist, it’s difficult to imagine “Birds of Prey” as a film that reaches the majority, if not all moviegoing demographics. 

However, McGregor’s performance serves as the clear standout among the cast, as he elevates the villainous character with an almost fun-loving sense of enthusiasm rarely seen in most comic book films. It also helps that the film’s fast-paced and cartoonishly R-rated action sequences accommodate the chaotic tone, in large part because “John Wick” director Chad Stahelski assisted Yan during both principal production and subsequent reshoots. 

In many respects, “Birds of Prey” is what “Suicide Squad” should’ve been: an entertaining, if not flawed, deviation from the status quo. It’s fun for what it’s trying to be, but it also never tries to go further. And while its feminist message is likely to cause online controversy, even I will admit that, given the lack of likeable male characters, it is somewhat warranted. Nevertheless, it still serves as a breath of fresh air that shouldn’t be taken too seriously.