Harley Quinn is back, she’s got some fantabulous friends and she’s swinging that baseball bat of hers hard for the top spot of DC’s cinematic output. Lengthy, mostly spoiler-free thoughts below…
A lot has happened in the two and a half years since Margot Robbie suited up as Harleen Quinzel for the first time in 2016’s Suicide Squad; Robbie’s star has risen exponentially, Harley has been perhaps the most marketable female comic book character of recent years, and DC have gotten out from under the gloomy shadow of Zack Snyder, abandoning the DCEU in favour of smaller, character-driven pieces willing to explore different tones than we see from the Mickey Mouse Corporation.
All of these factors coalesced marvellously, as the studio had both financial and artistic interest in pursuing multiple Harley-led projects, safe in the knowledge they had an A-List actress waiting in the wings to portray her. The rumoured Harley & Joker film was mercifully cancelled, and it would seem that the once separate Birds of Prey and Quinn solo films merged into
The Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.
I’ve been hyped for the release of this film from the moment they revealed that extra-as-heck title (RIP) and dropped this 20-second teaser mood piece:
This is very much my shit.
I was thrilled to see the colourful, vibrant, neon and glitter, cool-as-fuck tone carried over into the finished product. I’m a sucker for on-screen graphics and a great soundtrack, two of the things I actually liked about Suicide Squad. Both are markedly better executed here. There are a tonne of fun ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ jokes sprinkled into the on-screen text and a cute animated origin story (pay attention to that slot machine). The OST is comprised of exclusively female artists, which will either rub you the wrong way, or you’re not an asshole. They did include one male vocal in the actual film though. Boo. Still, plenty of bangers, and used at appropriate moments, rather than playing as many songs back to back to back as possible.
Most importantly, you will not see better costuming in this genre. I cannot stress that enough. Every single cast member looks gorgeous, with the deliberate exception of Huntress, who forgoes her comics-faithful outfit for something more believably home-made. I sincerely hope that doesn’t sound like a criticism, because lord knows certain people have had a field day with her character design. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is fantastic as Helena Bertinelli, and the other characters openly Stanning her is a wonderful beat. I do wish she showed up sooner and had a little more to do, though.
Speaking of the cast, everybody is bringing it. Robbie is obviously the star of the show, and if anyone was in any doubt that she has the charisma to carry such an over the top film, where have you been? It’s a better-written Harley than David Ayer’s cringe-worthy “We’re the BAD guys!” version. Robbie did what she could with it, but much like Deadpool, when Harley is bad, she’s pretty unbearable. (Jerome Cusson made the salient point that this film is in many ways out-Deadpool-ing Deadpool, and should have been marketed as such.)
No such qualms here, though. It’s a well-rounded performance, with wit, whimsy and wistfulness in ample measure. I wouldn’t say she’s sleepwalking through it while thinking about her next ‘proper’ role either; there are moments of legitimately impressive acting throughout, and one of the best pieces of physical comedy I’ve ever seen just before the final fight.
I’ve heard the criticism that her magnetic performance comes at the expense of the rest of the ensemble, and that’s fair. For large chunks of the runtime it’s basically just a Harley Quinn movie. I’m inclined to agree with Mike Thomas’ frequent criticism that we should leave solo movies behind in favour of team-ups, and when Harley, Black Canary, Huntress, Renee Montoya and Cassie Cain are all together things get pretty magical, but I could have gone for a little more screen time for Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez and Ella Jay Basco. They’re all great, but… more, please.
Director Cathy Yan delivers potentially DC’s most visually engaging film to date, while Christina Hodson’s script is oozing with femininity. Again, either that irks you, or you’re a grown up.
You wouldn’t need to be told there was a female creative team; it’s obvious in every scene. From Harley offering Dinah a hair-tie in the middle of a fight – something a male writer would never even have considered – to a frankly erotic scene featuring a cheese, egg and bacon sandwich, this is very much a film about sincere friendship, with zero interest in the male gaze.
You’ve likely seen a post or two about how this film is going to be a financial failure because ‘they’ve gone out of their way to make the characters as unsexy as possible’. On the one hand I am staggered that some people can live a life where you openly say things to the effect of ‘women have no value to me unless I can masturbate over them’. On the other, they’re all freakin’ babes so the criticism isn’t even valid.
But based on opening weekend numbers, while the movie is by no means a flop, it is projecting to perform poorly in comparison to the alt-right darling that was Joker, hence the panicked post-release title-change. I wonder if some of this film’s detractors know that Chad ‘John Wick’ Stahelski is on his A-Game with the stunt work, delivering some of the finest fight scenes comic book films have ever seen. No CGI action figures smashing into each other to be found here. Instead, Harley storms a police station, flipping, kicking and shooting her way through clouds of coloured smoke. She chases down a car on roller skates in a scene that is as clever as it is exhilarating. And the final showdown will take some beating in terms of action scene of the year. I am dead serious. Show me a better one in 2020.
But who are they fighting? Well, Roman Sionis of course! Black Mask himself! Anyone? No? Well, the studio wanted a Batman villain who had not graced the big screen before, and boy-howdy did they deliver, casting Ewan McGregor as the idiosyncratic mobster with a fetish for masks (obviously).
The number of ‘Actually Good’ villain performances in modern superhero films is somewhat dismal thanks to the Iron Man blueprint being all too popular. No such troubles with Black Mask, as McGregor is giving an all-time debut performance, having the absolute time of his life. Sionis is a flamboyant showman, getting in on the costuming party with a number of garish (in a good way) get-ups, that make the character distinct, without sacrificing any of the genuine menace that turns you into a serial killer thirst GIF.
He’s not alone though, as Chris Messina (a personal fave) is doing his very best to match him as a nigh-unrecognisable Victor Zsasz, here filling the role of Roman’s best friend and depending on how you want to read the subtext, possible lover. Don’t worry, if you’re averse to change, he’s still got the ‘one scar for every murder victim’ schtick going on, and DEFINITELY does a violence. (Rated-R, if that’s important to you for some reason.) But he’s also got an off-beat swagger and somewhat playful demeanour that quickly slips into unsettling territory.
I LOVE these two together.
I’m using a lot of superlatives here and while I do genuinely think it’s one of the best superhero films of recent times, it’s not faultless. Harley narrates the story and pulls an ‘oh hang on, let me rewind’ once too often for my liking. Things definitely get a bit murky in terms of plot in the middle. Oh, and I’m not sure why the child needed to be Cassie Cain other than for obligatory winks and nods to the comics audience. But that’s about it.
The bottom line is that for as incredibly important as this film is, it’s also really, REALLY fun. It’s inviting you to have a good time for 90 minutes or so, rather than being the latest chapter in a never-ending somewhat samey story. I wholeheartedly applaud that. I felt similarly about Shazam, but Birds of Prey has more going for it.
The box office seems to reflect a growing sentiment that DC are better off not worrying about making sure their films neatly connect to mirror Marvel’s success with copious crossovers and cameos. And given the negative reception to Suicide Squad and that film’s interpretation of the Joker, it’s surprising to see how willing the movie is to acknowledge its predecessor. Not only are there throwaway references to it, they actually reuse a few seconds of footage while being careful to never actually show Jared Leto’s face. Truly, this film can do it all.
It’s unclear what the future holds for this group of characters. Some things are certainly teased. Margot Robbie will reprise her role in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (adding a ‘the’ to a title is a great way to tell your audience to ignore the previous one) next summer. I hope Birds of Prey has legs and ends up being a hit, but even if it isn’t, it would be nice if Warner Bros. didn’t lose all faith in this vision, because we need more films like this in a genre that is steeped in toxic hyper-masculinity. Let’s get one of the Bat-Girls in here! Let’s unleash queer icon Renee Montoya! Let’s be really brave and tell the story of Harley’s ACTUAL one true love: Poison Ivy. Let’s keep having fun. Please?
Secret Agent Men, a podcast I co-host with Ben Phillips, just reached its first Bond movie, Casino Royale, and is following that up this coming Saturday with The Bourne Ultimatum.