Here’s a fun, somewhat depressing fact: both Marvel films (Black Widow and The Eternals) and both DC films (Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984) slated for this year are directed by women, which has never happened before (and doesn’t seem like it will happen again, at least not in 2021 or 2022). This counts as progress– though it does nothing to counteract Hollywood’s hostile takeover by superhero films, obviously. After years of films just about male heroes, it’s honestly a relief to get a star vehicle for Hot Topic dream girl Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, obviously perfect for the role) and several other women from the pages of DC Comics. Birds of Prey is a zippy, bone-crunching adventure that stays close to the ground, focusing on women tired of being overlooked and fighting back. It’s fun, but only a little less obnoxious than Deadpool.
Harley Quinn’s journey to define her life outside of the Joker is a clear parallel to DC’s efforts to redefine their cinematic universe outside their recent stumbles with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, and Justice League (which I truly forgot existed until I was writing this review). Long gone are the dark, brooding ways of Superman and Batman, whose moms have the same name. DC realized that their movies could be fun with Aquaman and Shazam!, and now that seems to be their modus operandi (WW84 seems to take place mostly in a mall, and Chris Pine has a fanny pack). Birds of Prey is about Harley Quinn shedding off the weight of the abysmal Suicide Squad and its grimdark worldview. Harley just wants a good bodega sandwich.
The film’s plot is a bit scrambled at the start due to Harley’s non-chronological narration, but becomes fairly simple: Harley, songstress Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), crossbow-wielding Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, comedic genius), determined cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and tween pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) have all pissed off the same man: low-level crime boss Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask (Ewan McGregor, making a lot of manic choices), and his sadistic henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). Though they don’t like each other (and no one likes Harley), they know they have to team up to protect Cassandra and save their own lives.
Cathy Yan keeps things moving with her manic but sparkling direction. She isn’t afraid of bright colors and brutal violence. The climax doesn’t involve a magic portal or apocalyptic stakes – these women just don’t want their faces peeled off by Ewan McGregor. There are certainly nitpicks I could make (at one point Harley decides she can hide from everyone who wants her dead… in her own apartment), but overall it was just nice to see DC’s course correction yielding positive results. I still prefer Shazam!, but Birds of Prey knows exactly what it is, and breaks legs and skulls with confidence and flair. Plus, Rosie Perez gets to punch Margot Robbie using a pair of handcuffs as brass knuckles!
Birds of Prey
dir. Cathy Yan
Opens everywhere Thursday, 2/6 (though the Hassle recommends the Somerville Theatre or your local independently owned mutliplex)