Birds of Prey couldn’t have come at a better time. With DC raking in awards for Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, the embarrassment of Jared Leto’s outing as the character in Suicide Squad couldn’t be swept any further under the rug. Margot Robbie is also having a fantastic year with double Supporting Actress nominations, but as Harley Quinn she takes centre stage to deliver everything fans could have asked for.
In a lot of ways, Birds of Prey is the anti-Joker. Literally speaking, it’s focussed around Harley’s emancipation from her abusive relationship with him, but figuratively it’s positioned at the opposite end of the spectrum from Joker (2019). An unapologetically female-focussed, fun action flick that embraces its comic-book genre is the perfect balance to a deeply serious, arthouse adaptation delving into the male psyche. The two films illustrate just how broad ‘the comic-book genre’ can be.
Robbie is, of course, spectacular as our baseball-bat-wielding anti-hero, balancing a genuinely moving character arc with comedy as effortlessly as she performs the eye-popping action sequences. Her role as producer and direction from Cathy Yan is so visible throughout in everything from the brilliant outfits to the way the women congratulate each other on being able to kick so high in tight pants.
This film is everything Suicide Squad wanted to be: a celebration of some lesser known DC characters, thrown together initially, but eventually developing meaningful bonds that the audience can root for. Where Suicide Squad was hopelessly overcrowded, here each character is given dedicated space for backstories that mean something. Classic tropes of a heavy-drinking cop and a character out for revenge after a childhood trauma feel fresh in the hands of these women.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell is the perfect Black Canary – a hypnotic singer and a brutal fighter both, lending real depth to her position as a woman trapped by circumstance. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is surprisingly funny as the deadpan Huntress, while Rosie Perez puts both her dramatic and comedic chops to good use as Renee Montoya.
The plot is built around each of the characters vying for a missing diamond, with young pickpocket Cassandra Cain at the centre of it all. Newcomer Ella Jay Basco creates her own version of this iconic character as a sullen foster child – it’ll be very interesting to see how this version of the character develops over future films.
Gotham high flyer and classic villain Roman Sionis is fantastically realised by Ewan McGregor, who really commits to the camp. His comedy is so good that the moments of true villainy shock and horrify all the more. The entire film leans in to the wacky and colourful world that has been so sorely missed in recent Batman adaptations, but it’s still very much a film for grown-ups.
The violence is intense, but always perfectly timed and elevates the truly brilliant and innovative fight sequences. Big fights in Gotham PD’s evidence storage stocked full of weird and wonderful items, in a flooded prison, and in a circus funhouse make for some of the most visually delightful and skilfully executed stunts that the superhero genre has ever produced. Not to mention a rollerskate / motorbike / car chase scene that had the audience applauding.
The heart of the film is, of course, the female friendship at its core. As Harley puts it, she ain’t the only woman in Gotham looking for emancipation, and each woman has some constraint to break free of to be able to stand on her own, which makes the fact that they choose to stand together all the more powerful.
Offering your pal a hair-tie mid fight before efficiently taking out the bad guys perfectly encapsulates the spirit of this movie – funny and heartfelt, but never pulling any punches.
Birds of Prey smashes into cinemas Friday 7 February.