Dir: Cathy Yan
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed cinema. I’d argue that one of the main reasons it managed to do so - even with its early stumbles and subsequent formulaic nature - is that it has been meticulously planned. From right at the beginning, it was clear there were two things at the heart of the MCU: vision and patience. By contrast, DC’s cinematic universe has always felt chaotic. The DCEU, whatever its merits, has never found the clear overarching identity the MCU has. It has taken a scattergun approach to universe building, and still doesn’t seem to have got its feet under it.
Suicide Squad was a mess. It promised something relatively novel: a team of villains becoming reluctant and sardonic heroes. It had a good trailer, but it was undone by a screenplay that made little sense and an obnoxious montage structure that meant the film spent what felt like half of its running time just introducing the characters. The one thing that did work, and the breakout success of the film, was Margot Robbie’s funny and mischievous performance as Harley Quinn, who she made both dangerous and entertaining. It’s no surprise that the first thing to come out of Suicide Squad was - almost - a solo film for her.
Christina Hodson’s screenplay picks up with Harley very much a solo act, her break up with the Joker has made her a target for the whole Gotham underworld and particularly for Black Mask (an over the top Ewan McGregor with a shaky accent). Given a day to recover a diamond taken by a young pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco), Harley ends up teaming with Black Canary (Jurnee Smollet-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and an ex-cop (Rosie Perez) to take down Black Mask.
Much like its title, this is a film of two halves. It begins with the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. She is cut loose not only by the split with Joker enabling her to become more than a muse and homicidally crazy sidekick, but by the film itself. The rating is bumped up to an R. This allows for more graphic violence (Harley jumping on a man’s outstretched legs, breaking them) and for her to finally be “Harley fuckin’ Quinn”. This section of the film is fitfully funny, but there are a lot of scenes that play variations on a theme. It’s fairly slow going, but invigorated by Margot Robbie’s boundless energy and her sheer commitment to the bit. Things pick up in the second half, as the Birds of Prey form. Harley is an entertaining character, but she’s a little tiring on her own, giving her a gang adds some variety and the all female ensemble steps up with a combination of toughness and wit. None are better than Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose two action roles of the past six months (this and Gemini Man) have finally delivered on the promise of the Die Hard sequels that underused her. She’s great here, whether stabbing a henchman as they ride down a funhouse slide or repeatedly getting cut off as she tries to dramatically announce her supervillain name.
It’s notable that much of the creative team here is female. Birds of Prey is hardly a political statement, but the difference is easily seen, with Robbie far less objectified here than she was in Suicide Squad. That said, it’s fair to say buns are still fetishised, only this time—in one of the film’s funniest moments—it’s a bun holding Harley’s ideal breakfast sandwich. In only her second feature, Cathy Yan makes an effortless transition to big scale filmmaking, marshaling better action scenes than most of her male competitors in recent superhero movies and Christina Hodson delivers another quality blockbuster script, following her work on the underseen Bumblebee.
One of the major problems of superhero films is that so many end the same way: a skybeam and a few blobs of CGI fighting. Yan and the action team do a fine job evading that cliché. Throughout, the fights are impressive and manage to throw some laugh out loud moments in with the violence. The combination never works better than in the third act funhouse fight, which plays as an excuse for all the departments: set design, props, stunts to throw everything at the wall and, as long as it can be done practically, see what sticks. It’s shot and edited with a sense of flow, shows clearly that the cast are doing as much stunt work as possible, and jammed full of great gags.
Birds of Prey has its issues (a weak villain and a relatively slow first act), but the pared down (yet more impressive) action, Robbie’s performance and chemistry with her cast mates, and the sheer sense of fun make them feel pretty inconsequential as you’re watching it.