I thought Harley Quinn was a pretty nifty addition to the wild world of Batman when she debuted on his animated series way back when I was in college. I was surprised DC Comics took as long as they did to bring her to the printed page. I lost interest in her shortly before she was anointed the Greatest DC Character of the Millennium and had a personal hype machine devoted to her. Some of our separation is my own fault; it’s a peculiar personal phenomenon that I tend to lose interest in an up-‘n’-coming character whenever they start feeling too popular.
I had several reservations about Suicide Squad, but Margot Robbie’s debut as a live-action Harley wasn’t among them. And yet, I wasn’t among the fans chanting “MORE! MORE! MORE! MORE! MORE!” when DC announced she’d return in Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. In my mind she’s in danger of becoming the kind of character that guest-stars in eight comics a month and overstays their welcome. We had a lot of those in the ’90s (Ghost Rider! Wolverine! Punisher! Lobo!) whose ubiquity turned me off. And yet, the Birds of Prey trailers managed to avoid any vibe resembling an Elektra or Catwoman-level failure.
My son and I showed up opening weekend, days before disappointed theater owners apparently banded together and decided it should be called Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey instead. I for one agree with this change, which more accurately reflects the film’s true contents of 90% Harley to 10% Birds. Too bad they couldn’t have made film retitling a standard practice back when Edge of Tomorrow failed to live down its empty soap-opera name.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Previously on “Everybody Loves Harley”, the events of Suicide Squad ended with the Joker and his newly freed Harley riding off into their own twisted Happily Ever After. Then at some point when we weren’t looking, things fell apart. Birds of Prey begins with Harley dumped and set adrift from her ex-Puddin’. She’s gotten her own apartment in Gotham’s Chinatown, she’s got a new look, she’s blown up the infamous chemical plant where she had her origin story because why not, and she’s partying away her sorrows in the seedy underworld nightlife. Her club of choice happens to be run by one Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a fancy-pants gangster with delusions of grandeur and a black mask he dons in his villainous alter-ego as…Black Mask.
(As originally drawn by co-creator Tom Mandrake back in the early ’80s, Black Mask at least looked creepy on paper, but didn’t have much else going for him. Between the cheesy name and McGregor’s hammy performance, he’d be right at home sparring with Adam West and Burt Ward if his shtick didn’t involve a bit of not-so-groovy cruelty.)
Through a chain of circumstances involving alcohol and naughtiness, Harley winds up on Sionis’ bad side. Before he can have her killed, she offers to help him with a concurrent side quest — a special diamond MacGuffin he needs for nefarious purposes, which has fallen into the wrong hands, which Sionis defines as “any hands but mine”. Merry hi-jinks ensue that are largely about Harley, Harley, Harley. She also narrates and breaks the fourth wall because anything Deadpool can do, she can do better, according to her.
Our Antiheroine meets other key women along the way because every comics character needs a supporting cast. Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Full House, Friday Night Lights) is Dinah Lance, an apathetic singer who’s recently also become Sionis’ driver, whose voice can do a neat super-trick that’s barely foreshadowed before it saves the day in the final boss fight. Rosie Perez (The Dead Don’t Die, Night on Earth) is Detective Renee Montoya, the only legally sanctioned “good guy” with more than three lines in the entire film. Ella Jay Basco is a spunky street urchin who’s stolen numerous wallets, one particular gem, and the alias “Cassandra Cain”. And barely appearing for the first 90 minutes is the always outstanding Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as a murderous vigilante lurking in the shadows, known city-wide as…the Crossbow Killer!
After much procrastinating and nonlinear storytelling because our narrator Harley gets distracted easily, all these women eventually meet-cute, fight and fight and fight, and then unite against their common enemy: the violent rich white misogynist gangster club-owner.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Chris Messina (The Mindy Project) is post-Crisis Bat-villain named Victor Zsasz, a killer who carves tally marks into his skin to keep track of his body count. At least they’re supposed to be tally marks. (As originally drawn by co-creator Norm Breyfogle back in the late ’80s, Zsasz was a sharply drawn psychopath who kept his morbid cutting neatly organized. As he was on Gotham, Zsasz here is likewise used as a lead henchman to another villain instead of as a lone-wolf serial killer. Gotham‘s version had two advantages: Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin, a superior boss; and the acting skills of Anthony Carrigan, who went on to MVP status on HBO’s Barry. Messina’s Zsasz is cosplay by comparison.
Ali Wong (Always Be My Maybe) is an attorney who happens to be Montoya’s ex-girlfriend. Steven Williams (Netflix’s Locke and Key) is Montoya’s boss. François Chau (The Expanse) is a rival crime lord. Two cameos-by-proxy — one a flashback, the other a gag — confirm this film is indeed in continuity with Suicide Squad.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Breaking up is hard to do, especially when you and your ex were together for so many years that everyone thought of the two of you as a conjoined unit. That didn’t bother you when you thought nothing would ever tear you apart, when you were your world’s equivalent of “Jim-and-Pam” or “Brangelina”. Then came that fateful day, that moment of heartbreak, that searing sensation of love torn asunder. Suddenly you’re back to being a singular “you” instead of one-half of a plural “you”. You’re alone, a solitary soul, no one completing you anymore. That sucks.
Soon you find out who your real friends are. Worse, you learn who your enemies are as former friends become enemies overnight and tell you what they really thought of you all along. Once word gets out that Joker’s kicked Harley to the curb, it doesn’t take long for her to realize no one ever saw them as equal partners. Everyone feared Joker and Harley. But just Harley? Meh. She was just riding the tails of his green-and-purple suits. She was a glorified moll. A plus-one. An appendage. A toy.
That’s the world facing Harley in this next phase of her life — no respect, very few favors, more than a few embittered former victims ready and willing to try their luck at offing her now that the big scary grinning guy isn’t around to protect her and murder them. She never lost her confidence or self-respect because her mental health issues insulated her to a certain extent, but soon she realizes she’ll have to fight not just for her own life, but for her independence and her identity as a unique individual whose entire life is no longer defined by the psycho she once loved. Granted, most women don’t work through their post-breakup blues by robbing and killing. So for her it’s complicated.
The other characters have their own problems to sort. Vengeance. Justice. Money. Apathy. Dudes bein’ dudes. Their new friendships help. Sisters doin’ it for themselves and whatnot.
Nitpicking? Birds of Prey wouldn’t have been challenging to rein in for a wider PG-13 audience. The F-bombs and extra bleeding are hardly integral and don’t feel worth it. (Even with the rating, Sionis’ Saw-ready tendencies are toned down anyway. Funny, that.) Yes, folks can and do flock to R-rated films, but not to all R-rated films. A film sporting the Day-Glo colors of Dick Tracy, the rhythms of Looney Tunes, and the characters from past DC cartoons should’ve been an easy sell to millions of girls out there ready to fork over fistfuls of allowance money and Visa birthday gift cards to come watch these characters they’ve seen in other forms.
If the only line of reasoning was “If guys can do R-rated superheroes, then we women can too!” in my mind that’s not a gender-equality aspiration worth chasing. Longtime readers know I generally don’t get overly excited when dudes cross those content lines, either. I’m old-fashioned like that.
I’d love to add a paragraph of indignation on behalf of Cassandra Cain, once better known in the comics as a most unusual version of Batgirl. Apart from the words “Asian teen”, this version appears to have nothing else in common with her. Truth is, I wasn’t reading too many Bat-books during her heyday, but I sympathize with her dedicated fans who’ve been understandably upset at seeing her name wasted here, thus reducing the chances of that version ever seeing the light of day again in any medium.
So what’s to like? Female antiheroes usually aren’t my thing, but Birds of Prey won me over. Harley’s road to recovery and recidivism wisely sidesteps the glumness of the early DC movie attempts, as the makers of Aquaman and Wonder Woman each wisely did. It’s a bit bawdy and bloody, but it’s brash and bouncy and boisterous. Tongue-in-cheek repartee alternates in equal measure with finely honed fight choreography (actual moves! no annoying Taken editing!) and eventually the pieces fit together once they’re all on the table. Robbie’s accent isn’t exactly Arleen Sorkin’s, but it’s no longer grating and I stopped actively monitoring for signs of wobbliness about halfway through Suicide Squad.
And make no mistake, this is a far sturdier, less compromised film than Suicide Squad was. Director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson (Bumblebee), in collaboration with actor/producer Robbie, manage a speedy, occasionally wacky rhythm that at times rivals some of the best animated features out there. They appear to have suffered less executive meddling than past DC directors, which may explain why this film didn’t take eleven years to complete.
Screen time for the rest of the cast varies (seriously, Winstead was robbed), but each has their own moments to enjoy before the inevitable, eventual team-up that showcases the sort of interplay and teamwork that made the original Birds of Prey a long-running favorite among quite a few comics fans…who are hopefully patient enough to wait for that moment when, yes, of course, they set up for potential sequels. And not just for Harley.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a tiny extra after the Birds of Prey end credits. Near the very end when the words are almost exhausted, the voice of narrator Harley herself chimes in a la Ferris Bueller (loosely paraphrased): “Hey, are you dummies still sitting here? Well, since ya did, I’ll let ya in on a little secret. Did you know Batman — ”
And the sound cuts off as the screen goes black. Now we’ll never know Batman’s secrets.