Current Issue #488

Film Review:
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Margot Robbie returns to the Batman-adjacent DC Comics universe to reprise her role as the occasionally psychotic Harley Quinn in this ensemble piece from director Cathy Yan.

A character who first popped up in Batman: The Animated Series back in1992, Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn was introduced to cinemagoers in 2016 via the otherwise reviled Suicide Squad. Despite the studio appearing to abandon Jared Leto’s Joker in favour of Joaquin Phoenix’s recent Scorsese-referencing incarnation, this film picks up where Suicide Squad left off as we revisit its corrupt, Los Angeles-like version of Gotham City.

All the cinematic stops are pulled right out: there’s an animated opening sequence, followed by flashbacks, flashforwards, voiceover narration, fantasy sequences, tricky Tarantino-esque chronology twists, freeze-frames, slow motion, jokey subtitles, a musical number where Harley imitates Marilyn Monroe (or Madonna if you’re an 80s kid), and plenty more. A shame it doesn’t have much heart, but you can’t have everything, and it’s also worth noting that if you think this looks a bit John Wick­-ish in the violent, bone-crushing action sequences, then that’s because director Yan was helped out by Wick main-man Chad Stahelski during some 11th-hour reshoots.

Harley tells us her story, and we hear about how she was ignored by her Dad, educated by nasty nuns, completed a PhD, became a psychiatrist, fell in love with the Joker at Arkham Asylum, flipped the hell out, jumped into a vat of chemicals to demonstrate her devotion, and emerged unscathed (?). However, now he’s broken up with her (he being Leto’s Joker, but we but we don’t actually see him) and thrown her out, and she vents her anguish by blowing up another chemical plant, which attracts the attention of one of the only good cops on the local force, Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).

She’s also sought by local baddie Roman Sionis (a.k.a. ‘Black Mask’, and played by Ewan McGregor), who wants his favoured goon to flay her face off, now that she’s no longer being protected by the Joker (or ‘Mr. J’), but she instead offers to help him find a local juvenile pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who has a huge diamond located in an intimate spot. Moderately graphic chaos ensues, and there’s also a mysterious avenger, sorry, avenging figure thrown into the mix called ‘Huntress’, and she’s coolly portrayed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (McGregor’s former Fargo co-star and now-partner).

Robbie, who is now a co-producer and clearly has big plans for the character, is again fun as this lethal baby-doll, and Perez, Winstead, Basco and Jurnee Smollett-Bell (as Dinah Laurel Lance or ‘Black Canary’) are all strong enough too. Dear old McGregor struggles to be as vicious as the role demands – apparently he was the third choice after Sam Rockwell and Sharlto Copley – and lacks the sadistic swagger that Rockwell might have managed. Yes, he’s just too nice.

It must also be asked: is the ascension of Harley Quinn to feminist icon really a good thing? While studio investment in these sort of women-led projects is praised for balancing the scales of the male-heavy superhero genre, one should think Hollywood could come up with some empowering alternative role models that aren’t quite so murder-happy.

Reviewer Rating

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (MA) is in cinemas now

DM Bradley

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