In many respects, Harley Quinn’s life on the silver screen has mirrored Deadpool’s. Ryan Reynolds was born to play the Merc with a Mouth, but he couldn’t do the character justice in a dud like X-Men Origins. Finally, Reynolds was given the go-ahead to make a real Deadpool movie, turning a fan favorite antihero into a household name. Likewise, Margot Robbie couldn’t be more perfectly cast as Harley Quinn. Suicide Squad was kind of all over the place, though, making it hard to appreciate her spot-on performance. Birds of Prey is not only the Harley Quinn movie we’ve been waiting for, but also the one we didn’t know we wanted.
Birds of Prey is essentially a breakup movie masquerading as a superhero movie, not unlike how Midsommar was a breakup movie in a horror movie’s skin. Aside from a couple references, Jared Leto’s Joker is basically MIA. While Leto’s interpretation of the Joker wasn’t well-received, you wouldn’t think a Harley Quinn movie would work without her puddin’. If you’ve been following Harley’s evolution across various comics and shows over the past couple decades, however, you’d know that she’s become more than Mr. J’s henchwoman. She’s a great character in her own right, functioning as a villain, an anti-heroine, and a merchant of chaos we oddly sympathize with. Harley proves once and for all in Birds of Prey that she doesn’t need the Joker, although she does receive some welcome backup.
Robbie once again plays Harley with the demented energy of Marilyn Manson crossed with the airheaded lovability of Marilyn Monroe. Harley actually pays homage to Monroe in a rendition of Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend, which is made even more fitting when you consider that this movie has a Moulin Rogue! alumnus. Ewan McGregor has a hell of a time as the villainous Black Mask, a gangster who’s tolerated Harley for years due to her connection to the Joker. Now that puddin’ is out of the picture, Black Mask is gunning for Harley’s blood and he’s not the only one. Harley wronged a lot of people, suddenly making her the most wanted person this side of John Wick. The target on her back only grows larger when she gets mixed up with Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a young pickpocket who unknowingly swiped a valuable diamond.
Despite being called Birds of Prey, the film is truly about the fantabulous emancipation of one Harley Quinn. That’s not to say the supporting cast is put to ineffective use. Mary Elizabeth Winstead shines as the vengeful Huntress, Jurnee Smollett-Bell is radiant as Black Canary, and Rosie Perez puts a unique spin on Detective Renee Montoya, all of whom are connected to the diamond plot. The only one who’s underused is an unrecognizable Chris Messina as Victor Zsasz, who’s given a fair deal of buildup, but not much payoff. With that one exception, this is a well-oiled ensemble piece where everyone is given a chance to kick ass. It would’ve been nice to see more interactions between the core cast, but Christina Hodson’s screenplay ultimately delivers in the climax.
Like Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey juggles an assortment of characters and subplots. What sets it apart from those films is that the motivations are kept much more focused. The film never becomes overly complicated either with a garbage truck of boring exposition. It’s a deranged screwball comedy, which is a refreshing alternative to saving the world for the millionth time. The stakes may be lower than usual, but our investment in the characters is high nonetheless. All the while, director Cathy Yan keeps things moving with one colorful set piece after another. Harley is gonna do just fine as a single lady, even if a crossover with Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker would still be interesting.