The DC Extended Universe is one of the absolute strangest franchises in recent memory. From the very beginning it was a pretty blatant attempt to copy the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, while seeing everything that made that series such a massive hit, and doing the exact opposite. They claimed to be a “director driven” franchise, while consistently taking the films away from the supposed auteurs and then make the most insane choices possible. It seemed like the series was dead, when out of nowhere they started making good movies. And, that’s largely because they stopped holding so fast to the dark and gritty aesthetic of the early films, while essentially dropping the whole “connected universe” thing and just focusing on independent stories that were made by people who actually had passion for the characters. Which, you’d think would be a no-brainer, but it took a string of failures to get that message to connect. We’ve been given a string of surprisingly solid movies that actually were enjoyable to watch, leading me to wonder if this whole DCEU thing was finally figured out. And, then we learned that they were taking the bold choice of making a spin-off of perhaps their most disastrous film, Suicide Squad which focused on Harley Quinn, the only character and performance that actually seemed to pop with people. I wasn’t too excited about this prospect, half because of the first film and half because of my general disinterest in the character. But, when it became clear that this movie was essentially Margot Robbie cashing in her blank checks for a string of commercial and critical successes to make the exact movie she wanted, I became interested. She formed a production company to take creative control of the film, picking the screenwriter and director while generally trying to make a movie that did the character right while also making a wild comic book movie from a female perspective. And, y’all? It’s a goddamn delight.
The film picks up an unspecific time after the events of Suicide Squad where Harley Quinn has apparently gotten out of jail, abandoned any sort of superheroic lifestyle she may have flirted with in the first film, and has gotten back into the swing of her old life. But, as the film begins, we see that Harley’s perpetually chaotic relationship with the Joker has fallen apart, and she has gone out on her own, trying to find her new life. She goes out and parties, she joins a roller derby league, and generally tries to figure out what life as an independent woman even is. Which, becomes problematic when her break-up becomes public (after she blown up the Ace Chemical plant where she and Joker’s bond was forged), because at that point the people of Gotham realize that Harley is no longer under the Joker’s protection. Which means that everyone who has ever had a grudge against her, which is a very high percentage of Gotham City, is now coming to take her down. And, all of that chaos is happening at the same time that a relatively low-level Gotham criminal is making a power-play. Roman Sionis, the son of a powerful Gotham City family who has taken over the criminal identity of Black Mask is attempting to make his play by stealing the Bertinelli Diamond, a diamond encoded with the bank account numbers of the slain Bertinelli crime family in order to fund his new criminal enterprise. The only problem is, the diamond has been accidentally stolen by a young pickpocket named Cassandra Cain, who has been arrested for her crimes, after swallowing the diamond to keep it safe.
Everyone in Gotham then begins tracking Cassandra down, getting a whole bunch of characters to fall into the same story. A GCPD detective named Renee Montoya is trying to build a case against Sionis, and is trying to keep Cassandra safe. A lounge singer named Dinah Lance who works at Sionis’ club while informing to Montoya is trying to keep Cassandra safe. A mysterious killer known as Huntress is killing the various mobsters in Gotham, revealing that she’s Helena Bertinelli, the heir to the diamond’s fortune. And, Harley offers to find Cassandra and get the diamond back in exchange for Sionis not killing her. She does manage to find Cassandra, and when she realizes that the girl has eaten the diamond she decides to bring her back to her place and wait for the gem to be passed. Along the way the two start to become friendly, with Cassandra feeling like she might have found someone to keep her safe. But, when Harley’s safety is threatened she ends up turning Cassandra in to Sionis, bringing her to an abandoned amusement park to make the trade. However, Harley has a change of heart when Montoya, Huntress, and Lance all show up to save Cassandra, at the same time that Sionis and an army of henchmen arrive to kill them all. Harley convinces the women that they need to work together in order to protect her. They team up and fight Sionis’ men, until eventually pitting Harley against the criminal himself after he takes Cassandra hostage. Cassandra manages to trigger a grenade on Sinois, killing him, and the day is momentarily saved. Montoya, Huntress, and Lance begin working together, forming a team known as the Birds of Prey, and Harley and Cassandra run off to form their own anti-hero partnership.
Going into this film, I really had no idea what to expect. I really hated Suicide Squad, and anything even tangentially related to that movie was going to have an uphill battle trying to catch me interest. But, as soon as information about the movie started to be released, including the absolutely insane title, I found myself starting to consider that it might actually be fun. And, you know what? It really is! It’s a bright, colorful, ridiculous little crime caper that had wonderfully low stakes, and just revolved around a bunch of fun characters being embroiled in a crazy story. It features some incredibly solid fight choreography, a campy and weird aesthetic that almost seemed to be borrowing more from something like the Adam West Batman show, and a generally fun soundtrack. There were elements that didn’t work, primarily the unnecessarily complicated editing choices and structure in the first half of the film which just kept repeating itself and running in circles. But, when all the pieces were finally set into motion and the movie started actually getting somewhere, it was a genuine delight. It makes some strange choices with some characters that barely resemble their comic book counterparts, but whatever, it’s its own thing, and it’s still fun seeing a bunch of these characters on the big screen for the first time. It’s chaotic, breezy, fun, and really feels like something that’s proud of its weird comic book history without any pretension of making it “serious.” And, sometimes that’s all I want from a comic book movie.
When handled correctly, Harley Quinn can be a very interesting character. She’s someone who has been psychologically dominated by an abusive and charismatic presence, something you’d think she’d know better to fall in with what with her background in psychology. She’s completely codependent, someone who struggles to define herself without her partner. And, this film is a very entertaining look at someone who frees themselves from a cycle of toxicity, and manages to help define herself, while also finding better relationships to sustain herself with. Harley doesn’t “cure” herself or anything, she makes baby steps throughout the film, but they’re in the right direction. She finds several ways to just keep herself in the same toxic self-repeating behavior, especially with the possibility of just falling into Sionis’ grasp as she did with the Joker, but instead she fights and strives to find a better life for herself. It’s clear that Margot Robbie has a lot of affection for this character, and after portraying her in a film made by one of the most extreme creators of male-gaze currently working, it was fascinating to see her evolve the character in a thoroughly feminine film. Which, not surprisingly, has resulted in the film being attacked by some of the worst people in the world. People who would fall more in line with the Joker, who only want to see Harley as a damaged sex object, who only find her interesting when she’s being tormented, and see this film as some sort of threat against them. And, sadly, it does seem that that extreme toxicity from the real world has had a bit of an effect on the film, causing it to be seen as something of a failure. But, let me tell you, this film really does deserve your attention. It’s trying something new, it’s tackling abusive relationships through the lens of populist superhero cinema, and it’s just a good time at the movies. So, check it out and have a good time. You might even get something powerful out of it.
Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn was written by Christina Hodson, directed by Cathy Yan, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2020.
Categories: Reel Talk