Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina. Directed by Cathy Yan.
Whatever the teething issues of the DC extended universe might have been – the obvious weight of trying to compete with Marvel, muddled tones and too much producer meddling, it’s fair to say that there is something of a groove forming. While Marvel have been happy to peddle action comedies that occasionally divert into other genres (psychological thrillers, techno-thrillers, conspiracy thrillers, John Hughes comedies, heist capers), DC have decided to de-emphasise the shared universe aspect of the films and instead, while honouring the continuity carve their own niche – and it’s worked, okay so Justice League was a mixed bag, but Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam! were all wonderful and different feeling movies, and now we get this: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
Birds of Prey and the long name that no one is going to use starts in wonderful fashion, an animated narrated sequence in which Harley Quinn played to perfection once more by Margot Robbie explains how she came to be the infamous character we know and love – abandoned by her father, abused by nuns, a psychologist and then plaything of the Joker, you might expect this to be a heavy post-Snyder drudge but what follows is two hours of neon paint in your face.
Cathy Yan, with only one feature directing credit to her name, comes at this film full force. How excellent that an Asian woman has been trusted with a violent, OTT action blockbuster featuring – frankly – the best cast character in DC’s cannon-thus far and not only that but her and her screenwriter Christina Hodgson to honour the characters from the comics while adapting them for the screen.
In this year where we have four big women-centric (woman directed) blockbusters what works with Birds of Prey is that the characters are the focus. Harley as our narrator isn’t a slave to normal narrative structure and manages to hold our sympathy while never doing the standard thing of being a good guy. It’s not a reformation so much as a change of pace. Whatever else was wrong with Suicide Squad it was never Margot Robbie who so inhabited the Brooklyn twanged cartoon character (her origin was in the 90s cartoon before she was adopted into the comic canon due to popularity).
But this is a team film and while she is hilarious and emotionally endearing, Harley is only one-fifth of the birds. What is fantastic is that the film is lead by five diverse women: a bisexual psychologist, a young Asian girl, a dorky assassin, a black singer and a lesbian Latin-American detective. Where else would these diverse characters come together?
Though sexuality is not the focus and is only referenced occasionally in the film (the way it should be) the focus is on an empowering message that together women can do whatever they want. This is not to say there isn’t knuckle crunching action – there is, and when it comes it’s beautifully shot and edited.
It’s not flawless, however, in the villain you get the feeling that much of Ewan McGregor’s role was slashed down to nothing, and the potential of having a hyena as a supporting character is wasted. While Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress is intriguing enough to warrant more screentime she does get short shrift of the time.
But that said the film does feature one of the best needle drops of recent time and is a big splash of neon. It’s the bitter, sugary tonic to the dry gin of other superhero movies. Like it’s central five characters, it is the sum of them – the slight enigmatic nature of Cassandra, the marinated in classic works of Renee, the robust and strong action of Huntress, the slick voice of Canary and the gaudy colour palette of Harley.
For that alone is the most fun you can have in the cinema, and heralds a new era for DC movies where kicking ass, being funny, and lifting everyone up are not mutually exclusive. It’s really frickin’ good.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.