Opening with a full backstory on the life of its titular character, Birds Of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020) let’s you know exactly what it’s all about: the life of one Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). And that’s what the film is for the better part of an hour: Harley’s movie. Yes, there are stylized introductions of the other characters, and a look into the life of Black Mask (a charismatic Ewan McGregor) but Harley really has time to be established as an actual character, and not a caricature. Along with this, her appearance doesn’t coincide with a mishmash of forgettable characters, but rather intertwines with four unforgettable heroines who are all given equal time to shine. Birds of Prey is like a punk rock song mixed with bubblegum, and its bubble explodes with violence and glitter.
After breaking off her toxic relationship with the Joker, Harley Quinn has no choice but to set off on her own for the first time in her life. She’s bitter and scorned, and as she watches an chemical plant explode, decides it may be for the best. But, as much as she tries to deny it – with a dramatic haircut and excessive drinking – she’s lonely. Harley’s loneliness and her need for human connection is at the center of the film. That, and the fact that now with the Joker no longer protecting her, she’s going to have to do it herself.
However, Harley isn’t the only one in Gotham searching for meaning in their lives: Black Canary (a vibrant Journee Smollett-Bell) works as a singer and driver for one of the most dangerous men in the city, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) uses the thrill of pick-pocketing to stifle her longing for a family, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is a recovering alcoholic searching for recognition in her job, and Huntress (a scene-stealing Mary Elizabeth Winstead) obsessively searches for vengeance. Each of these characters run into each other multiple times throughout the film, but it isn’t until the climax that they all work together to do one thing: protect Cassandra, who has become the tether that binds all the women together. Cassandra and Canary live in the same grimy apartment, Renee has caught her too many times with her hand in other people’s pockets, and Huntress see’s a version of herself within the girl. While they all have a connection to the youngest of the group, it’s her and Harley who have the tightest grip on each other, as one looks for a mentor and the other simply looks for a friend.
Other than a few familiar names and places, nothing in this film feels like the Gotham we’re used to. In previous DCEU films, the city has been dark and decrepit, where in this film it’s bright and alive. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is stunning, utilizing lighting in a way that some previous DCEU films have shunned. Most of the film save for the big climax takes place in the day time, and there are actual people in Gotham – people who idle the streets, people who run Harley’s favourite food joints, and people who aren’t directly involved in the comic book canon. Gotham doesn’t feel like just a backdrop for a superhero to do their job, it truly feels like it’s lived in. Another aspect that feels different from other entries to this cinematic universe, is the film’s villain. It’s obvious from the first time he’s introduced that Ewan McGregor was having the time of his life portraying Black Mask – a dramatic and unhinged crime lord. Mcgregor’s performance along with Chris Messina’s as Victor Zsasz – are what fully propels this film into a full on campy ride. Along with these performances: there’s a running gag about a breakfast sandwich, a hyena that laughs at cartoons, too many broken legs to count, and a final showdown in an abandoned carnival.
Birds Of Prey is one of the best ensemble comic book films to date. Unlike Suicide Squad (2016) and Justice League (2017) these characters truly feel like a family – and they spend less time with each other than the teams in the other films mentioned. It’s little moments like the passing of a token, shared meals and even the sharing of a hair tie that solidify the relationship these women have. Though they may have started in different realms of the same city, they are now united through their willingness to survive, and their drive to find a family. Birds of Prey is one of many recent films that proves that the DCEU wants to do something different – and that it’s here to stay. The villain has a personality, the score is filled with heady synths and not the same repetitive themes, there are actual colors, and the film feels like it was made by and for real people – not just a studio. With Birds of Prey, Cathy Yan has created a pulpy punk-rock ode to anarchy, mayhem, and sisterhood.