Movie Review – Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn)

Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)
Written by Christina Hodson
Directed by Cathy Yan

I am not going to pretend I was excited in any way to see this movie. With the foul taste of Suicide Squad in my mouth and my opinion that Harley Quinn is not nearly as interesting a character as DC Comics is trying to make her, I knew I was going to dislike most of Birds of Prey, and I did. I won’t even go with the statement that “this movie wasn’t made for me” because it sort of was. I have loved DC Comics since I was a kid, especially the B-tier or lower obscure characters. Birds of Prey is chock full of them, and seeing a version of those characters on screen was mildly amusing.

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has broken up off-screen with her boyfriend, The Joker. She sets out on a journey of empowerment that comes screeching to a halt when her relationship status makes Harley the target of many a gangster with a grudge. One of these haters is Roman Sinois aka Black Mask (Ewan MacGregor), who decides to use Harley to help retrieve a stolen diamond. Roman’s driver, Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollet-Bell), turns on her boss to help Harley, and they find additional allies in Gotham PD’s Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and the vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

This is much more a Harley Quinn movie than a Birds of Prey picture, but the focus of who the story is about gets muddled by the end. The Birds of Prey were created by Chuck Dixon in the 1990s but brought into full bloom by the great Gail Simone. The Birds are a team of female superheroes based out of Gotham City whose lineup is traditionally composed of Black Canary, Huntress, and Oracle (formerly Batgirl). Other, mainly female heroes, rotate in and out of the lineup. At no time have the Birds been closely associated with Harley Quinn. But hey, I’m cool with artistic license, and straight adaptations of the source material are honestly dull.

However, if you are going to make Harley Quinn the focus of your movie, then it’s going to be a hard sell for me. I dislike Harley for all the same reasons I can’t stand Deadpool. They are not funny. You have comic book writers trying to do comedy, and that type of writing is much harder than dramatic fare. If you wanted a Deadpool or Harley comic that actually made me chuckle, then it would likely have to be penned by someone who actually writes comedy outside of comic books. Both characters are so laden with postmodernist irony, continually trying to convince the audience how silly comic book stuff is that they are dull.

The comedy just doesn’t land in the film either. The jokes are way too obvious and just not clever in any manner. Then you have these eye-rollingly corporate takes on feminism, which apparently American oligopolies define as “women taking on characteristics of toxic masculine violence.” I guess if you are a woman who finds that empowering then great, but as a man, I look at the same type of media featuring male action stars that were pumped out in the 1980s and find it cringey now. The Harley Quinn parts feel the most disingenuous here, which is a shame because Margot Robbie is a great actress.

I think Jurnee Smollet-Bell as Dinah Lance/Black Canary was a better part of the film, and I almost wish they had saved some of the budget and given us a film solely focused on her origins. The same can be said for Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the Huntress. She actually had some funny moments, and her character was more interesting, for the little we got than Harley.

Birds of Prey was better than Suicide Squad, but that’s not saying much because the previous film set the bar so low it virtually dropped it in the mud. This movie wants to be Deadpool so bad that it fails to forge an identity of its own, piggybacking on a film franchise I am turned off by. I hope DC Comics does let go of the whole shared universe thing and make films of varying tones and styles even if I dislike most of them. It’s more interesting than the flat aesthetics of Marvel’s three-hour amusement park rides. Though, I can’t see any of these ever being my favorite movies of all-time.

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