Unlikely as it is, the abysmal Suicide Squad (2016), has spun off particularly well. Robbie shines bright and hard. She creates an energetic center, a fixture for other performances to hang themselves on, every shot of her imbued with purpose, even on a very large IMAX screen. Birds of Prey is about Robbie’s presence and the astute ability she possesses to hold the camera no matter what she is doing. It’s in the way she didn’t have to hardly speak to become the central figure of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) — everything in a picture falls in place around what she does, the New Muse of Hollywood.
Cathy Yan is not the type of director we are used to. With a background in business school and a short resume of filmed work, she was not the most likely choice to helm Birds of Prey. We are lucky that she has. In keeping with DC’s irreverence for their own brand, they have to constantly blend the contents of their movies to keep it fresh. It did not work to blend someone else’s ingredients — nobody wanted DC’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) — we already had a perfectly fine one of those. There is a distinct pleasure in hearing a new voice, with Yan delightfully pulling from her own heritage, the truth of her Chinese-American experience in New York, and informing great new on-screen characters like Korean actress Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain. There is an authenticity to her framing and how we experience her, as a person, and not an archetype, that is utterly refreshing and essential. The Birds themselves are pleasantly diverse, and not just for points, but as though it is the standard thing to do, as is becoming the thing to do in pop art.
It turns out Yan is also very handy with an action setpiece. A few of the ones in Birds of Prey are small marvels of choreography. The consistent factor is that Robbie shows up for these scenes and really commits herself to the action. She performs with dizzying freneticism: one scene finds her in need of a weapon, with two options: a chainsaw and a baseball bat. Delightfully, she slugs it out, with a grace and confidence of physical presence rarely found in the hard to believe green screen set pieces of the competition. She finds so many good things to do with a bat, at one moment, hurtling it into the ground, as it bounces and levels squarely against her opponent’s head. Whenever Robbie is the center of the action, its truth and feeling is valid, with only a few bugbears presenting as computerized overindulgence.
For as many superlative, fun moments of stylistic expression, it is not always a fun movie. There is a hell of a lot of exposition. Nobody needs so much of it for this simple of a story. Sometimes, Harley Quinn presents as an interesting narrator. The choice on her voice, opting for a class-specific, lived-in New York feeling, over the disturbing nails-on-the-chalkboard tone of an abuse victim, drives the character home. The smartest choice is in the subtitle — The Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn — the whole practice of Birds of Prey is in redefining the womanhood of its character. It undergoes a lot of legwork to divorce itself from the big shadow of the Joker. Do we not instinctively think of Jared Leto’s poor aesthetic attempt, every time it focuses on the “Rotten” tattoo on her face? Yan goes a great distance to ensure the film is only defined by women. She does succeed, although it’s while stumbling over a plethora of narration, where we want to scream, “please just show us the movie, and stop telling us. We are watching it, you know.” Likewise, there must be a magic number of needle drops where it stops telling you about a character, and there is just too much exterior music in a film.
The other deep shadow left by Joker’s character is from last year’s Joker. This, the film has a harder time overcoming. Robbie is sensational, given the same confidence as Joaquin Phoenix was given in that film. But the material is uneven. There are problems with the script. Characters say and do things that are inconsistent and do not match the pathos of their last action, nor their next one. Eventually, a troop of women come together and comprise the Birds of Prey. They are mostly written with one joke, one personality trait. It is great to see Mary Elizabeth Winstead (isn’t it always?) but her one-note joke about not delivering a line with any gravitas is such an underuse of her ability. What about Rosie Perez as the very New York cop? She gets to wear a shirt that says “I shaved my balls for this?” and that is funny, but she is so capable of a more performative comedy than wearing a shirt, and coming around to having empathy. These ladies deserve more to do. Jurnee Smollett-Bell, meanwhile, does so much with so little and is a great compliment to the cast.
As it goes, Birds of Prey divorces itself carefully from the source material. Without Joker, of course, it is not going to be a story about love. It is an emancipation story, by women, ideally for everyone. It does the quirky DC thing of irreverently ravaging its source and the big named characters. There has to be a Titans (2018)-esque “fuck Batman” moment, or it’s not a modern DC thing. It stays within that self-referential zone. Not as fresh as Shazam! (2019), nor as specifically liberated from the hero’s partners as Wonder Woman (2017). Without the Joker, it does not find a male foil against which to practice its emancipation act. Ewan McGregor takes an honest swing at it but always looks like he is playing a character in a movie.
We have arrived at a crucial time for the development of hero films. For better and worse, we have gotten what the internet has asked for: largely different, colorful takes on characters that provide an alternative option. DC is founding an entire library of different options. Having seen the light after the painful puberty of wading through terrible interconnected storylines, they have paved a path of genuine originality. Yan is not like other hero directors and her film is not like other hero films. The emancipation of Harley Quinn has largely been a success, pointing at an extensive future for Robbie to flourish with further entries.