The art of storytelling can take many different forms, and few come to be as unconventionally entertaining as Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – or Birds Of Prey for short. While the film may co-exist with the other existing characters of the DCEU, it doesn’t seem to care at all about playing within that sandbox and would instead breakout and be free to do its own thing. So perhaps Fantabulous Emancipation is one way to describe this DC film as it not only brings electric fun and a humorous tone, but it also shatters all expectations and stereotypes of how a female character should function in a comic book movie.
Birds Of Prey has a rather unique narrative structure to it. Told from Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) point of view, the former love interest of the Joker looks to no longer serve a master or be a sidepiece. Instead, she wants to make a name for herself. So, she breaks up with him. However, by doing so, she is no longer protected by the Joker, which means criminals like Roman Sionis / Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) are free to kill her. Luckily, the smug and very spoiled Sionis requires Harley’s services to claim a very valuable diamond that was stolen by Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
But since Sionis doesn’t trust Harley and he wants to make the hunt more fun, he puts a bounty out on Cassandra. This only makes Harley’s job of protecting the pickpocket that much harder. So she recruits the help of Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a vengeful assassin who is often mistaken for “arrow guy;” Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) a singer and personal driver of Sionis; and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a Gotham City Police Detective, who is building a case against Sionis.
If anything, the film’s full title is a reflection of the outright humorous and wildly fun tone. And a lot of that comes through how Harley is telling that story, which is out of order and sometimes needs self-editing. While this may throw off the pacing a bit, it fits perfectly with who the title character is. Bird’s of Prey starts off with an animated opening sequence that explains how Harley went from a kid with a terrible childhood to someone who worked their way up the ladder to earn a degree in psychiatry only to fall in love with the Clown Prince Of Crime and finally be abandoned by him. It’s an entire sequence that looks like it pulls from Looney Tunes, only with a touch more violence. It is an R-rated film, after all. So expect things to be a bit more violent and vulgar.
It then moves into live-action, where each frame feels like it was hit with a giant glitter bomb and is being zapped with electricity. The film is made up mostly of characters that have never been seen in any of the DC films that came before it. Which is great because we don’t have to keep looking at another one of the staple A-list comic book characters. And the best part of all of it is that Yan, who uses a script written by Christina Hodson (Bumblebee), takes some creative liberties with how the characters go from the pages of the comics to the screen.
But Harley isn’t one who has a firm grasp on situational awareness and often times has her attention focused on other things like egg sandwiches. She is easily distracted and sometimes goes off on tangents. Again, that is part of the fun as it doesn’t play to any of the conventional norms of what a comic book character should be like. Harley plays by her own set of rules, and if you don’t like it, you’d best get out of the way or risk getting a bat or giant mallet to the face.
Other fantabulous characters include Smollett-Bell’s Dinah Lance, aka Black Canary, a songstress who is recognized by Sionis for her singing and driving. Then there’s Winstead’s Helena Bertinelli, aka Huntress, whose connection to Sionis runs back to when one of his henchmen killed her entire family, giving her the exact motivation to seek revenge. Perez’s Renee Montoya is a detective who is building a case against Sionis. And finally, at the center of all this, there’s Cassandra Cain, an orphan pickpocket who has swallowed a highly sought-after diamond. And there is Sionis, himself, an overprivileged, selfish, smug, whiny mobster who didn’t have to work a day in his life and had his wealth handed down to him. He’s the kind of guy who goes from being offended to asking Zsaz (Chris Messina), his top henchman, to kill someone when he is being betrayed, ignored, or believes that any laughter is being directed at him.
But Birds Of Prey is much more than just a comic book movie female ensemble – first of its kind to be based on a comic book franchise – each of the characters represent the shattering of expectations and stereotypes of female comic book characters and what its like to be under the heel of the patriarchy. Of course, there are other female comic films that take a more elegant and subtle approach, which is fine, but Birds Of Prey lets everyone know that they will no longer put up with it. And McGregor looks like he is having the time of his life by giving one of the hammiest performances in his career playing as the film’s chief villain.
Here we get to see what it is like for a women’s career to be held back as a man takes all of the credit for her hard work and uses it to get a promotion. The struggles of living in a troubled foster home. Being seen as nothing more than just a plaything. And the stigma of being connected to a man as crazy as the Joker. Sowhat happens. These characters, despite their differences, team up, and have each other’s back. This is especially fun to see during some of the fight sequences like when Harley tosses a hair tie to Black Canary, complement each other’s swagger, and more.
And Bird’s Of Prey’s music, which has some typical hits like Black Betty and Barracuda, and hidden gems like Diamonds by Kesha, makes sure to let you know that the film demands emancipation. Not to mention that some of these songs are paired up with some of the best fight choreography seen in a comic book movie. And all of the bone-crunching hits that are delivered with flips, kicks, and punches will make you cringe with delight.
If anything, Birds Of Prey: And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a high-voltage female ensemble that puts a much needed exciting spin on the comic book genre. Yan’s film doesn’t feel like its a tiny cog in the giant machine. Instead, it’s very much its own thing. And while there may be some pacing issues, the film makes up for it with its wickedly fun unconventional storytelling, fantabulous zany characters, and thrilling action.
Birds of Prey Is Rated R and is in theaters February 7, 2020.