Careful! Spoilers for Birds of Prey may lurk below…
The DC Extended Universe has had its share of ups and downs. Dark and gloomy flicks like Justice League have paled in comparison to Marvel’s offerings of fun and action-packed films that perfectly blend in comedy and action with deft storytelling across a variety of franchises. Things took a turn for the better with Wonder Woman back in 2017, and since then, DC has focused less on competing with Marvel, abandoning a shared universe for its characters and instead having more standalone films that explore little niches of the vast DC universe.
As someone who highly regards the Birds of Prey comics as well as Harley Quinn’s stories, the Birds of Prey entering the DCEU was something to look forward to and rejoice; amazing characters like Black Canary, Huntress and Orphan would finally get their silver screen debut. But with high hopes, did the film live up to the hype? Director Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey takes heavy creative license with its characters, but still produces an enjoyable and very comic-book influenced film in the process, even though it’s just not ‘Birds of Prey.’
Don’t let the film’s shortened title fool you. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is all about Harley Quinn from start to finish, with the Birds of Prey comic characters sharing little screen time up until the film’s final climactic scenes. Despite that, Harley is the perfect character to segue new characters into the universe, and it’s all thanks to Margot Robbie’s spot-on performance. Her back and forth with her lovable stuffed Beaver from the comics is hysterical. The crazy Harley Quinn-ness of it all, paired with the extremely violent and whacky fights that ensue are very reminiscent of Harley comics, where characters (especially Harley) quickly find themselves in absurd fights that are gratuitously violent.
Quinn leads the rest of the characters, narrating the story that follows her split from the Joker and realization that without his protection, everyone wants payback on her. While all of this is fairly easy to grasp, the film does meander around with several chronological jumps to flesh out other characters. It’s a bit aimless and feels unnecessary; cutting things to just go in chronological order in the first place would’ve made better sense. Why do we need to spend 20-30 minutes jumping around in time for something that only covers five minutes of the actual story? The film would’ve benefitted from being fleshed out more wisely, with more thought given to its flow. This also might have allowed the film’s titular characters who aren’t Harley shine a bit better. (Or y’know, let the Birds of Prey be their own thing, while Harley forms Gotham City Sirens gaining her independence from Joker…)
Sure, while the time skips add some drama with things being relatively held in place for a bit, it’s hard to believe the more casual DC fan wouldn’t find this overwhelming and counterproductive, especially when you start adding in the film’s desire to flesh out character’s backstories randomly. Is it important to show us the backstories for characters like Huntress, Orphan and Canary? Of course! But the film’s haphazard time-skips just complicate this critical part for the viewer. To make matters worse, Orphan and Canary’s place in the film is all fairly recent, with Harley showing us just the past few days of their lives. Huntress demands years of back story, making things even more complicated. From a storytelling standpoint, Birds of Prey is a mess from the start of Harley’s ‘explaining’ everyone’s backstory up until things jump back to the present, explaining why she’s barging into Gotham City PD and looking for Cassandra Cain.
But once Birds of Prey gets going, it fires on all cylinders. Robbie enjoys great rapport with Ella Jay Basco playing Cassandra Cain. The two make for a great unlikely pair, and with the way the film ends, hopefully the two will enjoy more screen time together in future films. Cain is the character that the film takes the largest creative license with, and Basco takes the role and runs with it, breathing life into what is arguably an entirely new character. This is not the Orphan you’d be expecting if you’re a comic fan, but Basco is just so lovable in Cain’s shoes, the perfect mix of brave pickpocket and vulnerable child. Basco brings great depth to the character, even commanding the attention of the four adult women in the room as the film gears up for its climax. That’s very much the badass Cassandra Cain that fans know.
While Cassandra Cain is an entirely different character (but one that works,) Black Canary feels like such a let down in her entry to the DCEU. It’s not for Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s lack of trying, but rather poor writing and character development that seals Canary’s fate. In what world is Dinah Lance hanging around with Black Mask and doing his bidding? She’s making deliveries with Victor Zsasz now? Birds of Prey takes plenty of creative license, but this one just feels unbelievable and more of a way to shove Canary into the mix of a film that she, in all honesty, should be the central character of.
Smollett-Bell is powerful and commanding as the film reaches its climax, showing off Canary’s powerful screams and martial prowess. But it feels too little, too late. The hour before that, we’d seen Canary reduced to nothing more than Black Mask’s conflicted henchman, a woman that seemed powerless to him, throwing herself into bathrooms to frantically call Montoya (Rosie Perez) for help.
Perez does Renee Montoya justice, perfectly capturing the tired and under-appreciated cop with a sharp eye. Just like Canary, however, Montoya seems thrown into the mix without rhyme or reason. Why her over an actual Birds of Prey team member (like say, Barbara Gordon?) The film picks and chooses some of DC’s most memorable female characters and puts them all together. There’s just not enough runtime to give all these characters the attention they deserve.
The fact that other huge characters, like Batman and the Joker himself, are noticeably absent, leave the film feeling like a crazy fan mashup rather than an actual story going on in Gotham. (But who would play Batman? Or the Joker? With so many reboots and different castings, even DC executives couldn’t tell you.)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the highlight of the Birds as Huntress. While much of Huntress’ role in the film hinges on her backstory and family lineage, scenes with Winstead are at times powerful, at times funny, and always enjoyable. There’s just a lack of these scenes though, as Birds of Prey focuses on Harley and the action at hand, once again dismissing titular characters in the hopes of a sequel where the ‘Birds of Prey’ can actually come online and star in the film.
Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina portray Roman Sionis (Black Mask) and Victor Zsasz respectively, giving the film its antagonists. McGregor brings eerily similar quirks to his character as Jared Leto’s Joker, showing parallels between controlling, villainous men. The problems with Roman Sionis and the leading ladies’ resistance is that it’s entirely there because the story would have no villain otherwise. Of the Russian roulette of people who want Harley dead, the storytelling department spun and landed on Black Mask, and that was that. Sionis’ motivations for going after Harley feel superficial, and his attachment to the diamonds and ruling Gotham feels hollow as well.
While characters like Harley are written to bring empathy to characters that toe the line between villainy and heroism, Black Mask’s inclusion and driving factors feels very generic. Could this have been any other of Gotham’s bad, villainous evil-doers? Sure, and the film wouldn’t have changed much for it, either. The (likely intended to be comedic) homosexual undertones to the relationship of Sionis and Zsasz also feels unnecessary, once again reducing coded gay characters as dangerous villains.
Technically, Birds of Prey feels unremarkable as well. Action scenes are tight and well-edited, but the entire film feels more photographic than cinematic. It captures things succinctly, on par with a typical comedy or action film, but nowhere near the cinematic beauty of a film like Wonder Woman (or even like Deadpool, a Marvel film it seems to borrow from.)
The film does shine in its costuming and soundtrack. All of Harley’s outfits are beautiful and zany, on brand with the character. Canary and Huntress wear modern womenswear clearly inspired by their comic counterparts. Sionis is every bit the wealthy Gotham crime lord in his various suits and robes. Music throughout the film is a high point, bringing life to scenes with great artists like Doja Cat and Saweetie. It’s very much what Harley would get down to.
Is Birds of Prey a highlight of the DC Extended Universe? Sadly not, but its an enjoyable ride despite its flaws. It’s thanks to Robbie’s hilarious performance and the film’s wild and ruthless violence that give Birds of Prey its comic nature. Go into Birds of Prey as a Harley Quinn film that introduces the Birds of Prey at the end, rather than a film about the Birds of Prey, because that’s what it is. It’s all Harley, all action and laughs, but for the iconic team, the Birds themselves deserved better. Here’s hoping that one day, comic fans will get to enjoy the Birds of Prey they’ve come to know and love.