The character of Harley Quinn was initially written to be in a handful of episodes of “Batman: The Animated Series” in the 1990s. But audiences loved her so much that she became a recurring character, with her own backstory. She was eventually written into the DC Batman comics.
Recent movies featuring Harley have not done her justice. Actress Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, I, Tonya), for all her passion and dedication to the character, could only do so much when written as mere eye candy in a pair of short-shorts.
Enter director Cathy Yan, with Robbie co-producing on “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey.”
An orphaned girl in Gotham City who worked through college and earned a Ph.D., Harley was the psychiatrist of Batman’s nemesis, The Joker. With sympathy for the villain, she develops romantic feelings for him and they start a relationship.
“Birds of Prey” starts right after The Joker ends things with Harley permanently. Suddenly, everyone who Harley has ever wronged sees her as a target. The police, bounty hunters—they all have a bone to pick now that she is “unprotected.”
The film presents Harley as a layered character. She is still goofy—adopting a hyena and naming it Bruce—but also witty and self-aware. She is reactionary, always making bad calls… but she learns from her mistakes and grows. We finally get to meet the “real” Harley Quinn: without The Joker, someone independent with smarts to boot.
But “Birds of Prey” is not just about Harley. The film features a cast of diverse women: Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a cynical police detective who tries to build a case against crime lord Roman Sions (Ewan McGregor), a.k.a. Black Mask; Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who adopts the persona of The Huntress to avenge her family after they were killed; and Dinah Lance (Jumbo Smollett-Bell), The Black Canary, who has the super-ability of hypersonic screams.
The women all have one thing in common: They are underestimated by people (especially the men) around them. And eventually, they find themselves needing to team up to protect a young girl named Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco) from Black Mask and his crew.
“Birds of Prey” is unlike any superhero film of recent years. It is similar to “Deadpool” with its R-rating and snarky first-person point of view, but it also stands on its own as something fresh. The fighting sequences are gritty and real, but playful and creative. The actresses excel at balancing humor with more dramatic moments.
My only qualm with the movie, aside from a few pacing problems, is its villain, Black Mask. The best villains are the ones that are complex, with interesting origin stories. Black Mask is one-dimensional and flat. At times I wondered if his henchman, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) would turn out to be the actual mastermind.
That aside, McGregor’s creepy portrayal was effective enough for everyone in the theater to cheer when he finally met his demise at the hands of Harley and the girls.
“Birds of Prey” has been struggling at the box office, most likely due to poor marketing strategies (Warner Bros. actually changed the film’s name after its disappointing opening weekend). Despite positive reviews from critics and fans, there will probably not be a sequel.
And that makes me sad, because we need more films like this. There is no doubt that female-led movies can do well, but breaking into the science fiction/superhero genre is another story. Movies like “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel” experienced a good amount of ridicule compared to other (worse) DC and Marvel films.
I hope that Yan and Robbie don’t take to heart the not-so-stellar box office sales, because they definitely created something special with “Birds of Prey.” It signals a shift in its genre and a development for women in film. If only we could get the marketing execs on board, as well.
For now, I will stand strong with my girls.
I’m with Harley.
Runtime: 109 minutes
Rating: R (language, violence)