2020 could be said to be the year of the superheroine. Later in the year, Marvel debuts it’s second movie with a female lead as we learn more (posthumously, sort of) about the Avenger Black Widow. DC will release a sequel to its smash hit Wonder Woman, with more adventures of the Amazonian Princess. But before we get to those, there’s a mixture of heroes and villains in Gotham City with Birds of Prey. Or Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. Or Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.
They make a few interesting choices for this film, whatever it’s called. It’s the first DCEU movie with an R rating. Honestly, this probably played a part in the opening weekend’s box office not being as high as they hoped. They also made some radical changes to some characters, while being amazingly close to the comic book versions in others, and doing some hybrids with still others. And, despite the characters being so closely linked, Joker is mentioned but never appears in the movie.
Much of the movie is narrated by the crazed central character, Harley Quinn. Listening to a stream of consciousness that attempts to explain things from Harley is entertaining, if a bit incoherent. Harley breaks up with the Joker, which propels a good bit of the plot. As she has various misadventures, there’s a missing diamond, a ruthless crimelord, and a curious collection of characters slowly drawn together. Slowly cohering around Harley are: Detective Rene Montoya, GCPD detective with a long list of personal problems (another character created for Batman: The Animated Series like Harley herself, who in the comics becomes the second Question); Huntress, a crossbow wielding vigilante who more or less shares an origin with the Punisher (in the comics, Helena Bertinelli is the second Huntress, the first being the child of Earth 2’s Batman and Catwoman); Black Canary, a singer in a nightclub with a lot more going on than it seems (actually done fairly closely to her comic book history), and Cassandra Cain (an awesome character in the comics who shares only her name with the movie version).
With a lot of comic asides and a huge amount of violence (I admit, I winced a few times, rare for me at a movie), the women come together to face off against Roman Sionis, AKA Black Mask, a minor Batman villain. In the comics, he did actually manage to kill one of the various Gotham City vigilantes, although she came back from the dead as such characters are wont to do. While the woman initially have competing agendas, they finally come together more or less in the interests of survival. They take the movie in a lot of unexpected directions (the jail break/wet t-shirt contest/drug use scene was a surprise), tweak a lot of origins, but tell a very entertaining story. Harley gets one of the pair of hyenas she’s often seen with in the cartoon, and several of the characters end up at least close to their comic book looks at various points.
If you like strong female characters, this is the movie for you. Unfortunately, they have some balance issues. Black Mask/Sionis seems comparatively weak and easily manipulated. He gets some good scenes and some decent lines, but no effective fighting at all. His right-hand man, Victor Zsasz, is sort of more annoying than menacing. I think Anthony Carrigan did a much better portrayal of the character on the Gotham series. I’ll give them a lot of points for good writing, some great humor, and truly fantastic action sequences. Margot Robbie was brilliant as Harley, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell was fantastic as Black Canary. Mary Elizabeth Winstead played Huntress as a wonderful fighter with zero social skills, and Rosie Perez was an interesting Rene Montoya, with some complex issues in her life. No disrespect to the actress, but Ella Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain was just kinda there, and more a McGuffin than a character for much of the movie.
What I liked: Most of the actors did a great job. The action and fighting were fantastic. I laughed out loud several times. Robbie and Smollett-Bell gave stand-out performances. There were some nice nods to the characters’ comic backgrounds and histories. There were even some ties to Suicide Squad. Harley is strongly implied to be bi, which was nice to see, and they didn’t shy away from Rene’s history as a lesbian (she dated Batwoman in the comics).
What I didn’t: If you’re going to set a movie in Gotham, and admit Batman exists, you need to explain his absence. Even if it’s just a passing news story about the Justice League being on the other side of the planet fighting some big villain, do something. Ditto Commissioner Gordon with so much GCPD involvement. I have no idea why they named this character Cassandra Cain and then made her generic street thief girl. Cass has an amazing background in the comics and is hell on wheels, not squeaking and running for help. A few scenes just didn’t play if you thought about them for more than a second (I know, I know, don’t think about it). Batgirl/Oracle is arguably the heart and soul of the Birds, and never even got a mention.
Despite my gripes above, I really enjoyed this movie. I’d love to see more of most of the characters, and would get behind a real Birds of Prey movie (as in, not Harley and…). I’m giving this a high 3.5 out of 5.
It’s a lot of fun and well worth seeing. I just wish they’d done a few things better.