Harley Quinn, last seen walking into a witch fight with a baseball bat, has a broken heart. And look: Break-ups suck. We all know that. Sometimes you lose yourself in a relationship, only to lose the relationship too — and then you come out the other side and realize you’re even more lost. Those kind of break-ups are messy and complicated, but they’re also… common. They’re hardly the stuff of capes-and-tights adventures, unless of course you happen to break up with a dude known around town as the “Clown Prince Of Crime.” Which brings me to Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, a downright refreshing entry in the current glut of comic book movies. The movie is a shiny glitter bomb of violence where a talented few team up against a nefarious mastermind, just as you would expect — yet all of that is secondary to the story of Harley getting her groove back.
Well, except for the violence. And the actual glitter bombs. Those probably deserve equal billing with Harley’s broken heart.
Birds of Prey picks up sometime after the events of 2016’s Suicide Squad, though you don’t really need to have seen Harley’s previous outing to get the gist of what’s going on. All you need to know is that Harley Quinn’s relationship with the Joker was so toxic she literally jumped in a vat of chemicals for him, and that Margot Robbie as Harley stole every scene she was in — which is presumably why we’re getting a Harley movie before anything starring Deadshot, Killer Croc, or Jared Leto’s take on the Joker (*shudder*). In fact, other than its penchant for introducing every new character with a quirky title card, Birds of Prey owes practically nothing to its predecessor. Instead, it pulls inspiration from the reliably unreliable R-rated antics of Deadpool, the chaotic independent streak of Tank Girl, and even the candy-colored set design of the Schumacher-era Batman movies — and I mean that as a compliment! More importantly, the film also sets itself apart from the rest of the DC/Marvel pack by keeping the stakes low, the morals questionable, and the emotions all-too real. The world is not in danger, and Harley is nobody’s hero. The Joker has dumped her, and Birds of Prey lets Harley be an uncomfortably volatile, unapologetic mess of a woman trying to find her way back onto her own two feet again.
While Harley runs from the collected bloody grievances of every Gotham City lowlife she pissed off during her time with her Puddin’, she crosses paths with Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a.k.a. Black Canary, a lounge singer with a powerful voice who is stuck under the thumb of Roman Sionis, a sadistic crime lord played by a downright gleeful Ewan McGregor. Sionis has been maiming his way around Gotham with the help of his moody henchman/ maybe lover Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), looking for a diamond with some bank details on it. Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is the only cop who seems to know or care what Sionis is planning, so naturally her credit-hogging boss kicks her off the case. Meanwhile, everybody is SOL when a pubescent pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) inadvertently snatches the precious gem first. Oh, and there’s also a mysterious woman going around killing other crime bosses with a crossbow. She’s called, well, the Crossbow Killer, though she calls herself the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and the reason she’s on this crusade of vengeance ties directly to the diamond as well. If that sounds like a lot to keep up with, then don’t worry — Harley does her damndest to confuse things with a persistent narration that constantly presses pause and rewind on the proceedings. If anyone was still wondering why a movie that establishes the bulk of the crime-fighting Birds of Prey team would need that full clunker of a title, then the narration reminds you that the team’s origin is purely coincidental. This is most definitely Harley’s movie, and she’s the one telling the story.
Luckily there’s no time to get upset about some of the film’s more heavy-handed tics or lapses in logic, because it’s all so much fun. The action is a constant spectacle, mixing acrobatic fisticuffs with cartoonish flourishes. It’s also, for what it’s worth, one of the prettiest damn movies I’ve seen in awhile. More importantly, though, director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson have a knack for knowing which beats to dwell on, and which to skip nimbly through. The film wisely sidesteps any deep exploration of Sionis’s psyche or evil plan, nor does it bother explaining his villainous alter-ego, Black Mask, beyond establishing that he… likes masks. On the other hand, the movie builds a real emotional investment in Harley’s prize breakfast sandwich throughout a chase scene, leading to a demise that hit me harder than actual character deaths I’ve witnessed. It takes time out of the action to let Harley lend Dinah a hair tie. There’s even an ongoing gag involving Cassandra needing, and not being able to, take a dump. For plot reasons! Poop plot!
Is that gross? Sorry, but that’s kind of the charm of this movie. It’s obvious the ways in which Harley is stepping out of the shadow of the predominant man in her life, but to differing degrees that’s the same journey all the characters are on. These are women who defy expectations, who strafe in the confines of the boxes prescribed to them, and that includes our expectations as an audience. Not a single one of these women is noble. They can be selfish or cowardly or cruel. They can be hungover and hungry. They’re perpetually underestimated, yet they can also be incompetent! One interesting through-line is Harley’s outlandish luck: for every battle she handily wins there’s another where she would have been toast if it weren’t for some timely outside intervention. Dinah struggles between her conscience and her desire to survive. Huntress has nothing in her life but revenge. Montoya is a capable, bitter alcoholic. The movie is at its best when it lets them be themselves, and unlike Suicide Squad, every one of these women, and the actresses who portray them, could sustain their own spinoff. Though comic books fans may be disappointed to see a very not-Batgirl version of Cassandra on screen, I loved that her character became a sort of embodiment of the importance of representation. We talk about how necessary it is for kids to see themselves reflected in the media, and here is a girl who, as a main character, is surrounded by the kinds of complex, difficult women we need more of in our movies — and better yet, we watch her learn and grow through that association (what she learns is a whole other matter…).
Still, I wouldn’t call this a movie about the power of friendship either. The inevitable team-up is purely a matter of necessity and happenstance — and that’s fine by me. Women don’t have to like each other to support each other. Solidarity doesn’t always have to require emotional ties, and sisterhood can be forged in the face of mutual enemies. Every character in the movie has their own self-serving reason to stand up against Sionis, but they also recognize they can’t face him alone. They’re not fighting for each other, but they will fight alongside one other.
While this is the story of Harley’s emancipation, it is most definitely not about her redemption. She is, by her own admission, a terrible person, and she doesn’t want to be better. She just needs to find a way to be terrible on her own terms. What Birds of Prey really gets right is the difference between codependence and independence. It isn’t a binary, or a switch to be flipped. Being broken-hearted isn’t the same as being broken, and being independent doesn’t automatically mean you’re strong. It’s OK to need help. Sometimes in order to stand on our own, we need somebody to help pull us up. Or at the very least a good, greasy egg sandwich.