Everyone hates Harley Quinn. At least, that’s where Cathy Yan’s ambitious “Birds of Prey” starts: Margot Robbie’s glitter-loving anti-heroine is attempting to pick up the pieces after being kicked to the curb by the Joker, forced to carve out a new life for herself without the built-in protection of Gotham’s biggest baddie, and struggling to find her place in a world eager to divide its brassiest characters into “good” and “bad.” Yan’s film, written by “Bumblebee” scribe Christina Hodson, imagines a vivid and very human new origin story for Harley Quinn, resulting in a necessary reinvention that adds dimension and depth to one of the DC Expanded Universe’s most distinctive characters.
Yet Harley’s titular emancipation — the film’s subtitle is the wordy, if honest “And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” — still takes a backseat to franchise conventions, from the good eye-popping fight scenes, a cast of thrilling new heroines, wacky villains to the cloying still more glitter, awkward coincidences and the bad disjointed plotting and a messy narrative.
Yan and Hodson get the boring stuff out of the way first: a zippy opening number does away with the Joker and finds Harley hurtling through roller derbies, bonding with other gals over big-ass margaritas, and still finding the time to indulge in plenty of petty crime. Of course, everyone hates her, including the four women who will eventually form a loose, eponymous alliance with its lawbreaking protagonist. This reluctant support group mainly exists to prop up Harley’s wise cracks and wildest ideas; this is very much a girl-powered endeavor, one that plays up Harley’s worst attributes in the process.
Robbie walks a fine line, tasked with making Harley lovable and annoying, grating but sincere, worthy of redemption but not always willing to work for it. Just as she did in “Suicide Squad,” she succeeds at conveying this tricky balance, with a multi-facted “superhero” character uninterested in the status quo and wholly detached from the idea that someone needs to be “good” in order to do good. Untethered from the Joker and the protection he provided, Harley needs to make her own way to survive, and “Birds of Prey” digs into that concept with gusto, mining it for heady ideas about patriarchy, feminism, and how the world treats its women not very well.
Harley may be a tough cookie, but she’s not the only one, and “Birds of Prey” introduces other gifted and often maligned women to join her on a unexpected quest. These include tough-talking Black Canary Jurnee Smollett-Bell, who only gets better as the film goes on, pint-sized criminal genius Cassandra Cain a winning Ella Jay Basco, revenge-driven Huntress Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and complicated cop Renee Montoya Rosie Perez. Eventually, the group must unite to take down the maniacal and manically scenery-chewing Roman Sionis a wonderfully over the top Ewan McGregor who has evil designs that threaten all of them, including kid Cassandra. McGregor gets his own queasy, wacky sidekick in an also wonderfully over the top Chris Messina.
Much has been made online of a moment in which Harley hands one of her compatriots a hair tie during a big battle, a nifty poke at both other female-driven action films that think anyone can deliver an ass-kicking with her hair flying around her face and similar stories happy to keep their ladies shut off from each other. It sounds cutesy, but in practice, the scene exemplifies how its star characters really operate: by understanding each other’s needs even if they don’t get along. This is a movie in which its central group isn’t assembled by choice or affection, but necessity — a movie with super-powered women who don’t embody superhero ethos. Candy-colored, glitter-covered, and with a generous dash of top-notch fashion, “Birds of Prey” presents a spiky ernative to its franchise brethren, but its desire to break out of a long-set mold leads to its own awkward complications.
Despite Harley’s previous introduction as the Joker’s girlfriend and her starring appearance in “Suicide Squad,” “Birds of Prey” is eager to place the character in her own context, with only a few winking mentions made to her earlier life. Fans looking for a cameo appearance by Jared Leto need not strain their eyes, because while his Joker — or “Mr. J” in Harley parlance — appears in scattered flashbacks, his presence is only telegraphed via back-of-the-head shots of a stand-in sporting an acid green wig. It’s a smart choice, though rendered in strange terms: The film is gleefully untethered from its franchise reality, but also juggles plenty of illogical moments that nip at Harley’s studded heels at every turn.
It’s hard to ascertain if some of the film’s narrative missteps are the product of bad editing or shoddy writing — or perhaps both in one messy stew. While Harley fires off a quick summation of her life to date including references to saving the world with the ill-fated Suicide Squad, a few stints in jail, and breaking out of the clink multiple times, it never comes back to bite her. Everyone in Gotham knows who she is, where she is, and what she’s done again: they hate her, but danger only comes calling in the form of Sionis, Messina’s nutso Zsasz, and a handful of assorted angry baddies. Yes, Gotham’s cops might be lacking, but “Birds of Prey” stretches that concept to unbelievable ends. At one point, Harley and her young charge hole up in her tiny apartment, where she assumes no one will ever think to find her. Harley? Hello? It’s your apartment!
Even the film’s conclusion — offering both sewn-up satisfaction and the inevitable open door for other franchise adventures — is marred by a weirdo break in logic that could have been fixed with some swapped pages or more coherent editing. It’s a strange place to leave a film that unites its disparate parts with a gutsy, entertaining climax, but the violent finale ultimately gives way to a head-scratching finish. Perhaps audiences will still be so high on the film’s final action sequence, a delightfully unhinged battle that takes place at a dilapidated carnival so perfect for Harley’s funhouse brand that they won’t notice how shakily it all wraps up.
The divide between new Harley and old Harley also seeps into the film’s production design, which does away with much of the grit and grime of recent Gotham takes it’s not the claustrophobic hell of “Joker,” or the stratified seriousness of Christopher Nolan’s films for something more grounded. Other Gothams have used Chicago-influenced design as a stand-in for Manhattan, while Yan’s version is even further removed: It looks like London suburbs by way of a Queens stand-in for Manhattan. As with other choices in the film, it goes down easier once you look past it. A zippy chase scene early in the film, involving Harley, a tasty breakfast sandwich, and a pack of pissed-off adversaries helps sell the charms of a more real-world Gotham and its possibilities for mayhem.
Some of the bugs, however, might be actual features: Winstead’s self-serious, mafia-bred, crossbow-toting Huntress appears to be ripped out of another movie entirely, but her apparent mismatch speaks to something deeper about “Birds of Prey.” This is a movie about people who would never and perhaps should never embrace the prospects of a tired superhero identity. Harley is the last person who would adopt such a moniker for herself, and even Renee Montoya, a career hero, is forced to work so outside the normal confines of law-abiding goodness that she resists easy categorization.
There’s a strange tension to “Birds of Prey” that never fully abates, a resistance to its core ideas that often comes up short. However, the buzzwords still apply: It’s a girl-powered, earnestly feminist superhero movie with big, implausible action sequences and outsized personalities, and while it never quite reaches that potential, it does begin to map out a fresh path to the world-worn arena of superhero narratives. It may not be the promised total emancipation at least not yet, but it is fantabulous in its own way.