Cinema Dispatch: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

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Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures

Directed by Cathy Yan

I was probably on the kinder end of things than most people when it came to Suicide Squad; the DCCU’s attempt to be fun and wacky that ended up having all the edge of a limited edition holo-foil issue of Spawn from 1994.  In its own tacky cobbled together way it did manage to eek out a bit of charm, but what people mostly remember from the movie was the performances; namely one Harley Quinn played with gusto by the phenomenal Margot Robbie.  Now that we’re more or less in DCCU 2.0, it makes sense for this character to be given another shot away from the baggage of the movie that came before; even from the studio itself as Robbie basically put this thing together with Warner Bros maintaining a mostly hands off approach.  Is this the breakout hit that Warner Bros has been hoping for yet could never make themselves, or is this a desperate Hail Mary that misses by a mile?  Let’s find out!!

Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie) has had a rough go of it lately.  She grew up with scary nuns, she had a string of bad relationships, she did at least get her college degree and became a psychiatrist but even THAT didn’t work out when she met some dude in clown makeup, and on top of that she had to fight a an ancient demon witch person or else have a bomb explode in her neck!  Fortunately she’s out of prison and she even dumped the clown dude so she’s ready to start her life anew!  A new pet, roller derby, and COPIOUS amounts of alcohol to deal with the unresolved feelings that she’s left with now that she’s single and away from the clown that made her life miserable.  BUT ENOUGH ABOUT DAVID AYER (Ba-dum-tiss!), with the Joker in her rearview mirror it has given her a lot more freedom but also the ire of ALL the people they screwed over in the past, and as the one on the short end of this breakup some of them are ready to take their vengeance!  One such vengeance taker is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) who’s a mid-range mob boss with a hot temper, enough toxic masculinity to smother ALL the adorable baby ducklings of the world, and an alter ego just one step below Taser Face; BLACK MASK!  Complete with second rate Die Hardman cosplay!  Him and his associate Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) are not only after Harley but ALSO after a diamond that somehow ended up in the hands of a young street hustler named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) and so perhaps there’s a way to kill two birds with one stone there, and on top of ALL that we also have a singer at Victor’s club named Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) who’s looking for a way out of the life, a mysterious crossbow killer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who’s hunting down gangsters, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) who’s stuck trying to untangle all these messy knots.  Will Harley Quinn escape the payback that’s owed to her after working with the Joker for so long?  Why is Roman so intent on getting this diamond, and who else may be gunning for it?  Why DO they end up calling themselves the Birds of Prey anyway?

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“What, you don’t think it sounds cool and intimidating?”     “Hey, as long as you don’t put a bomb in my neck, I’m fine with anything!”

The saving grace of Suicide Squad, as well as one of its biggest faults, was the over the top theatricality and style that brought a lot of color to it but ultimately felt like a surface level veneer; like putting delicious frosting on a burnt cake.  This movie meanwhile gets all of that right from the word go as the very bones of it are complementary to the tone and style they wish to set which allows for a more interesting cinematic eye throughout.  Something that caught my eye early was a scene where Harley caused an explosion that’s all primary colors and fireworks, but later on when we see it from another character’s perspective it’s all smoke, fire, and a sickly orange glow.  That’s something that would have had to be planned out all the way back at the scripting level and this attention to detail is present throughout the movie.  It’s a remarkable amount of discipline on display for a movie that tries so hard to come across as loose and breezy and ultimately that’s why this movie succeeded.  It’s a love letter to a character and a style that until now the DCCU has only seen in terms of added marketability rather than something that lies at the heart of a greater vision.  A vision that’s ultimately a little shallow here and a little scattershot there, but it’s so endearing with what it’s trying to do which is certainly not what you could say about Suicide Squad, Man or Steel, or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Indifference.

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“SAVE… THE MOZERALLLLAAAAAA!!”

The film pulls from a lot of familiar places, but manages to make it its own. It has a whole lot of Deadpool; its humor, its structure and even some of its budgetary shortcuts. The action scenes feel like a PROPER evolution of the Zack Snyder slow-mo style that remembers to have fun with it and to exploit the level of complexity that you can incorporate when the camera gives the audience a chance to take it all in. There’s a scene in a police evidence locker (one that’s the size of a warehouse) that does a great job of incorporating its environment into the action and the part where Harley gets her bat is harder hitting and more gratifying than anything Batman and Superman have done in their DCCU films.  This also extends to the character work where previous films weighed everything down in bloviated grandeur, and while we’ve thankfully been getting away from that with Shazam being a mostly irreverent but still a fun and relatable action comedy, this one goes even further in that direction and manages to find the middle ground between bombastic self-aggrandizement (both the goofy kind like in Suicide Squad and the serious kind in Batman v Superman), and personally compelling drama.  It’s a movie ABOUT shirking expectations put upon you, with Harley having to contend with no longer being seen as untouchable and part of the big leagues to instead carve out a path for herself and get out from under the shadow that’s been hanging over her; both as someone connected to The Joker and her place in this very messy film franchise.  It’s a compelling selling point and gets invested not just in Harley’s character but all the other women in here who may have wildly different circumstances but contend with these issues in their own way as well.

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“What’s your deal?”     “My parents are dead.”     “WHAT!?  MY PARENTS ARE DEAD TOO!!”     “FOR REAL!?”     “DID THESE TWO JUST BECOME BEST FRIENDS!?”

Since we’re talking about the overriding themes of the movie, we might as well get into the villains who are huge cans of worms in both good and bad ways.  Now the while GURL POWER, pop punk aesthetic of the movie is kind of shallow but jaunty enough to stay engaging even if it doesn’t have much depth.  The villains being radiating symbols of toxic masculinity work in much the same way, which makes it both really biting commentary but also REALLY uncomfortable to sit through at points.  Ewan McGregor is fantastic at playing the least likable monster you’ve ever seen in a movie who despite his wealth, nominal good looks, and power, comes off as the most whiny and simpering douche-nozzle you could ever be unfortunate enough to encounter.  His outsized ego is matched only by his simpering self-pitying which frankly is an aspect of toxic masculinity that doesn’t get enough attention; the sheer ego-centrism of it and how the smallest roadblocks to their privilege is more than they can handle.  Too often toxic dudes in media are either overbearing tough guys with no moral code or simply jokes at internet trolls and the like, when in reality it’s all the same mentality.  Black Mask’s insistence on getting everything that’s owed to him and his utter insecurity at every turn is what makes him utterly pathetic but ultimately dangerous.  Well… sort of, and this is where his character loses me a bit.  There are scenes where he does use his wealth and power to be a disturbing scumbag to people and harms them in horrifying ways, but he still doesn’t feel like a genuine threat to the SUPER HEROES in this movie; the same way a mugger is terrifying to the victim but just another box to tick on Batman’s nightly to do list.  This does feel intentional however as Chris Messina does have a bit of danger to him as Black Mask’s right hand man who funnels his hurt man-feelings into sadistic glee rather than petulant rage, but it still doesn’t feel like quite enough for the movie to hang it’s central conflict on even if it DOES end in jaw dropping spectacular fashion.  Seriously, the crescendo of the climax of this movie was good enough that I wanted to clap then and there in the movie, so clearly they had a solid idea of what to do with these characters but MAYBE could have used a bit of fine tuning here and there.

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“What do you want to do today?”     “I don’t know, use our positions of power in a patriarchal society to hurt women?”     “Are you serious!?  THAT’S WHAT I WAS GONNA SAY!!”

Also if you are in this to see a Bird’s of Prey movie, well it’s TECHNICALLY in there but only as we get towards the third act. It certainly makes sense as only one of these characters had been established prior to this movie, but it does feel a bit all over the place as we have to cut back and forth between perspectives (as well as tones) to make sure everyone is up to date on the players involved. To that end there’s a bit of clunkiness at the start of the second act where they literally do the LET’S REWIND TO SEE HOW WE GOT HERE cliche, and it’s strictly for expository reasons. If you’re going to do something like that then it helps if it recontextualizes what we’ve seen up to now, but all it does is explain it because it was the best way they could think of to get the big action scene earlier in the film.  Aside from that, The Huntress doesn’t have a lot of screen time and her backstory is breezed through, and despite Casandra Cain being in the movie quite a bit I didn’t find myself enjoying the way she was written all that much; alternating between a so-so wiseass and a walking McGuffin without much in terms of agency in the plot.

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“Stick with me kid!  Who knows?  Maybe one day you’ll grow up to be Batgirl!”     “Sure, like THAT’LL ever happen.”

Just like with Suicide Squad, this film’s saving grace may also be its biggest flaw; namely how much it wants to be a fresh start for these characters and this branch of the DCCU.  I really enjoy the direction that this is going in and the movie itself is a whole lot of fun, but trying to build something from the ground up either requires the deftest of screenwriting chops or a willingness to strain the narrative here and there to fit everything in, and I think this falls somewhere in the middle.  The characters are well fleshed out for the most part and the story in and of itself stays compelling throughout, but it buckles a bit under the pressure of fitting EVERYTHING in and tying it up with a neat little bow.  Perhaps a slightly less on the nose villain would have minimized the flaws a bit, but warts and all it’s still a heck of a good time and one of the best entries in the DCCU canon to date.  I definitely recommend checking this one out, especially if you have any fondness for the DCCU films or Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn in particular.  Hopefully this is only the beginning as the door is wide open for a sequel and it’d be a shame to throw away all the hard work this film did to build these characters up to just toss them in the bin.  Then again that’s what they did with The Suicide Squad, so who knows what the plan is going forward?  Maybe they’ll just fuse it all together and have Margot Robbie beat the crap out of Arthur Fleck in the sequel!  See, THAT’S a movie that could earn an Oscar!

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