These days, it seems Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy gets unwarranted flak, as people claim it kickstarted the popularity of “dark and gritty” takes on comic book super heroes. I have to disagree. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films simply took themselves seriously. Batman, his villains, and the world of Gotham City are relatively darker and (usually) more grounded than the usual super hero fare, so Nolan’s films leaned into that, and they successfully gave audiences a more mature super hero world. But they never featured gratuitous violence and gore. They didn’t fill half the dialogue with F-bombs just to look cool. Those are the kind of cringeworthy “dark and gritty” elements that comic books themselves have utilized for decades, as the medium was taken over by man-children who thought adding blood, swearing and sex automatically made things grown up (in actuality, their execution only made comic books more immature). Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were mature simply by embracing its mythology as something serious, and really don’t deserve to be lumped into the same category as the “edgier” comic book stuff whose understanding of maturity is about equal to that of a teenage boy cussing out a bunch of kids on Xbox Live.
Suffice to say, Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t one of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. Despite the movie receiving some acclaim upon its early 2020 release, Birds of Prey ends up being little more than a showcase of those supposedly adult comic book elements that only end up having an opposite effect. This is what I think of when I hear the words “dark and gritty” used negatively.
Go ahead and call me a prude or say I’m being oversensitive or whatever, but I find it to be more eye-rolling than funny when Harley Quinn takes a whiff of some cocaine during a shootout so she can go “full crazy” and shoot her enemy’s brains out. And I don’t think any movie set in the same world as Batman needs to have a scene in which the villain murders a rival gangster and his family by peeling their faces off. But it’s just so edgy and cool, right?
It all becomes exhausting, really. And it’s made all the more exhausting by the fact that the screen is continuously bombarded by various graphics. You know, like a character being introduced with a graphic of their name, and then a bunch of doodles and jokes drawn on and around them like a college sketchbook. The kind of thing that was fun when Scott Pilgrim did it way back when, but now is just the go-to trope for movies that think themselves quirky and irreverent. It’s just soOooOo wacky!
The story here is that Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has broken up with the Joker. Because she’s been so strongly associated with the Joker, no other criminal in Gotham City would dare cross her, no matter how often she crossed them, lest they invoke Joker’s wrath. But after Harley foolishly lets the whole city know that she and “Mistah J” are no longer a thing in a public display by blowing up the chemical plant where Joker finalized Harleen Quinzel’s transformation into Harley Quinn, Gotham City’s criminals are all too happy to put a bounty on her head. Most notably Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan “Hello There!” McGregor), who has a vendetta with Quinn.
Harley then becomes entangled in a chase for a valuable diamond, which is embedded with the account numbers of the wealthy Bertinelli mob family, who were murdered years ago. A young pickpocket, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) swipes the diamond from Sionis’ right hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), making her Sionis’ new number one target. Cassandra swallows the diamond to hide it (with the film never missing the opportunity for an easy poop joke as to how she’ll reclaim the diamond later), and soon bumps into Harley. Being the targets of practically every gangster in Gotham City, Harley and Cassandra become partners in crime, hoping to pull one over Sionis and Zsasz and use the diamond to make a new life for themselves.
Along the way, Harley also makes allies/enemies/frenemies with Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett), a singer at a night club owned by Sionis; Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), an alcoholic, disillusioned detective; and Helena/The Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who is known by others as the “Crossbow Killer.” Together, the group forms the titular Birds of Prey.
But do they though? Despite the movie being called “Birds of Prey,” it’s really more about Harley Quinn than it is the group of characters as a whole. Suicide Squad also highlighted Quinn, but it at least felt like a proper team of characters. Here, Harley Quinn is front and center, with the others occasionally getting mixed up in her shenanigans (Huntress in particular seems forgotten about for large stretches of the film, mostly coming across as a side plot as the Crossbow Killer until the finale). There’s nothing innately wrong with the idea of a Harley Quinn movie, and Margot Robbie is good in the role, but it is a little odd how the movie acts like it’s built around this team of anti-heroes, even though it’s only really interested in one of them. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that when the film struggled at the box office, Warner Bros. created the alternate title of Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey and changed the film’s marketing accordingly.
Though it may stumble in regards to the overall team, I do admit I like the idea of Harley Quinn’s story. She’s dedicated her life to the villainous Joker, and others perceived her to be merely an extension of him. Now that she’s free of the Joker, Harley is determined to prove her independence and make a name for herself. But of course she’s still crazy and a criminal and all that, so it’s a fun setup that should allow for character growth, at least in theory. Though it probably would have been more impactful if we properly saw her relationship with the Joker in a previous film, instead of just the bits and pieces Suicide Squad teased. But the DC Extended Universe is so hellbent on catching up to Marvel’s movies that these DC movies can’t be bothered to tell full stories, and just hope the legacies of these characters from other media can fill in the finer details.
Like past DCEU films, the cast is strong even if the script is not. Particular praise goes to Margot Robbie, who’s allowed to do more with Harley Quinn as a character than she was in Suicide Squad; and to Ewan McGregor, who makes Sionis a flamboyant psychopath and narcissist. Though even with these performances, these characters might becoming straining after a while. It’s almost like they could have given more time to the other Birds of Prey to give us the occasional reprieve or something.
Despite the highlights, I really can’t recommend Birds of Prey. Whatever good the film does manage to produce is drowned by its sheer joylessness. Instead of reflecting the chaos and bedlam of its heroine, it’s just a formulaic superhero outing but removed of just about all of the genre’s usual entertainment value (I admit the final action set piece, in which the film actually becomes a Birds of Prey movie, is decently fun. Though by then it’s too little, too late). What could have been an anarchic anti-superhero movie instead feels empty, with all the aforementioned graphics thrown on the screen a shallow attempt to make us think the movie has some semblance of invention. Then add the film’s many desperate attempts to earn that “hard R” rating, and it feels like even more padding to a movie that otherwise has nothing to it.
Harley Quinn can be a fun character. It’s possible there could be a good Harley Quinn movie somewhere down the road. But Birds of Prey certainly isn’t it.