Birds of Prey was directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson. Set after the events of 2016’s Suicide Squad (which I still haven’t seen, and probably won’t at this point), the film tells the story of how Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) teams up with Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) to protect young Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) from a crime lord named Black Mask (Ewan McGregor).
Listen, I’m not one to take sides in this DC fandom versus Marvel fandom crap that has been going on for way too long. That said, since the end of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, it’s hard for me to point to a DC film that I really liked enough that I’m still frequently re-watching it. That statement, I’m kind of surprised to say three years later, includes Wonder Woman. I love the first half of Wonder Woman, but it has a bloated second half. It’s a good film overall, but I haven’t watched it all the way through again since the week it came out on Blu-ray. I think part of the reason for that is its story is still very formulaic. Birds of Prey, in many ways that work and some others that don’t, tries to bring a sense of risk and unpredictability to the proceedings. It works well thanks to R rated levels of violence and profanity, some impressive production design, a few surreal moments and gritty turns from its stars.
I found the fight scenes in this film engaging. I didn’t like the over-use of slow motion in places, but the angles from which we view these clashes make them easy to follow and impactful. I also like that the stakes are little more realistic that what many comic book films give us. This is essentially about trying to save one kid, who has stolen a diamond worth far more than she realized, from the wrath of a crime boss. And what a crime boss he is. Ewan McGregor is excellent when Black Mask/Roman Sionis is being a violent and cruel bastard. That said, there is one scene that did not work for me at all. There’s a moment of light-hearted flirtation (very one sided) as he attempts to woo Black Canary, and it just seemed completely out of place from every other side we see of him. I understand trying to add dimension to the character, but this moment came out of nowhere.
One other complaint I have is that while the film is titled Birds of Prey, it is mostly Margot Robbie’s show. She’s great as Harley Quinn here, and I’m game to watch her step back into this role again eventually, but some of the backstories provided to the other members of this team feel rushed and shallow. The exception to that is Black Canary. She and Harley Quinn struggle with their morality throughout the film, and it’s interesting. But development for Bertinelli and Montoya is rushed. The pacing, especially early on, also makes it hard to keep up with backstory tidbits that are quickly brought up and tossed aside.
I have mixed feelings about the story structure. It is narrated from Quinn’s point of view, and she intentionally brings you into scenes without context, so you’re like, “wait a minute, what’s going on?” before Quinn backtracks and catches you up. It helps set the film’s tone and is one of those things that feels a little risky, but it’s also annoying at times. It takes some getting used to.
Despite my complaints, I had a good time watching Birds of Prey. If you like your comic book films to have long and flashy action sequences, a loud rock soundtrack and characters full of personality, this is a movie for you. It doesn’t hurt that the cast seems to be having a blast. Just don’t bring your kids to this one. Though very different in tone and style than Joker, it still has a darkness to it (and far more graphic violence) that makes it very inappropriate for anyone under 17. There’s literally a scene with people’s faces being peeled off. It could be a lot more graphic than what is shown, but what is there is plenty. The sound effects are quite gross.