BIRDS OF PREY: Is Harley Quinn’s return a Glitterbomb?

BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF HARLEY QUINN) (2020) is the 8th lineup in the DC Extended Universe canon and features a pretty impressive female team. With a cast of acting heavyweights and newcomers alike, Margot Robbie shows her talent as a producer and Cathy Yan makes an excellent addition to the blockbuster circuit. The result is a visually psychedelic circus of fun and fireworks. However, it is the screenplay that makes this plot fizzle, ultimately failing to launch the film into fan-favourite status.

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) just broke up with her boyfriend, and she’s doing her best to get through this break up healthily. You know, the normal stuff – taking up a hobby, getting a new haircut, adopting a hyena – we’ve all been there, amirite ladies?

The only problem is being daddy’s lil’ monster gave Harley much needed immunity for her past sins and that’s all gone. But she’s a 21st century woman and who needs a boyfriend when you’ve got a tight knit support system of gal pals?

After the disappointingly flat SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), I can easily admit that the acid-flavored gum drop character of Harleen Quinzell was the only thing that left me wanting more, so I was definitely ready for a film that would do just that. BIRDS OF PREY, however, was never meant to be just about Harley Quinn. Instead, the movie focuses on the girl gang she forms around herself as she ventures into the open world as a single lady.

The one and only person able to ruin this period of rediscovery is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), an egotistical crime lord obsessed with material possessions, who wants to get his hands on the priceless Bertinelli diamond. To achieve this, he unleashes a wild goose chase of sorts onto Gotham City (goose being young Cassandra Cain, played by Ella Jay Basco). Conveniently, she opts to ingest the rock, leaving Sionis the option to cut her open or wait for it to pass via natural routes.

Meanwhile, Gotham PD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) pursues a vigilante crossbow killer, or, as Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) would be preferred to be referred to as, ‘the Huntress’. Sooner or later these characters kick-punch their way into a tight spot for a showdown with Gotham’s biggest and burliest men, which they, naturally, manage to kick-punch their way out of.

There is definitely a lot of plot to fit into the relatively short 109 minutes of screen-time. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t quite feel like it amounts to much. For one thing, it is difficult to avoid the comparison between BIRDS OF PREY and the other recent addition to the DC opus, 2019’s JOKER.Despite being part of the same superhero universe, the two films are quite clearly set in different worlds, something highlighted by the differences in themes, undertones, writing and direction. That said, considering its R-rating, I did hope that BIRDS OF PREY would continue to explore the dark societal themes so well encapsulated in many of the past films set in the Joker universe.

This would have been especially interesting in terms of the exploration of Harley Quinn’s highly complex character. In the opening 1-minute-long animated short, we get a hasty recount of her backstory – she came from humble beginnings, went to a convent school, got a PHD – wait, what? Although our villainess protagonist is clearly highly intelligent (a fact she often reminds us of throughout the film), the viewer is often left to wonder about this intriguing aspect of her persona. What was she like in college? Was she a sorority girl? Part of the gymnastics team? Who is Harley Quinn? Perhaps this part of her was purposely left open for another film – nonetheless, it is difficult to escape the feeling that this was a missed opportunity to unpack her  character and allow the audience to connect with her on a deeper level.

To be honest, this seemed to be a problem with quite a few of the characters in the film. McGregor in the guise of a maniacal millionaire, for example, was undoubtedly a delight to watch. However -and this may be a consequence of the actor not being a common sight in superhero blockbusters – his character was more kooky as opposed to fearsome, something that noticeably set him apart from the previous antagonists of Gotham City. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great billing, and I was thrilled to see Robbie, Winstead and Perez on the same list, while Basco and Smollet gave fantastic breakout performances. I just wish there was more plot for them to work with – I feel that in the end this is where the film really fell short.

To the credit of Christina Hodson, any story narrated by Harley Quinn would be a bit of a twisted yarn. But it does put a lot of responsibility on the viewer to pay attention through all the explosions of glitter and I admit to being initially confused as to how everyone got to the final big boys-versus-girls showdown. On top of that while it has been a great start of the year for female charged movies Hodson may have piled the feminist message on a little bit heavy making me wish that the girl power plug was allowed to stand on its own.

With those minor qualms aside I can’t deny the appeal of Harley and the girl gang that is the Birds of Prey. Although there are many, the fight scenes are excellent with the actresses performing most of their own stunts. Yan’s direction is wonderfully executed creating a chic Loony Toons adventure fueled by cocaine and egg sandwiches. Coupled with a hearty soundtrack featuring rising heavyweights such as Megan Thee Stallion and Doja Cat, BIRDS OF PREY just manages to rise above being awful into a decent piece of entertainment to fill an evening and leaving more room for future sequels with any of the new characters. Let’s just hope they get given a little bit more attention than they were in this film.

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