They say a sign of true love is when your partner adopts your cause as their own. Their devotion is so total and pure that they’d gladly die on the same hill as you. By that metric, Harley Quinn’s love for The Joker has a kernel of truth to it. Co-dependent to a fault and prone to violence, the character mostly existed in The Joker’s shadow. Birds of Prey, the new comic book film Cathy Yan, asks what might happen after Harley and Mr. J call it quits. In storytelling and formal terms, the answer is a film that is playful without being slovenly. It is a riot of violence, color, foul language, and giving the patriarchy the finger. In a weird way, it’s the first comic book film that feels punk rock.
If the storytelling beats are familiar, Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson do a good job of hiding them. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) provides a lot of voiceover, but she is an unreliable narrator. I don’t mean to say she distorts the truth, or is lying. She constantly forgets crucial details, jumping backward and forward through time like someone who cannot tell a story to save their life. This cross-cutting is a shrewd way to remix the beats that are common to superhero ensembles. We get origin stories for the other Birds, including Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), except they’re interspersed with a hunt for a MacGuffin. Soon these antiheroes align because of Roman (Ewan McGregor), a foppish, sadistic gangster who is almost certainly compensating for something.
Unlike Suicide Squad or Justice League, Birds of Prey has a bright, evocative palette. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique has been nominated for Best Cinematography twice – for Black Swan and A Star is Born – and slows down the kinetic editing when it is time to film the action. There is a terrific sequence that recalls the first Terminator film where Harley stalks through a police station, dispatching one officer after another. Her chosen weapon is a gun that fires bean bags or glitter bombs, so soon the drab station is awash in hues of smoky color. The climax takes place in an amusement park funhouse, a setting that might as well be a cliché, but at least Yan creates physical obstacles that heightens the acrobatic choreography. There is touch of John Wick in how the frequent fight sequences resemble ballet.
Speaking of violence, Birds of Prey can be downright shocking. There are shattered limbs, amputations, and a lengthy scene where people literally have their faces carved off. This is an R-rated film with a hard “R,” and Yan makes it tolerable – even fun – with stylized cutaways that do not dwell on the bones or viscera. Another key departure from is the gleeful use of foul language. There are lot of f-bombs, but unlike Logan, they do not ring false like they’re spoken by a twelve-year old who just discovered George Carlin. This Gotham City is full of desperation, without much attention for Batman and the economic inequality that define his world. The R-rated material is also what helps the film avoid “girl power” platitudes that sometimes plagued Captain Marvel. There is solidarity on display, except it’s casual enough not to be cheesy.
Robbie gave the standout performance in Suicide Squad, and here she accomplishes another delicate balancing act. Her character is obnoxious and deranged, and she softens slightly without losing sight of her nature. The Deadpool films have similar approaches to their antihero, although here the villains’ inherent misogyny gives an edge to Harley’s natural pluck (Winstead is also terrific as a Huntress, a hero that’s all action and struggles with showmanship). McGregor’s performance is thankless in an admirable way: Roman wants to chew the scenery and terrorize anyone in his path, except he is incompetent – or maybe impotent – to reach the lows of DC’s greatest villains. Chris Messina also leaves an impression as Zsasz, Roman’s bottom-feeding enforcer who’s too deluded to recognize his love for his boss.
Suffice to say, there is a lot going on in Birds of Prey. Not all of it works: there is an ugly scene where Roman sexually harasses a hapless bystander, and it’s too realistic/unimportant so that it sticks out. The plot is a mess, and anyone who sees the film will struggle to remember how all these characters eventually coalesce. Like Suicide Squad, this one apes Guardians of the Galaxy in terms of frequent, obvious needle drops (at least the budget is smaller so the song choices are not as obvious). But the skill and wit helps smooths all those bumps, making room for us to appreciate its deliberate edges. In a post Endgame world, all comic books films are pure pastiche, and will struggle with sincerity. Birds of Prey goes the other direction, embracing its feminist-tinged neon anarchy, which ultimately makes it sincere.