In the most derided sequence in a very derided movie, David Ayer’s Suicide Squad assembled its team with quick bursts of superficial character introduction. We got each name on the screen in some edgy typeface, followed by about 13 seconds of them demonstrating whatever special skill or mutation had made them infamous. It was all scored to the most on-the-nose musical selections the music director could find, further spitting in the eye of the concept of subtlety.
There’s nothing subtle about the sort-of sequel to Suicide Squad, which spins off Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and bears the very long and ungainly title Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). But it does prove that people can, sometimes, learn from an epic critical misfire.
Suicide Squad was a box office success (and, ahem, won an Oscar for its makeup and hairstyling), which is what allowed DC to consider continuing the storyline of Harley Quinn. But DC, director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson clearly took notes from the way the critics savaged this movie’s predecessor, and one of those was in the introduction of the characters. Instead of having the crew it assembles pre-identified as sort-of-supervillain societal menaces, Birds of Prey takes its time bringing together its eventual ragtag bunch of mercenaries, developing them gradually over the course of the running time. In fact, for a time, you wouldn’t even know a team was being assembled, as this is very much Harley Quinn’s show.
Which might be a good indication of how much you’re likely to appreciate Birds of Prey. Viewers had one of two reactions to Robbie’s character in Suicide Squad, which was that the colourful riot girl with the baseball bat was either the best part of the movie, a charismatic thumb in the eye of propriety, or an annoying caricature, especially unlikely to have once been an accomplished psychiatrist before falling for the Joker. Birds of Prey’s opening 30 minutes in particular gives us a big helping of Robbie’s character played the same way she played her the first time, as kind of a trainwreck New Yorker on speed, so that may be a determining factor in a viewer’s frame of mind for the rest of the movie.
Harley Quinn has gotten dumped. The Joker – never seen on screen here – has summarily dismissed the former Harleen Quinzel for unspecified reasons, though Harley thinks it has to do with being unwilling to share the credit with her for her clever criminal schemes. She doesn’t tell anybody straight away, as her protection from the Joker has given her carte blanche in Gotham City, but she does go on a bit of a bender, fuelled by both alcohol and cheez whiz. Fortunately for her, she must have a really good metabolism as she still needs to fit into those cutoff jeans and undersized t-shirts.
When she leaves the chemical factory where they fell for each other in flaming ruins, the world apparently correctly interprets this as meaning that she and the Joker are quits. So it’s time for anyone Harley has wronged to come cash in old grievances, and as each character pops up, we get an on-screen statistic about what the actual grievance is, sometimes accompanied by a quick flashback. As Harley is ducking bullets and other flying objects, though, she also becomes embroiled in the search for a diamond that has bank codes embossed into its atomic structure, or something. These will unlock the fortune of a mob family that was wiped out. Also pursuing this diamond, either directly or indirectly, are a really nasty nightclub owner (Ewan McGregor), his driver and a lounge singer at his club (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a mysterious crossbow killer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a cop (Rosie Perez) and a teenage pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco). They’ve all got both real names and “superhero names.”
There are a number of correctives to Suicide Squad in Birds of Prey, and one of those is a surely Deadpool-inspired turn toward more gratuitous profanity and violence. It’s the right choice. When you’re dealing with a band of misfits who are known for their profane presentation in the comics – at least as far as their de facto leader is concerned – they should get to be bad in a movie version as well. This freedom from PG restrictions also allows Yan to really show us what a scumbag her villain is, as McGregor’s deliciously over the top Roman Sionis has a thing for carving the faces off his victims. The film thankfully leaves that mostly up to suggestion, but in a PG version of Birds of Prey, it couldn’t likely have even been suggested. The fight choreography is pretty fun, and Harley’s use of (mostly) non-lethal force is especially enjoyable in a scene in which she sieges a police station shooting cops with bullet-force bean bags and other projectiles that explode into paint and confetti.
You can tell these actors are having fun. McGregor rarely gets to play someone with a black heart, and his performance here suggests we should have been asking for this years ago. Equally compelling in this regard is his henchman, Victor Zsasz, played by a nearly unrecognisable Chris Messina, another actor who has played more than his share of decent blokes. He’s got sadism oozing out of his bleach blonde hair and facial scars. On the “good” side of the slate, comparatively speaking of course, it’s really nice to see Rosie Perez in such a prominent role for the first time in a while. Even at age 55, she’s still got that spitfire energy she first brought on the scene 30 years ago.
Energy is never a problem in Birds of Prey. The film is an explosion of colour, occasionally dipping into animated cutaways, sometimes speeding up the action so the colours are even more colourful than they might otherwise be. The film clearly takes its cues from Harley Quinn’s aesthetic, and that works in Yan’s hands. It’s not immediately evident what Yan brings to the proceedings that Ayer didn’t in Suicide Squad, because the style of this movie is not a radical departure from that one. Birds of Prey is not a great movie, but it’s infinitely more engaging than Suicide Squad, and sometimes that type of thing is not possible to quantify. Just how it’s not always possible to quantify the difference in perspective that is being brought by women in the key creative roles of writer, director and producer, as opposed to men in those roles. In Birds of Prey, it just works better, no need for further analysis.
The various incels and other angry white men who were fed by Joker will not be similarly fed here. The white men we meet here are all jerks, so that could be interpreted as a feminist agenda. But Birds of Prey is smart enough to leave this on a subtextual level and let its audiences draw their own conclusions. The women and minorities we meet are not all that nice, either, as this is the type of film that accuses everyone of an excessive allegiance to their own best interests. Even the older Chinese restaurant owner, introduced to us literally as a saint (he has no “grievances” against Harley and gets a halo for it), isn’t good enough to avoid being sullied by the pervasive Gotham greed. Maybe a team of broken birds using (mostly) non-lethal force is the only way to clean up this town.