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Birds of Prey review: Welcome to the Harley Quinn show

It took a while, but DC Entertainment has finally cracked the code.

Forget building a cohesive, Marvel-style shared universe. Forget about maintaining a signature house style, or a family-friendly PG-13 rating. Just take DC's iconic characters, put them in the hands of talented filmmakers, and let them go wild. The bigger, the better.

It's a philosophy that worked for Aquaman, in which Fast and Furious veteran James Wan's signature brand of madness turned DC's biggest punchline into a bona fide Hollywood star. It worked for Shazam!, which played up the comedy inherent in the concept to create a delightfully zany kids' film. Joker isn't technically part of the DC Extended Universe, but in light of its 11 Oscar nominations, letting director Todd Phillips go all-in on his Scorsese pastiche worked for that one, too.

Nowhere, however, are the benefits of this approach more obvious than in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Birds of Prey is, quite simply, the boldest, most stylish mainstream superhero movie ever made. Does it pack the same emotional punch as Marvel's biggest movies? Absolutely not. Is it entertaining anyway? Oh, you bet.

In Birds of Prey, a newly single Harley Quinn finds herself the most wanted woman in Gotham City as her former enemies, no longer kept at bay by her ex-boyfriend — that would be the Joker, in case you haven't been paying attention — decide to get some payback.

Before long, poor Harley is caught up in a frantic search for a lost mob treasure, which is being hunted by everyone from world-weary cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a revenge-seeking Mafia princess known as the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the lounge singer-turned-bodyguard called Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and up-and-coming crime boss Roman Sionis, a.k.a. Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). At the center of all the chaos is a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who Harley must keep safe while trying to stay alive.

Technically, Birds of Prey is a sequel to Suicide Squad. Harley's previous big-screen appearance is referenced a few times. Everything that happened in that film is treated as canon. However, if you didn't like Suicide Squad, don't worry. The relevant parts of Suicide Squad's storyline are summed up in a couple of lines, and other than Robbie as Quinn, the two movies have almost nothing in common. Basically? Birds of Prey is a lot more fun.

Even among other superheroes, Harley Quinn is one of a kind

Birds of Prey's script, written by Bumblebee's Christina Hodson, is surprisingly tight, but this isn't really the kind of movie that you're watching for the story. The real draw, outside of the performances from Robbie and her supporting cast, is the movie's madcap energy.

Birds of Prey is the kind of film that cuts to a musical number while a character is getting tortured. It features an action scene on a giant trampoline. In one scene, Harley brings a beanbag gun filled with sacks of glitter to a fight. A severed leg is one of the film's best punchlines. Whether they're breaking limbs or cutting off people's faces, nobody in Birds of Prey takes violence too seriously. In fact, on some level, they all seem to enjoy it, and it's hard not to get caught up in their bloody enthusiasm.

If that sounds a little like the Deadpool movies, there's a good reason. Birds of Prey's Harley Quinn is going to get lots of comparisons to Fox's (and now Disney's) Merc with a Mouth. Birds of Prey doesn't lean as hard into parody as Deadpool does, but it still skewers superhero conventions with glee — the newly emancipated Harley Quinn has a tongue-in-cheek origin story involving a breakfast sandwich, for example. Like Deadpool, Harley even breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly.

But going into the theater expecting Birds of Prey to deliver a Deadpool-like experience isn't fair to either film. Harley isn't exactly DC's answer to Wade Wilson. Birds of Prey's best jokes aren't as funny as Deadpool's, and it doesn't have its predecessor's tragic edge. It's also not as cynical. Birds of Prey is about empowerment, not tearing things down.

Finally, despite Deadpool's irreverent attitude, it's still pretty conventional. Birds of Prey isn't. Like Harley herself, the movie does whatever the hell it wants. Not everything works, but when director Cathy Yan has an idea, she doesn't resort to half measures. She goes all the way.

Birds of Prey's adventurous spirit is most obvious during the action scenes, which Yan captures in long, unbroken takes that show off the impressive stunt work, and Matthew Libatique's stunning cinematography, which transforms the normally brooding Gotham City into a kind of punk-rock carnival. And yet the playfulness is everywhere. With Harley as narrator, the script jumps back and forth in time, cutting characters off in the middle of their lines to deliver relevant pieces of backstory. Ewan McGregor's fussy and affected supervillain is a living cartoon character, and his performance ends up being Birds of Prey's biggest highlight. 

Birds of Prey never slows down, so you may as well roll with it. Have fun. Everyone else clearly is.

Welcome, one and all, to the Harley Quinn show

The Birds of Prey might get top billing in the title, but make no mistake, this is Harley Quinn's movie. She's the one telling the story, and she's the one who drives the action. As a result, the other members of the team (especially Winstead's Huntress, who's mostly used for comedic relief) don't quite get as much attention.

And yet, somehow, Harley's character arc is probably the weakest in the film. Birds of Prey is supposed to be about Harley's emancipation from the Joker— it's right there in the title! — but the Clown Princess of Crime is so confident and self-aware from the beginning that it's hard to see much of a transformation.

That's not Robbie's fault. She carries the movie, and her charisma powers her through. It's a problem with the character. There are certain things people want to see in a Harley Quinn movie. It's hard to be a gleeful agent of chaos if you're consumed by self-doubt and worried about what other people think.

It doesn't help that Harley's big breakup occurs offscreen. After Suicide Squad, we don't really need more of Jared Leto's Joker, but it's hard to tell this story without him. There's no "before" in the before and after. You can't really appreciate how far Harley has come when you didn't see where she started.

Instead, Harley works best as the means by which the other characters find their own independence from the toxic men in their lives. Because of Harley, Dinah Lance realizes she doesn't need to live under Black Mask's thumb. Helena Bertinelli discovers a purpose larger than hunting down the men who killed her family. Detective Montoya learns she doesn't need her male co-workers' approval, and Cassandra finds the female role model she's always needed.

Comic book purists will probably be rankled by some of Birds of Prey's takes on established DC characters. Victor Zsasz, a Batman villain who could probably serve as the big bad on his own, is little more than Black Mask's sidekick. In the comics, Cassandra Cain is a mute teen who was raised by two master assassins. In Birds of Prey, she always has a quip ready. Name aside, she's basically a brand new character.

But so what? The changes work for Birds of Prey, and while the team doesn't spend too much time together, their chemistry is undeniable. Warner Bros. clearly wants to make a Birds of Prey sequel, even if Robbie isn't involved. It would work. The biggest complaint we have with Birds of Prey is that we want to see more of its characters. For the first entry in a new franchise, that's a pretty good problem to have.

Birds of Prey isn't going to reinvent the superhero genre. It doesn't doesn't have the emotional stakes, and despite its spectacle, it feels much smaller than Marvel's grandiose superhero epics (it's also, thankfully, significantly shorter than most of Marvel's recent output). That's fine. Sometimes, you just want to laugh, see some cool stuff, and watch a team of anti-heroes kick butt. On those fronts, Birds of Prey more than delivers.