The Joker's former hyper-sexualised sidekick, with a Brooklyn accent straight out of the 1920s, Harley Quinn has always been one of the most popular characters to come from DC. So it might surprise some to know that she was never a comic book creation originally. Harleen Quinzell was originally a part of the Batman Animated Series, the hugely popular show from the 1990s and was someone to keep things light around the dark actions of her beloved Mr. J. She was popular, he was quickly rolled into the comic book universe. Marvel did the same thing with the Wolverine-clone, X-23 after she appeared in X-Men Evolution. And despite reading comics for much of my life, she's a great character but I've never understood the massive appeal of the character.
Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn), which from this moment on, we'll just call Birds of Prey, removes Harley Quinn, played brilliantly by Margot Robbie from her Suicide Squad persona, obsessed over her beloved Joker and puts her front and centre of the movie's narrative, elevating her to someone who is still as lovably crazy but a lot more relatable. This version of Harley Quinn seems to be just as much fun drinking with as she does committing acts of vandalism. And that's great because no one would want to go to see this movie if it was just going to be the old Harley talking about her ex beau.
Right off the bat, this is a movie targeted at a slightly different audience. Of course, comic book fans are going to see it, but gone is the Zack-Snyder, CGI destroying everything type of darkness. Everything here is camp and light, and this is probably down to Robbie's own real-life persona and is an actress who has always been very aware of when she allows herself to be sexualised throughout her career. It also helps that she is one of the producers of this movie, keeping some of the more revealing costume choices that Harley's worn over the years, to a minimum and she had a lot of control in choosing the director, a relatively unheard of Cathy Yan, who I'm sure, will go on to enjoy a big career, based on what is on offer here.
Rightly so, Birds of Prey favours bullet-proof vests, (one very funny scene), over bras and Harley's flirty, and sometimes sexualised nature remains intact, given how that is a major aspect of her character. It's a movie that demonstrates its feminist boas without putting it front-and-centre, instead, relying on a great script from Christina Hodson and strong characters in the form of Black Canary, Cassandra Cain, Huntress and Detective Rennee Montoya. I dare say that this way of story-telling with a message could go a long way to helping much of the new era of Doctor Who go down much better.
Following an opening animated sequence, which gets the audience up to date on Harley's backstory, which I was pleased to see noted Poison Ivy as one of her former lovers as they are currently in a relationship in the comics, the movie opens with Harley in the throes of self-pity. She adopts a pet, a Hyena she calls Bruce, "I named him Bruce after that hunky Wayne guy", she tells us, she lets the Hyena eat his former owner, while she wallows in spray-cheese, joins a roller derby and then blows up the Joker's headquarters, Ace Chemicals.
Harley's narration continues over the movie, but is most prominent in the opening act of the movie as each character is introduced, with a fancy name card written in a very comic-book style. It's a style that continues through the runtime, sometimes helping the movie move along when it can sometimes lack any form of forward momentum.
Where the movie might fall down for some is that the plot is given to us in the same scatter-brained way as Harley's own mind. The plot goes from Sicily in the 80s to Gotham in the present day but Yan does manage to keep things together. Just. A lot of the movie does rely on the characters and I was surprised to see that they were a little different to their comic book counterparts, particularly Black Canary who is working as a nightclub singer and then driver for the mob boss, Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor, when in the comics, Dinah Lance works as a lawyer.
As the first act of the movie winds down the characters find themselves drawn together to protect a young girl, Cassandra Cain, played by Ella Jay Basco, who has stolen and eaten a diamond that belongs to Black Mask, AKA Roman Sionis. Harley finds herself in a precarious situation though as she is no longer under the Joker's protection and finds herself at the mercy of the many criminals in Gotham City.
It seems strange also that the movie waits until the third act to finally lay down its cards and allow these birds to fly. It's an act which makes one wonder why we had to wait that long to get them all together but then more than makes up for it in a fun fight sequence in a amusement park which looks like incredible fun to film. From Harley Quinn fighting in roller-skates, the Black Canary needing a hair-band to keep her hair out of her face as she fights, its a sequence packed full of fun and gore in equal measure.
Coming away from the movie, its clear that this is a step in a new direction for the DCEU where fun is finally allowed. Perhaps why much of Zack Synder's input felt so flat was because everything had to be dark and serious while it ignored how ridiculous the world of superheroes really is. Birds of Prey finds itself full of running gags and non sequiturs. And for the most part, most of them work really well. Harley's love affair with a sandwich in the opening act and cutaways where Huntress practices her entrances in front of a mirror, help to keep the story amusing. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Huntress is the movies secret weapon as actress, Mary Elizabeth Winstead's deadpan performance works brilliantly well opposite Robbie's manic energy. But again, this all makes you wish that we'd hung out with them for a lot longer.
And despite being a truly evil villain in the comics, McGregor's Black Mask is a hoot here too. He switches from funny to deadly in one memorable scene, trying to score a deal with another crime family, things don't go his way and he hears a group of clubber's laughing. His deranged mind believes they are laughing at him and he forces one of the clubbers to dance on the table and then gets her friend to being cutting her clothes away. It's a moment that McGregor and the other actors perform brilliantly but also doesn't try to make out like every male character is evil. Black Mask is evil and rightly deserves to be treated as such but not every bloke in a movie is a baddie, something that the Charlie's Angels reboot implied. But in this scene, her friend is just as horrified at having to remove clothing, so its nice to see that this movie didn't go down the same route as the rebooted Charlie's Angels.
The films adult rating also meant that the production team could have more fun with the fight sequences and it doesn't shy away from evil henchmen drowning on their own blood or the snapping of bones as Harley beats them in the knees with her signature mallet. There is an almost upbeat approach to the violence here, which adds a demented twist to the movie's overall vibe. Harley tells Huntress that she's so cool, after she stabs an mobster in the throat while going down a slide. Its twisted and messed up but you can't help but like it.
But there is an odd void at the heart of Birds of Prey and its kaleidoscopic feel. Perhaps it feels a little odd because the violence is mixed with cartoon humour, like Harley going into a police station and shooting the place up with a gun that fires confetti. Or maybe the problem lies in the artistic side of the movie, it can sometimes be a sensory overload of locations like colourful outdoor markets. Or maybe its because we're so used to the dark, grim and rainy side of Gotham City, its strange to see it in bright sunshine. The costumes were excellent though, despite what I just said about the art side of the piece.
I'll put it down to the fact that the movie does take a little while to get going. There is too much unnecessary toing-and-froing in the beginning, which dulls the impact of the surprises when the action does get going. But seemingly gone is the dark and gritty attempts at the DCEU and Birds of Prey seems to be ushering in a new fun, vibrant and sometimes camp way of telling these character's stories, even if there are a few bumps along the way.