Had Bad Boys for Life not hit theaters earlier this year, one could say that Cathy Yan’sBirds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which will be referred to by its non-parenthetical title from this point on, would be the first true blockbuster of the 2020 slate. It certainly has generated its fair share of buzz, what with Margot Robbie returning to the role of the Clown Princess of Crime after being the only thing anybody liked from Suicide Squad, and with Yan taking the director’s chair on such a large project. Her previous film, Dead Pigs, doesn’t currently have US distribution, even though it premiered at Sundance a full two years ago (though we hope that changes), and for most outside of the festival circuit, this is their first chance to see her in action. Warner Bros. has made an effort to combat the visual and textural homogeny of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in their hiring of “visionary” directors (and in their scrapping of a traditional “cinematic universe” model recently), and with Yan’s taking of this job, it’s perhaps the closest they’ve come to equaling Zack Snyder being given a Superman film. Birds of Prey isn’t a great film, but it’s a brilliant showcase for Yan’s talents, and is definitely a striking and interesting transformation of the DC style, especially in the wake of Joker.
After being broken out of prison by the Joker (who is only ever glimpsed either as a cartoon or from the back in this film), Harley Quinn (Robbie) decides that she’s had enough of being undervalued and, frankly, abused. She’s a Ph.D., for Christ’s sake! She splits with him in the most public way that you can imagine by drunkenly blowing up the Ace Chemicals factory where they had their first and very weird romantic encounter. Unfortunately, that sends a message to every single criminal who’s ever had it out for her, including Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a flamboyant crime lord known as Black Mask, who is prepping his own plan to become kingpin in Gotham City. He’s got a bead on a diamond that’s worth millions more than you’d guess, and only one thing stands in his way: The digestive tract of young thief Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who swallowed the damn thing when she pinched it. Harley’s tasked by Sionis to get the diamond back from her, but she runs into a few issues along the way: namely, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a gritty cop who’s determined to take the crime lord down; her informant, Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a nightclub singer-turned-driver for Sionis; and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a vigilante who’s killing mafia figures crossbow bolt by crossbow bolt. And who knows? Maybe Harley will have a change of heart.
I’ve always kind of admired how Marvel just shrugged off Terrence
Howard’s sudden transformation into Don Cheadle in Iron Man 2, and it’s honestly
a little odd that the producers here kept Yan to be as beholden to David Ayer’s
grungy Suicide Squad to the extent that she is here, given that they’ve
thrown the whole “shared universe” thing pretty much out the window now that
they’ve gotten a Best Picture nomination. There are freeze-frame introductions
(though done smartly here), ceaseless Michael Bay-like needle-drops, Harley’s
shitty tattoos remain even if the man who gave them to her isn’t present at all
in Birds of Prey (real talk, it’s a bit of a shame that Harley’s escape
from her abusive relationship is dealt with so quickly early on, given that you
could have potentially based an entire film around it); there are little nods
to the previous film, such as a Captain Boomerang wanted poster on the walls of
the GCPD station that Quinn assaults near the start of the film, and, as such, the
first thirty minutes of the film are dedicated to setting up her new status quo,
which is as sequel-y as it gets. It’s also the roughest stretch, as you can almost
feel Yan fighting her own indifference and boredom until she can get to the fun
bits, and Christina Hodson’s script doesn’t help her whatsoever.
There’s a huge structural problem with Birds of Prey — it’s non-linear narrative, full of cut-away flashbacks and lengthy digressions into character backstories, is often very frustrating to watch unfold, especially when Yan is forced to cut away from an action scene in order to an unnecessary, expository and overlong scene. It’s like driving with a 17-year-old who hasn’t properly learned how to apply pressure to the breaks yet: One minute you think you’re just going down the street, and the next you’re realizing that your car’s breaks might be stronger than you think as you clutch your freshly-broken nose. Hodson has a lot riding on Harley’s voice-over, chiefly that she’ll be endearing enough to pave over all the stops and starts with a few witticisms or descriptions, and it’s a gamble that doesn’t totally pay off. For every gag that lands, two others don’t, and the whole device becomes sort of grating, especially when it’s so dominant at the start. It feels very much in response to Deadpool, but, somehow, it’s done weaker here, as well.
So, I guess that’s why I felt such a sense of relief when both the narration and flashbacks disappeared midway through the film and Yan started being able to work in some beautifully constructed environments. Most of the sets in this film are astonishing — from Black Mask’s bondage-themed black-and-red household, with its shrunken heads and masks on the walls, to the ruined boardwalk carnival that the film’s final act takes place in, complete with giant hands and spinning spiral floors — and Yan knows how to fill them. She proves here that she’s an incredibly capable and interesting action director, presenting to us solid fight choreography that is filmed with smart precision. Her dirty, gaudy maximalism is a perfect fit for this set of characters, and offers a solid middle-ground between Harley’s excess and the more-grounded crime film that you might find a cop like Montoya stalking crime scenes in. McGregor is the best antagonist that the DCEU has ever had (I look forward to reading an essay about his character in a book of Queer Film Studies in ten years), and he chews scenery like he’s been starving on a desert island for weeks and came upon a fully stocked buffet on an unexplored bit of coastline.
Birds of Prey isn’t, perhaps, the home run that a whole lot of people thought that it would be, thanks in part to some weird writing and the vestigial elements of the DCEU left within it like a human tail, but I also think it exposes some small weaknesses in Harley Quinn as a protagonist. A gritty take on her feels odd, and she is more entertaining when she’s part of an ensemble on-screen, unless she’s allowed to be fully cartoony and comic-y as she is in, you know, her cartoon or her comic book. And when dealing with even the slightest bit of faux-realism, her larger-than-life character starts to shrink a little bit, in comparison to the moments when she’s just able to live her best life, petting her hyena and talking to a stuffed beaver that she has dressed in a tutu. I guess that’s why the second half works so much better than the first: She’s just allowed to be one of the group again, playing off the strengths and weaknesses of those around her for comedic benefit. But I’d be very interested in seeing what a sequel to Birds of Prey would look like, if Robbie is interested in returning to the role again after The Suicide Squad, and I’m incredibly excited to see what Cathy Yan does next. Her work here is fantastic, and perhaps comes the closest to the auteur-emphasized goals that Warner Bros. laid out for the DC films after the DCEU’s collapse. Hopefully the trend continues.