Back in 2016, Suicide Squad didn’t shine the way it should, even with backing from prominent stars like Will Smith and Cara Delevingne. The story was frustrating and pointless, the script was mediocre, and you have a group of supervillains who were as memorable as the tributes of Hunger Games apart from Katniss and Peeta. Which, I don’t remember any, sorry. They (the supervillains) were supposed to be badass. But they were just bad.
Still, there was just one character that stood taller than the rest of her peers. She even toppled her green-haired “boyfriend” in the film, and ended up stealing more hearts than him. Yes, Margot Robbie, under the guise of Dr Harleen Quinzel, did that with a baseball bat and blotchy makeup.
The difference was so dramatic that one got dropped-out to pave way for Joaquin Phoenix to star in the origin story of the Clown Prince of Crime, with Phoenix already celebrating his Oscar win as we speak. The other half of the equation, Harley Quinn, garnered enough attention to be given a plan for a standalone film, further perpetuating Margot Robbie’s charm which has resonated well with the audience.
And here it is, Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Definitely a title which pulls attention, but a bad one for the public to remember for sure. And the momentum for this standalone film is stronger than ever, with Joker (2019) bagging in two Oscar’s recently, there are now more eyes on this film than ever before. The question looms, however. Are those eyes ready for what they are about to feast in Birds of Prey?
Director Cathy Yan is not known to have an illustrious film-making history, but then, so did Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman). Jenkins had multiple stalled projects and even left her directorial role for Thor: The Dark World due to creative differences, before scoring it big with Wonder Woman (2017). There’s something about Wonder Woman that reached deeply within my soul, and the Jenkins-Gadot collab invoked a sense of purity and empowerment of women which I suspect can only be attained with a woman’s mind.
I have a similar reservation for Birds of Prey as well. A film that features an (almost) ensemble female cast should thrive under the hands of a female director. But looking back at the Charlie’s Angels’ 2019 reboot, I am a bit worried. Did the film not bomb at the box office?
Even the story-line of Birds of Prey continued the idea of women empowerment and emancipation. After all, Harley Quinn broke-up with Joker/Mr. J in the film, and the story revolves around how she regains footing after that incident. By the way, sorry Jared Leto fans, DC avoided him so badly, that the audience did not get any glimpse of Joker in the film. More likely than not, it’s a move to keep options open during the recast of the iconic clown sometime in the future.
And it’s an open secret that Ewan McGregor played Black Mask, the baddie in the film, who happens to be a male as well. If you see where all these are leading to, you are right. It’s the girls versus a whole world of males in Birds of Prey, and if you despise that kind of idea, chances are, you will not like the film at all.
Perhaps, this is the biggest issue for films like Birds of Prey. It’s very divisive in gender, and lacks any balancing characters like Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman or Nick Fury in Captain Marvel (2019). It will come as to no surprise that the box office performance is severely degraded by this (which is already happening for Birds of Prey as the time of writing), which is such a shame, really. If everyone can see past this stigma, the film has a lot more to love.
For one, Gotham City as depicted in Birds of Prey is not that far off from its most recent version found in Todd Phillips’ Joker. Cathy Yan did add-in more splashes of color to the visuals to complement the unnaturally-pale complexion of Harley Quinn, and to pamper the girlish and juvenile character of the story. Beyond that, it’s the same dark and gloomy Gotham, full with mysterious places and noticeably technology-deprived. No high-tech military nonsense, or an endless supply of choppers being carried over from Suicide Squad.
With Gotham City taken care of, it seemed that Yan was free to further personalize the color palette of the visuals, giving it that extra pop to the eyes of the audience. Some say that a girl’s wardrobe can make or break her appearance, so logically, that’s the first area of focus for such colorful treatment. You’ll find lots of pink, gold, magenta and yellow adorning the outfits of the girls, particularly Harley. Even Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) is not afraid to go bold with his suits, further hinting his inner insanity that’s getting harder to contain.
And this colorful potion continued to bleed its way into other aspects of the film, even into the action choreography. In what appeared to be the most memorable sequence of Birds of Prey, the cinematographers literally swapped explosions and blood splatters with gushes of colors, and I kid you not. It’s an idea, or creativity, that goes beyond juvenile, but I just couldn’t deny that it looks cool and is visually pleasing. And it’s not just that sequence alone, almost all action sequences in Birds of Prey are great moments, because they are clever mixtures of acrobatic moves, gracefulness, rhythm, and at times, a slight fizz of humor.
It’s worth mentioning that for most of the part, the action scenes thrill even with a handicap placed on them. Which, is Harley Quinn’s aversity towards your usual ‘scary’ weapons, like automatic rifles or big, serrated knives. Just admit it, Harley Quinn is plain bad with guns and knives, and it’s supposed to be that way. Else, she might as well be Sarah Connor.
Working in such a restrain had certainly pushed the action choreographers to be creative with what they present on-screen, and it’s safe to say that they have mastered just that. Mr J’s ex-girlfriend looked equally bad-ass and deadly utilizing her non-lethal weapons, and the closest comparison would be how Thor managed to wow the audience with his hammer.
And speaking of Thor, Birds of Prey has even managed to complete the height of its third act with an action scene that involved a revolving shot, with the girl-gang tagging in and out of the screen, very much like what you see in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). And unlike Suicide Squad, all the commotion are accompanied by by blasting soundtracks of acceptable consistency, without sounding like a bad radio hunting for channels.
Then, there’s the humor aspect of the film which I just couldn’t finish-off this review without mentioning it. It is that significant. Somehow, the Harley Quinn that we see in Birds of Prey, even though she’s still Margot Robbie under her skin, has strikingly evolved. She’s not so much the darling that you would love to date from Suicide Squad anymore. She’s kind of a Deadpool-ish loudmouth now, with strong crazy-chick vibes, and if you pit that against Roman Sionis or the girl-gang, you know that you’re in for a huge crackling time.
Again, I could see this as potentially divisive. Strangely, she kept reminding me of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, and it’s safe to say that if you liked what Sparrow did in Pirates of the Caribbean films, you will appreciate Harley Quinn’s wits in Birds of Prey. That’s if you can see past the gender swap, though.
Now comes the most controversial part; the order of story-telling. Very much like Joker, Birds of Prey tells a story from a character’s perspective, and does not adhere to the usual chronologically-correct narration, and is equally undependable. In Joker, Arthur Fleck was far from a reliable story-teller, and with the big twist built into the story, the audience loved it to bits.
Of course, being in a ‘better’ mental state than Arthur Fleck, Harley Quinn tells a story that enables you to digest it with better peace of mind, but Cathy Yan opined that she’s not that pure. Thus, she stirred things up by introducing an undependable style of story-telling, with the plot arriving at odd junctions before Harley abruptly stops the story and rewinds to an earlier event.
I am rather mixed about this, because on-paper, this would have sounded like the most perfect of ideas, but it didn’t live on to its full potential on screen. Yes, by adapting to this, it made things more interesting, but it also rendered the story almost incomprehensible at certain junctures of the second act.
Admittedly, I lost my way somewhere there, having no idea whether what’s being presented on the screen happened before or after an important event. Had the integration of the branching events more seamless and explanatory, the experience would have been perfect. But fret not, the story still has a third act to finish-off the entire narration in a good way, though the finale is rather short lived.
It’s bold. Rebellious. Excessive. But fortunately, it’s no Suicide Squad. Harley Quinn evolves, laughs cunningly, and rambled hilariously to charm you in an inexplicable and complicated way in Birds of Prey. The daring girl-gang jumps into dazzling outfits that befit the peculiar world of Gotham they are in, where they taunt you with girly-badassery and whip you with crackling humor. Sure, its erratic plot structure and unapologetically naughty charisma might turn-off some movie-goers. But if you can see beyond its childish endeavors and have no issues witnessing girls with bad attitude in action, then you’re in for a total joyride.–The Film Addict
*Birds of Prey is now available on Prime Video
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