Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is Birds of Prey in name only. Along with a ridiculous overlong subtitle that should’ve been a warning sign from the beginning. Part of me will always be annoyed with the direction of the DC Extended Universe, but I’ve always been on board with each movie that was announced. Birds of Prey sounded like a step backwards. Suicide Squad is arguably the worst film in the DCEU. One of its few redeeming qualities was casting Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Joker may have been a hit the previous year, but I never asked for an R rated Harley Quinn solo movie. Yet Robbie was so attached to the Batman villain, that she produced Birds of Prey herself. The first problem is the title.
In the comics, the Birds of Prey are an all-female team from Gotham City. The team has always been known for including Oracle, Black Canary, Huntress, and Lady Blackhawk as team members. Their 1996 debut led to a short-lived 2002-2003 TV series, but they haven’t made many appearances outside of an Arrow episode. Birds of Prey is clearly a Harley Quinn movie since she was never part of the team in the comics. A Gotham City Sirens movie would’ve made more sense. Cathy Yan was chosen to direct despite having only one movie under her belt. The production design didn’t inspire confidence, the R rating felt unnecessary, and Yan saying the movie would “smash the patriarchy” made me nervous. I’m glad Birds of Prey was released at the beginning of 2020, because the movie bombing at the box-office speaks for itself…
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) was a financial failure for several reasons. There was no reason why the movie had to be R rated. If the target audience was supposed to be teenage girls or younger, then that part of their demographic wouldn’t have been able to see it. The PG-13 MCU isn’t gonna suddenly have an R rated movie that half their audience will miss out on. Birds of Prey is the only DCEU movie I didn’t see with my parents. As much as I enjoy Deadpool, I wish studios would stop thinking that’s enough to make a successful superhero movie. Christina Hodson’s script is so wannabe Deadpool without being clever. The violence is jarring and characters drop the F bomb every other sentence. To put things in perspective, Joker is a 2 hour & 2 minute movie with 25 F bombs. Birds of Prey is a 1 hour & 49 minute movie with 78 F bombs.
The surprisingly short runtime is one of the few highlights for me. The only thing missing is nudity. Which is weird considering Harley Quinn’s promiscuous nature. The rating is one thing, but I really have a problem with the costume design. Rather than wear her trademark red & black jester outfit or even her more provocative Suicide Squad costume that was at least red & blue, Harley wears a bizarre mishmash of colors. There’s her generic t-shirt and short shorts with pom-poms look and a diamond jumpsuit that’s pink & gold for some reason. It’s so inaccurate to the comics that it feels like a joke. Suicide Squad may have had overly edgy costumes, but at least they tried to look like the comics. Yan was given way too much creative control if Warner Bros. seriously thought fans wanted to see a 2020 superhero movie that looks nothing like the source material.
The movie is essentially Harley Quinn and maybe 30 minutes of Birds of Prey if you’re lucky. Ever since her Batman: The Animated Series debut, Harley Quinn was crazy fun to watch, with an infectious sense of humor, sexy jester outfit, and surprisingly mature abusive relationship with the Joker. I understand her becoming a fan favorite, but I’ll be the first to admit I don’t understand giving her so much attention. In the 28 years since her first appearance, Harley has appeared in almost every Batman related animated series, several animated movies, and a TV-MA animated streaming series based on her New 52 solo comics. She’s had many voice actresses throughout the years, but Arleen Sorkin has the definitive Brooklyn accent. Before Margot Robbie, Mia Sara and a stand-in voiced by Tara Strong were the only live-action portrayals of such a cartoony character.
Harley’s boost in popularity is mostly thanks to her joining the Suicide Squad in the New 52. Having Harley break up with the Joker is fine, but it doesn’t really work without Poison Ivy. Birds of Prey feels kind of pointless and lackadaisical, but I can’t say that it’s the worst thing in the DCEU. Not that I’ll ever understand how it got a 79% score on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s not a personal disappointment like Batman v Superman or a disjointed cringefest like Suicide Squad, but bored indifference isn’t something I want to feel for a superhero movie. I only watched it once in theaters and never bothered to rewatch it until very recently. Birds of Prey takes place 4 years after Suicide Squad, but it’s barely a sequel since the Joker doesn’t even appear. Jared Leto was such a bad Joker that I don’t blame them for avoiding a cameo. Still, it doesn’t make sense to have such a crucial part of the story happen entirely off-screen.
Animation is used to depict Harleen Quinzel’s mostly faithful origin story. How she was abandoned by her father, sent to a Catholic orphanage, became a psychiatrist, and fell madly in love with Mr. J. Even the animated Joker doesn’t look like Leto. When she breaks up with her puddin, Harley is thrown out on the streets of Gotham City. By my calculations, that’s approximately 14 times Gotham has been depicted on the big screen. With the exception of cutting her pigtails short, the only other comic accuracy is Harley joining a roller derby team, having a stuffed beaver, and getting a pet hyena named after Bruce Wayne. Apart from a Captain Boomerang wanted poster, Batman doesn’t make an appearance either. Harley makes a public statement about her emancipation from the Joker by blowing up the Ace Chemicals plant. Something that puts a target on her back. The plot is so thin that Harley is almost always seen in average situations like ordering a breakfast sandwich that’s given way more attention than it should.
She uses playful narration accompanied by Suicide Squad style visual stats to string together a random collection of women with practically nothing in common. Their only connection is the Batman villain Black Mask. A low level crime boss I never expected to see as the main antagonist in any movie. I never knew much about Black Mask apart from the black skull mask he wears at all times. In the comics, Roman Sionis forms the False Face Society, runs Janus Cosmetics, and is a much more intense villain who is fond of torture. The torture part works for the R rating, but cutting people’s faces off or forcing a woman to strip crosses the line. More attention is also given to him running a nightclub more like the Penguin. I’m happy Ewan McGregor is getting a career resurgence, but his Black Mask portrayal sucks. Roman Sionis is seriously over exaggerated, profane, ambiguously flamboyant, randomly sadistic, and never wears the black mask until the climax. He’s the poor man’s Joker.
Chris Messina plays his right-hand Victor Zsasz. Another Batman villain given way more attention than you’d expect. Cutting tally marks into his skin after every kill is also appropriate for an R rating, but it barely comes up in the movie. Since the DCEU can’t go one movie without a McGuffin, a diamond connects everyone as well. The Birds of Prey now includes Huntress, Black Canary, Renee Montoya, and Cassandra Cain. Barbara Gordon is nowhere to be seen as Batgirl or Oracle. Renee Montoya is similar to Harley Quinn for being a character created for Batman: The Animated Series. She’s just an ordinary hispanic Gotham City police officer revealed to be lesbian in the comics. Although she became the second Question in 2007, most of her history is as an officer. So I have no idea why Montoya is given so much attention in the movie. Rosie Perez feels like the odd woman out in a team like this.
Montoya builds a case against Sionas while investigating the recent Crossbow Killer. All the guys at GCPD push her to leave the force. Her sexuality is clumsily inserted in the movie with Harley’s narration saying a district attorney is her ex-girlfriend. Montoya crosses paths with Harley several times in an attempt to bring her in. Unlike the rest of the cast, Black Canary is seriously miscast. Her name is taken a little too literally with the African American Jurnee Smollett playing Dinah Lance. The co-star in a Harley Quinn movie is not how I wanted to see Black Canary make her cinematic debut. Black Canary has a complicated history, but a lengthy one that saw her as a member of the Justice Society and the primary love interest for Green Arrow. She’s always depicted in a sexy leather jacket & fishnet ensemble. The only confusing thing about her is there being two different Black Canary’s named Dinah Drake and Dinah Laurel Lance.
She appeared on Birds of Prey and Smallville, but her biggest claim to fame is Arrow. Katie Cassidy, Caity Lotz, and Juliana Harkavy never worked on their own, but together they created a convincing whole. Smollett’s Canary is barely recognizable as a lounge singer who wears mostly gold. Her trademark metahuman “Canary Cry” is vaguely mentioned by Montoya as a power belonging to her mother. Dinah crosses paths with Harley at the Sionas nightclub where her fight with sexual predators earns her a job as Sionas’ new chauffeur. Her job is to ensure the diamond gets to Roman. Until it’s stolen by Cassandra Cain. No character is more botched than their portrayal of a mute martial arts expert who can read body language. She’s still Asian, but Ella Jay Basco is an obnoxious kid with a cast who pickpockets people. I wish she was mute, because this Cassandra is a seriously annoying substitute for Russell from Deadpool 2.
She pickpockets the diamond from Zsasz and ends up swallowing it for the rest of the movie. Any attempt to get it out is just disgusting to think about. Dinah already knows Cassandra from her building and involves Montoya after she gets arrested. Harley becomes involved when she offers to get the diamond back after Sionas abducts her. But not before an extremely random recreation of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” with Harley as Marilyn Monroe. The only part of the movie that received consistent praise was the action. It’s fun to see Harley infiltrate the GCPD with beanbag cannons, using her baseball bat, dynamite, and roller skates in a car chase, but that doesn’t automatically make it John Wickian. A coke-fueled Harley apprehends Cassandra, only to grow soft during a brief mostly off-screen bonding session. Cassandra having no clue who the Joker is, is another minor annoyance. The only decent guy in the movie betrays Harley and she betrays Cassandra not long after they bonded.
The final bird of prey is Helena Bertinelli aka Huntress, known to the public as the Crossbow Killer. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is surprisingly inspired casting considering her long history in comic book related superhero movie roles. Bertinelli’s violent origin as the lone survivor of a mob family massacre remains intact, and so does her training to become an assassin at a young age. Unfortunately, the movie still finds a way to ruin her edge by turning her trauma and angry outbursts into a joke. Huntress hunts all the men responsible for her family’s death, but stops after killing Zsasz. All the women converge in a climax set at an amusement park. Harley convinces them to work together when Black Mask leads the False Face Society against them. Since the team comes together at the last possible second, none of them have any natural chemistry.
Harley uses her oversized hammer and the rest of them use her leftover gag weapons. They fight off the men and Black Canary uses her “Canary Cry” once in the entire movie. Huntress gives Harley a lift when Cassandra is taken. They face off at a foggy dock where Harley starts to believe in her own abilities. Sionas is killed in a graphic explosion and the women casually eat at a diner afterwards. Harley steals their car and rides off with Cassandra when the diamond comes out. It’s only briefly through narration that Huntress, Black Canary, and Montoya call themselves Birds of Prey while wearing vaguely comic accurate costumes. The title is even more pointless since Harley doesn’t even join the team. No wonder they changed the name to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey after it bombed. There’s no reason to stay after-credits since it’s just Harley saying something about Batman that gets cut off. In the end, nothing new is learned and the entire movie is practically meaningless. Birds of Prey should have never been made like all of DC’s other failed projects.
Preceded by: Suicide Squad & Followed by: The Suicide Squad