2016’s Suicide Squad is quite possibility the most disappointing superhero movie of all time. The film’s constant efforts to make it look like its characters were having fun fell especially flat considering the talent involved. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was so obviously destined for better things than that disaster, putting her in a great position for her own film. Unfortunately, Birds of Prey: The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn falls into too many of its predecessor’s tropes.
Birds of Prey tries to be a lot of things at once. The bulk of the narrative is spent on Harley’s efforts to capture, and then protect Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who stole a diamond from Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a crime lord with a grudge against Harley. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Black Canary (Jurnee Smolllett-Bell) are also in the fix to anchor the Birds of Prey team that’s kind of based off the comic books, but their presence muddles a narrative that’s already pretty shoe-stringed as it is.
Robbie is a natural to play Harley Quinn, but Birds of Prey exposes some of the flaws in the way she approaches the character. Harley is a great gag character, but a bit one-dimensional for a leading hero. Director Cathy Yan is reluctant to give Quinn enough time to grow, constantly distracted by other shiny objects in the narrative. Harley feels restricted in her own film, an incoherent narrative without any real focus other than a feeble effort to laugh at its own jokes. A strangely self-congratulatory effort.
Though he doesn’t make an appearance, the Joker’s presence looms heavily over the film. To some extent, this might be expected. Harley Quinn is practically synonymous with Batman’s signature villain, even though her comics do a pretty good job mitigating this dynamic. For a film series whose best Joker adaptation isn’t in the DC Extended Universe, you would think that Birds of Prey would want to do everything in its power to make you forget there’s another version of that laughing maniac.
Birds of Prey could have easily sidelined any thoughts of the Joker early on, but Yan is hell-bent on bringing him up repeatedly throughout the film. This kind of approach is fundamentally unsatisfactory regardless of how you feel about Jared Leto’s take on the character. He’s not in the movie. For those who are pleased with his absence, the constant reminders only serve to harken back to a not-so distant era where this Harley ran off with that odious creature. It doesn’t make any sense.
The film also repeats Suicide Squad’s bad habit of long-winded expository scenes that stifle the narrative. It’s hard to invest in the film when it’s constantly bending over backwards to take the audience out of the moment. It’s also spread too thin to do justice by any of the characters it awards these backstories to. Huntress is perhaps the biggest victim of this dynamic. Winstead is fun, but she’s a footnote in a movie that probably would have been better off omitting her entirely.
McGregor pours a lot of heart into the villainous Roman, but the film pigeonholes him into a largely perfunctory role. Yan could have cut him out entirely and not all that much would change. He is painfully obligatory, there because a film needs to have a bad guy. Birds of Prey would rather wink at the audience than try and give its narrative any real sense of purpose.
The fight scenes are very good. Though the titular Birds of Prey really aren’t that necessary to the film, there are snippets of good chemistry between the actresses. The film is just too unfocused to dive deeper into their relationships, too busy with the shiny object of the moment.
At times, Birds of Prey is capable of making the audience smile. It’s a film that clearly looks like it’s having a lot of fun, going out of its way to convey this sentiment time and time again, just as Suicide Squad included countless expressions of “we’re the bad guys.” We get it. Harley Quinn is a very fun character. She just keeps appearing in subpar movies that don’t do her any justice. Maybe someday she’ll be liberated with a film that doesn’t roll around in its own mediocrity.