DC’s uneven approach to its film slate continues with the extravagantly titled Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which carries vestiges of the largely abandoned shared-universe approach (it is, at least nominally, a spin-off of 2016’s Suicide Squad) but also works hard to forge its own identity. It’s a chaotic live-action cartoon with more in common with rival Marvel’s Deadpool than with anything DC has released thus far, even if its dull and somewhat convoluted plot is only a marginal improvement over the story in Suicide Squad. The engaging, likable characters and the energetic, visually inventive action scenes carry the movie past its narrative lulls and exposition overloads.
Following her adventure with fellow semi-reformed villains as part of the government-sponsored Suicide Squad, exuberantly unhinged criminal Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is back in Gotham City, moping around because she’s broken up with her supervillain boyfriend the Joker (Jared Leto, who played the Joker in Suicide Squad, never appears onscreen here). Now that she’s no longer the girlfriend of the most powerful criminal in town, Harley is an open target for everyone she’s ever wronged, especially second-tier kingpin Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), also known as Black Mask.
While just trying to keep herself from being maimed or killed, Harley ends up in the middle of a plot to track down a missing diamond that’s been encoded with information to access a slain mafia family’s fortune. The competition among various underworld figures to gain control of the diamond is not particularly interesting, and while McGregor seems to be having a blast playing a sadistic psychopath, Sionis is a pretty limp villain. The dynamic between Harley and the other female crime-fighters/crime-doers who get drawn into Sionis’ orbit is far more entertaining, and writer Christina Hodson populates the movie with versions of a number of familiar DC Comics characters.
There’s Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollet-Bell), better known as Black Canary, a nightclub singer strongarmed into serving as Sionis’ driver and occasional muscle. There’s beleaguered Gotham City police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), perpetually dismissed and unappreciated in her department, even though she’s the most knowledgeable about what’s actually going on in the city. There’s the mysterious crossbow-wielding assassin who calls herself the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). And there’s teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), whose careless thievery sets much of the plot in motion.
It takes far too long for all of these powerful women to team up, and the movie is at its best when they’re working together against Sionis and his goons. Even before that, though, director Cathy Yan (whose only previous feature is the 2018 indie drama Dead Pigs) stages a series of kinetic, hugely enjoyable action sequences, blending Harley’s snarky dialogue and meta-humor with impressive fight choreography and dazzling set design. Like Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool, Harley has a penchant for speaking directly to the audience and commenting on how her own story is being told, and the movie’s first half is presented in a fractured chronology that provides a few laughs but mostly just obscures how basic the plot turns out to be.
Birds of Prey is less plot-driven than most superhero movies, though, in some ways functioning as the goofy, candy-colored mirror image of Todd Phillips’ morose, self-important Joker. Harley is all about having a good time, whether that means blowing up the chemical plant where she and her ex first fell in love, or savoring the best breakfast sandwich in Gotham (one of the movie’s most effective running gags). Harley (and Robbie) was the best thing about Suicide Squad, and Birds of Prey highlights all of the characters’ most appealing qualities. It doesn’t hinge on the fate of the universe, and it doesn’t attempt to say something profound about society. It’s just a fun night at the movies, and that’s more than most of DC’s recent output has accomplished.