Harley Quinn: (not so) Birds of Prey Review

Not sure Harley quite pulls off a fourth wall break like our favorite merc with a mouth.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A crazy, fun, girl-powered adventure, but for a film that promises us the Birds of Prey, the focus is so trained on Harley Quinn you wouldn’t know that it was supposed to be a team-up superhero movie.

DC have got a lot wrong in the past few years. Batman vs Superman was just stale, mate. Justice League was a CGI moustache of a car crash and despite the relative success of Aquaman and Wonder Woman, DC’s answer to the Marcel Cinematic Universe felt over before it even began. In the middle of all that was a curious little comic book adaption; Suicide Squad.

Much like the rest of the DC Universe the foundations were solid; based on a cult comic book series that kicked off in the 80’s, it gave a fresh take on the superhero genre by making the misfit gang of baddies the reluctant heroes of the story. Perhaps it could have been something truly different, but in the end like so many of the DC properties it was broadly meh, with some really awful stuff in there too (who can forget The Joker: Tik Tok edition).

There was one bright spot however: the character that spawned a thousand misjudged cosplays, Harley Quinn. Whatever the quality of the script she was given, Margot Robbie really brought life to a fan-favourite character, paying homage to the animated series whilst also capturing a new, updated aesthetic and attitude that made Harley her own. Her performance was so good that she will likely be the only survivor for the sequel/remake – we don’t know what James Gunn’s 2021 project will look like yet, but she will definitely feature in it.

In the meantime, to keep audiences keen, we got Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, which formerly held the exhausting title of Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. I’m glad that they changed the name, because even without it this movie is the cinematic equivalent of that one person everyone knows whose every action, Instagram post or story screams: “I’M SO QUIRKY!”

And just like that person, Birds of Prey is a barrel of laughs and very entertaining, but if we’re entirely honest we know that it’s all just crying out for attention.

What happens, as told by Harley Quinn

The premise for this film is super simple. Harley and the Joker split for reasons unknown (but almost certainly to do with wanting to keep Jared Leto as far away as possible) and when word gets out that she isn’t protected by Mr J anymore, Harley Quinn becomes free game. From the hard nose cop (Rosie Perez), through some random goons (because action needs to happen) and all the way to Ewan Mcgregor’s wonderfully insane Black Mask, everyone has it out for Harley, for one reason or another. When backed into a corner, she makes a deal for her protection – a deal involving a young girl that everyone is looking for.

Like many films, this one starts with narration. Not just a little narration mind, rather 10 on and off minutes of narration, with more constant intervening narration just when the plot gets going. It’s amusing, granted, and it is useful and delivering exposition in a quick and concise way, but it really sets the tone for this film. This is a story from Harley, about Harley, with very minor concessions to other characters. Anyone expecting the Birds of Prey to be prominent here, prepare to be disappointed. This is a Harley movie all day long.

It’s an odd decision, in all honesty. The parallels between (Not) Birds of Prey and Deadpool are undeniable, and oh so frequent. The narration, the literal turning and winking to the camera, the blend between breaking a leg one moment to a hilarious ball busting the next. Hah! I’m so silly right? Well, despite my inner scepticism angrily tutting “what a rip-off,” it does kinda work. The odd decision is rather that this wasn’t a Harley film from the get go. From minute one to the closing shot, it is clear that this is all about her and 80% is from her point of view. So why did the foil for this Harley vehicle need to involve a crimefighting group that she has never actually been part of in the first place?

Thats not to say that this movie doesn’t work. It is a funny, well written action comedy, that even where the plot diverges into the realms of convolution or absurdity the actors wrestle it back from the verge of confusion. The casting was brilliant, with good picks for the Birds themselves and Mcgregor’s camp but unhinged portrayal of black mask giving a unique twist on the character and a pleasant change from the usual overly serious frowny villain. Even the action finds its own niche, about 25% John Wick, 25% Scott Pilgrim and a helpful dose of your friend and mine, a certain Mr Deadpool.

It is a shame that these films are so comparable, because Birds of Prey had all the tools to create its own identity. Deadpool is a story centred around this one, careless, fourth wall breaking character that is cracking jokes as if he is sitting beside the viewer. It’s ridiculous to the extreme, and every other character is just there, because that is exactly what they are; characters in Deadpool’s story. They have no real investable goals or paths of their own, because it would be meaningless in the narrative that Deadpool is telling. As if he would care anyway.

This is the biggest criticism I have of Birds of Prey, as at its core it is supposed to be the journey of a team. By muddling the idea with an attempt to replicate the Deadpool formula, it is clear that it lacks the same thing as every other DC film to date; a clear, identified vision. The Quinathon decision was made by an executive who saw some figures for Deadpool and barked “make me that!” This was not the well planned-out, carefully executed project that All of the characters deserved.

Finally Introducing: The Birds of Prey

Truly, these characters did deserve more. I am no avid comic fan, but even as a someone with a passing interest I was aware of Black Canary and Huntress. Jurnee Smollet-Bell and Marie Elizabeth Winstead respectively turned in genuinely brilliant performances, combining well with Robbie’s Quinn, Perez’s Detective Montoya and Ellie Jay Basco’s Cassandra Cain. When the action turns away from Harley doing Harley things, the interactions between the group are brilliant, displaying a fantastic chemistry between the team. So why then do we not see them together until we are some 80 minutes into the movie? Yes, 80 minutes.

The worst part is that Huntress, who appears as a masked figure throughout, only meets the rest of the Birds of Prey and gets her narrated intro at this 80 Minute mark, right before the big end battle. Could you imagine if Bruce Banner stayed in the shadows for 90 minutes in the Avengers only to step out 2 minutes before the battle of New York? Winstead’s performance was genuinely funny and charming for the eight lines of dialogue she gets and it bums me out that we didn’t get more of that.

It’s a big disappointment, because whilst most films fail to land an ending, the climax is genuinely the best part. The team is together, the comedy feels natural, exhilarating action set pieces, a visually fun and interesting setting – why could this have not come together half an hour in?

In reality it’s very unlikely that a team-up movie will result in the team-up occurring before act three, but a tease or at least more of the characters interacting would have been good. As it was we got a lot of Harley, a fair bit of Black Canary and Montoya and almost no Huntress.

The real problem here is that in reality, this feels like two separate films, with two entirely separate plot threads that are only tangentially linked by a McGuffin in the form of the diamond. Harley could quite easily have had her film about outrunning her enemies in her post-Joker world, and the Birds of Prey could have formed in attempt to stop a gang lord from seizing the Huntress’ fortune. Perhaps it was felt that neither film could have stood on its own, or that the characters/actors weren’t strong enough to support their own movie.

And this is where DC keep cocking it up. They look over at team Marvel and come to the conclusion that people want big team-ups, with big action and big budgets, long-running sagas and the like. Sure, those things are great, but what has made the MCU the juggernaut it is today is the fostering and developing of great characters with decades of history and passionate fandoms. I would have no problem if Birds of Prey was a lower-budget, less hectic film that didn’t have Harley Quinn attached to it. If that meant we got a proper Birds of Prey movie, hell – I think it could have been better.

What now?

So where do we go from here? Though the ending certainly left a sequel possible, it may be too much to ask for the Birds of Prey to get a standalone follow up film. In this world of big streaming budgets and high value TV series I could definitely see this team carrying a couple of seasons. Or hope for it at least.

Despite it being a bit forced and too concentrated on the named title character, there is a lot to like about Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. I genuinely enjoyed a lot of the humour, even if it was a bit relentless; in much the way some bemoaned Deadpool 2 (which I thought was better IMO). The action scenes are great, between Margot Robbie and her stunt double we see fun, inventive fighting that allows for way over the top but distinct battles, and it may be that Harley is a character that we will see for years to come. All in all, though there is certainly some criticism, this is a very enjoyable film to watch.

But there are still more than a few questions as to what is happening with the DC universe. The title screen still paints an image of DC characters standing in unison, and yet since moustachagedon DC have leaned heavily into standalone films. Suicide Squad 2 is apparently in the works, though details of that have been few and far between. Here is to hoping that DC may have learnt a lesson, and is trying to slow down so as to pay these characters some of the respect that dedicated fans have been calling for, for some time.

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