Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of DC Films

“Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” is the best movie to come out of the DC Extended Universe. The series of films began with Zach Synder’s underwhelming “Man of Steel” and continued with the spectacular flops “Batman v. Superman” and “Justice League.” While subsequent DCEU films like “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman” and “Shazam” have enjoyed a generally positive reception, and—while not in the same cinematic universe—DC’s “Joker” earned the Oscar for Best Actor and Best Original Score, there has yet to be a DCEU movie that felt like it knew its audience and relished in it’s own absurdity.

The movie is told in a non-linear fashion, and the plot mostly exists to showcase witty-dialogue, character development and action. The movie opens with an animated segment that informs the audience that Harley Quinn has broken up with the Joker, and is now wanted by Black Mask, a villian who only refrained from killing Harley because “Mista’ J” wouldn’t allow it.

“Birds of Prey” was directed by Cathy Yan, known for her previous film “Dead Pigs.” Yan helmed a set comprised of mostly female talent both in front of and behind the camera. This is unfortunately an anomaly in a film industry still dominated by male directors, who made up 96% of the top-grossing movies from 2007 to 2018, according to a USC diversity study.

Margot Robbie, who plays Harley, pushed hard for a set that represented the feminist themes of the script. Her status as a producer and the person who pitched the movie shows in the artistic integrity of Yan’s work. The movie is refreshingly packed with action and wit without carrying toxic masculine lens.

“Birds of Prey” has graphic fight-scenes. Yan pulls off ridiculous combat that packs a visceral punch. The R-rating gave the movie the ability to break some bones that it’s lesser sibling “Suicide Squad” could not. There are no less than three times in which the audience watches Harley Quinn violently break a man’s legs. The Huntress, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, kills several individuals by way of an arrow to the throat.

The violence never dips into gratuity, but remains unrelenting and intelligently shot. The editing of the film reflects the manic energy of the titular character herself, and facilitates the more ridiculous scenes well. By the end of the film, Harley is beating-up mooks in rollerskates, which the cinematography captures in all it’s insane glory.

“Birds of Prey” works because it knows what it is. Where Zach Synder had trouble separating his taste as a director from the material he was adapting, and Todd Phillips cared little for adapting comic books at all and remade “Taxi Driver” instead, Yan knows how to direct a sugar-high superhero vehicle.

This movie looks like it just walked out of a Hot Topic, with plenty of gaudy jackets accompanied by dark eyeliner throughout the runtime. When a chemical plant explodes in the film’s opening, it inexplicably roars with purple and green plumes of flame, as if a manufacturer of toxic substances would keep a collection of fireworks in the attic.

These stylistic choices work. Yan has her eyes firmly set on anyone who read DC comics in the mid-90s, and is tuned into the worldview of Harley Quinn as a character. There is a small musical interlude, a cocaine-fueled garage fight and a dramatic death scene for a breakfast sandwich. While some may scoff at the comparison, Margot Robbie and Cathy Yan manage to place viewers in the mindset of the protagonist as effectively as Bale and Nolan place audiences in Batman’s cowl in the Dark Knight Trilogy.

The entire ensemble cast is wonderful. Renee Montoya is brought to the screen perfectly by actress Rosie Perez. Anyone who has picked up a comic featuring Montoya will be ecstatic to see her transferred to screen. Black Canary, Victor Zsasz and Cassy Cain are all nestled well into their roles and feel like tangible, complex characters.

While the non-linear editing and occasional messy scene construction may temporarily break audience focus, “Birds of Prey” is undoubtedly a triumph. The decision to keep Jared Leto’s insufferable portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime in the past was merciful. The direction is effective and vibrant. While the movie is often bright eye-candy, the combat is so juicy and the ride so fun that there is never much time to stop and scrutinize whatever small imperfections exist in the story.

“Birds of Prey” is not a clean solo-piece, but rather a booming symphony that wows the audience with it’s audacity. For even the most worn out fans, it demands a trip back to Gotham.