We're probably never gonna get comic accurate depictions in the DC movies at this point... but whatever.
Batman V Superman hasn't been removed from existence
To fully grasp how good Birds of Prey is, one thing must be first stated: I did not like Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad. There were some things in that movie that were not as terrible as Man of Steel and Batman V Superman, but it was by and large a hot mess of a movie (though, apparently, not to the fault of the actual creative team).
Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn was unfortunately–in no way her fault–influenced almost entirely by the DC Comics’ New 52 take on the character. It also didn’t help that the nuances of her character from the animated series and older comics was lost in whatever the fuck Jared Leto was doing.
It was with this concern that the modification of the film’s title to Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) blanketed the entire movie in a red flag.
But make no mistake, Robbie is a cinematic universe’s treasure in Birds of Prey. If anything, this film proves that–along with Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck, and Henry Cavill–the DC Extended Universe’s perfect casting has been only impeded by the series’ shoddy writing. But with its new approach, shirking the burden of the previous films, Birds of Prey is certainly the movie that fans (and the talents involved) deserve.
Off the bat, the story of Birds of Prey seems almost unrecogniseable to those familiar with the comics. Not only is the entire team’s formation given a whole new spin, the Birds of Prey element doesn’t enter the foreground of the narrative till much later. If there’s to be a gripe with the film, it really does feel like it should have been entitled “Harley Quinn and a Couple of Birds of Prey Characters.”
But with the exception of the choice to include Harley Quinn and Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya, the only real foreign element is the depiction of Cassandra Cain. Given the significance of Batgirls when it comes to Birds of Prey history, it feels inevitable that the inclusion of one would be mandatory if the OG, Barbara Gordon herself, was unavailable.
Played by Ella Jay Basco, Cassandra’s demeanour and history here are significantly different from the comics’. It’s so diluted that the inclusion of the character could be considered little more than a fan-servicey name drop. But it works. By selecting the one Batgirl most disconnected from the Batman franchise, the movie allows itself to break away from the inherent associations the Birds of Prey have with the Dark Knight–something that’s already boosted by the inclusion of Harley and Gotham City Police officer, Renee.
WB’s choice to double down on their opening of the tentpole franchise dance floor to new-ish talent also bolsters the fresh tone of the movie. Christina Hodson’s sharp and character-driven script holds together a story that could have come off as either too direct or too convoluted. The consistently self-aware tone definitely draws parallels to the Deadpool flicks, but really owes more to another era-defining film: Clueless. From Harley’s narration to her end-of-movie wink, the film pays tribute shamelessly, and draws inspiration in a less clumsy way than Joker had with Taxi Driver.
This is all that much fitting when you consider that the film posits an idea that, like its protagonist Harley, the franchise has outgrown its desperate attempt to look edgy with its faux dark depictions of superheroes and laughably juvenile take on villainy (hey there, Jared!).
Relative newcomer Cathy Yan’s direction enforces all that is healthy and worth learning every step of the way. Featuring cinematography that could be easily compared to the best of superhero film visuals (e.g. BvS), Yan is yet uncompromising on the use of colour, literally spraying pink and blue across the screen where possible. Her character specific scope is ever-shifting in the movie’s introductory phase, only settling when almost everyone is introduced.
Of course, almost none of this would be possible if not for the stellar cast that somehow all wield their own brand of darkness and humour. While, yes, the movie is light on the actual Birds of Prey aspect (it works out, though–don’t worry), each member is given a defining scene and the crew are all believably a team by the end of it.
Most importantly, Harley Quinn is given a corrective overhaul, reminding audience that the character is arguably one of the most intuitive DC players having been a brilliant psychologist prior to her life of crime. The character’s vapid bimbotic tendencies that are often played for cheap laughs is dropped for a more genuine personality–the cheery disposition manifesting as the front for her newly found independence in life.
Perez’s role is a refreshingly satirical take on a trope that’s only ever played by Hollywood’s testosterone elite. Her depiction of Renee Montoya not only helps the movie flow, but also fronts the crime element of the film. Especially befitting given the character’s shared origin with Harley Quinn–as creations for Batman: The Animated Series, instead of the comics.
While not much has been said of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jurnee Smollett-Bell, what matters is that they have not only made the characters their own, but are poised to steal the show in the inevitable sequel.
And while Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis/Black Mask is expectedly fantastic, Chris Messina’s turn as the underappreciated Batman villain Victor Zsasz is surprisingly fun. Anyone familiar with the actor prior to Birds of Prey is gonna be pleasantly surprised. Or horrified… but in a good way.
Birds of Prey also furthers itself in quality with Daniel Pemberton’s involvement with score. A couple of DC films, namely BVS and Justice League, have faced score complications, and Suicide Squad’s attempt at music was essentially a knock-off of Guardians of the Galaxy–an intention all the more obvious since WB gunned for James Gunn to helm the pseudo sequel. Pemberton achieves more than his predecessors with a well-varied mix, not forgetting the division between narrative tone and character moments.
In all, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is aces as far as superhero films go, and maybe DC just might be getting it right… I hope.