There’s a funny kind of freedom that’s recently emerged in the DC Extended Universe. After a series of colossal failures, each one worse than the last, the powers that be decided not to cancel the whole project, but to bring in fresh blood with new ideas, then empowered them to do whatever the hell they want. It’s an exciting change of pace to have no idea what might happen next in a big-budget superhero movie. Marvel may be much steadier in the quality of its output, but its best and worst movies mostly follow the same formula. DC is now living up to the legacy of The Dark Knight’s Joker: anarchic, unpredictable, and totally engrossing.
Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) marks the latest and most definitive break with the grim, dreary, glossy yet visually exhausting world of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, Justice League, and Suicide Squad. Perhaps we owe those disasters some gratitude. If they were better, Warner Bros. might not have blown up the formula as dramatically as it did. Instead, DCEU is doing everything it can to make audiences forget any of that ever happened. The franchise is, like Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey, emancipated from the figures that once defined its style, and free to blaze a new trail.
Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)
R, 104 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
Birds of Prey takes place after the events of Suicide Squad. Between the two movies, Harley (Margot Robbie) and Joker have broken up, and she’s lost the protection that came with him. Once word gets out, everyone she’s ever robbed, beaten, or cheated is out to get her, chief among them Roman Sionis, otherwise known as the Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), and his henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). To stay alive in her newfound freedom, she needs to team up with three other women who might have been adversaries had they not each been wronged by powerful people: Dinah/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Together, they have to save the life of teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) before Sionis gets to her.
Robbie showed us she was born to play this part in Suicide Squad, and now she has a movie that lives up to her performance. Birds of Prey is a fun, colorful, exciting adventure with engaging characters, outrageous villains, terrific design, and riveting action sequences. Director Cathy Yan nails the tone, keeping things silly while always raising the dramatic stakes. Writer Christina Hodson reinvigorates the flagging film universe just as she did with Bumblebee. Every performer shines, every character is perfectly realized, and the theme of emerging from another person’s shadow elevates this from just another comic flick to a statement on the vitality and relatability of Harley Quinn’s character.
The taboo of R-rated comic book movies has been broken, between Watchmen, Logan, Deadpool, and Joker. Birds of Prey earns its R rating with violence and language, but it stands apart in one interesting respect. Those other films were either standalone or adjacent to their film universes. Logan was the end of Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, and Deadpool has yet to be fully integrated into the larger Marvel/X-Men films (whatever form they take after Disney’s acquisition of Fox). Birds of Prey, meanwhile, is a direct sequel, and it shows just how cowardly the sanitized, PG-13 violence of the DCEU was. All of the combat was devoid of blood, crunch, and, most of all, consequences. Without consequences, the violence became hollow, meaningless, and routine. Unlike the supposed tough guys of those movies, Harley knows what she’s doing and is not afraid to get her hands dirty.
Local theater listings
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
See it again
PG, 102 minutes
February 14, The Paramount Theater