Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey, Margot Robbie’s unexpected superhero vehicle, is chaotic in all the best ways. The movie is full to the brim with color and neon and sparkles and is largely guided by the dizzying, frenetic energy of Harley Quinn herself. Harley’s outfits and makeup, styled significantly differently from her first appearance in Suicide Squad, speak to a woman who is no longer trying to appeal to anything but her own instincts. She’s like a regressed adult who is finally able to live out the Lisa Frank fantasy she couldn’t have as a child. Her garish, ostentatious outfits are an outward expression of her id. Her style is just like her—completely obnoxious and entirely fun.
In the movie, downsized from its original title, Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, Quinn (Robbie) is mourning the end of her relationship with the Joker and figuring out how to disentangle her identity from his. When her public declaration of their separation puts a target on her back for all the criminals she’s slighted in Gotham City, Harley is forced to offer her services as a “finder of lost things” in order to keep her life. Along the way, she meets Renee Montaya (Rosie Perez), Black Canary (Journee Smollett-Bell) and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth-Winstead), and they all team up to take down the patriarchy. Or something of that nature.
The other women—the titular Birds—come and go as needed, all revolving around each other in their own separate worlds with their own problems until Harley brings them together for the big finale. Montoya is an alcoholic police officer attempting to enlist Black Canary to help her solve a series of murders committed by “The Crossbow Killer,” who is, of course, none other than Huntress, the long-lost heiress of the Bertinelli crime family. The women’s concerns are parallel and sometimes conflicting, but they are in and around each other’s orbits. When they meet up, sparks fly.
Truthfully, the movie’s plot is the least interesting thing about it. The story exists and it’s coherent, but ultimately it’s window dressing on the demented carnival that is these women’s fateful meeting. The granular details are far less interesting than the film’s aesthetics and characterizations. With such a stacked cast (I haven’t even gotten to Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor, and blonde, murderous and very queer Chris Messina), it’s a near miracle that writer and director Christina Hodson and Cathy Yan were able to create such realized characters. Harley is reckless and wild. Montoya is a firecracker of frustration and conviction. Black Canary is a protector who is still wary of getting involved but feels compelled to help people, and Huntress is a gorgeous, unintentionally hilarious enigma dead-set on avenging her family. In a little under two hours, we get very distinct women with discernable wants, needs, and goals.
Harley herself remains the film’s focus, though, and viewers get more insight into her psychology as she knocks about Gotham trying to keep her would-be attackers at bay. Her relationship with the Joker was abusive and codependent, and it’s only after swearing him off that she manages to figure out how to exist in the world without him. Her budding relationship with neglected pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) and her deep anguish when an ally betrays her show hints of the woman she was before she devoted herself completely to a madman, and of the woman she might become again.
One of the distinctive things about the movie is the way the women fight. There’s none of what the Bechdel Cast calls the “pussy slam.” Harley, Huntress, and Canary don’t fight like trained assassins or spies. Instead, they fight the way you might expect any woman in their situation to fight if they kept their wits about them. They might not be able to body slam a man twice their size, but they can definitely crack some knees or kick them in the ballsack. And they crack so many knees! It’s reminiscent of Miss Congeniality’s SING demonstration. If you can’t match the men blow for blow, then the next best thing is to hit them in the tender bits.
It feels like a betrayal to say that Ewan McGregor’s Sionis is one of the most fun elements of a movie that stars four women. But his disaffected, dandy air brings hilarious and very queer energy to the proceedings. The head of a criminal syndicate who’s been disowned by his wealthy family, Sionis is driven by a desperate need to be respected, resulting in outbursts that can’t help but make you laugh at him in pity. His outfits are loud, stylish and tailored—a sartorial foil to Harley, he’s the kind of man who puts stock in things like the proper fit of a suit jacket—but ultimately he’s a collector. He wants to be surrounded by beautiful things, and his tantrums and wan affectations only serve to highlight how truly impotent he really is. Sionis doesn’t really do much besides vamp for an increasingly jealous Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) but he’s still the type to publicly humiliate a woman because she happened to laugh during an unrelated conversation after he’s gotten bad news. It’s the kind of persona that women know all too well, and men often dismiss as irrelevant. His only real tool is menace. But as NPR’s Linda Holmes notes, it’s exactly the kind of characterization of a male villain you’d only get with women in charge.
Seven years in, the DCEU seems to finally be rebounding. After four straight flops, the returns have been much better as they’ve moved away from their white, male heroes. Birds of Prey is queer, fun and feminine, all glitter bombs and rainbow explosions and it makes up for a lot by having such a clear sense of the frenzied pace it’s trying to convey, and being so good at taking audiences along for the ride.
In the end, Birds of Prey feels very much like Oceans 8—it’s a sincerely enjoyable film that largely operates at an above-average level of entertainment with a few sparks of genuine brilliance in between. It’s not quite as good as Wonder Woman, but it’s miles ahead of any of the films featuring the Man of Steel or the Caped Crusader. The film ends with the official formation of the Birds of Prey, and Harley finally getting her full emancipation. But as with 2016’s Ghostbusters, this movie is by and large an expertly laid introduction to characters I hope will be back for more.
Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is currently playing in theaters.