If you asked me which sidekicks to DC characters deserved their own movies, my first pick would not be Harley Quinn. Robin, Lois Lane, the Teen Titans, even Mera from “Aquaman” have potential for poignant, worthwhile superhero movies. Yet we live in a world where the Joker’s obsessed girlfriend got her own movie in the DC cinematic universe before Batman, the Flash or Green Lantern got their own movies. And make no mistake, despite the title and advertisements billing this movie as an ensemble cast with several main characters, “Birds of Prey” focuses on Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn as much as the Deadpool franchise focuses on Deadpool, with lots of fourth wall breaking and self-important, hyper-active characters.
If “Suicide Squad” was DC’s rip off of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” then “Birds of Prey” is their rip off of “Deadpool” – R-rated superhero violence with loads of in-jokes and our hero bouncing back and forth between good and evil. But I’ll give “Birds of Prey” this much, at least it’s not horrendously unlikable like “Suicide Squad” since this one does try to have some personality and moral dilemmas.
Set some time after the events of “Suicide Squad,” Harley Quinn (Robbie) has gotten tired of purportedly years of abuse, neglect and both mental and physical scars from the Joker and breaks up with him in the most ludicrously over the top way, which also puts a massive target on her back. This results in open season being declared on Harley, where she eventually ends up in the hands of the mob boss Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). Harley is able to weasel her way out of his clutches by doing a job for him that leads into a much bigger plot about a priceless gem that holds the key to a massive fortune, which very quickly involves a police detective (Rosie Perez), one of Black Mask’s employees who considers turning on him (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a mysterious crossbow killer going after mob bosses (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and a teenage thief who gets her hands on the diamond (Ella Jay Basco).
The strength of “Birds of Prey” lies in its supporting cast, especially the titular team of heroes. Perez plays a tired detective who has had enough of the corruption of the police department and just wants to make a difference in the world. Smollett-Bell plays a torn and confused woman who has seen how tough the world can be and just wants to live rather than survive, but realizes the conflict that creates for the rest of the world. Winstead plays a little girl in an adult’s body who only seeks vengeance, and then can’t figure out what to do with herself once she’s achieved that goal. All of them are charming and complex in their own ways, angry at the world but unsure how to make a big difference without ever coming across as brooding or angsty. Even Ewan McGregor is rather charming in his insanity and maniacal ego-trip, always ready to party but always read to attack without any regard or remorse. Every one of these characters is written and performed with the perfect amount of gravitas and dignity.
Where the film makes or breaks it though is with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, who is in every scene. Even scenes where she’s not on screen, she’s providing narration about her thoughts on each character or writing on the screen about her nickname for them and why they probably hate her. Whether you love or hate this film will depend entirely on how much you enjoy Robbie’s kinetic and over-the-top performance and if you feel she differentiates herself enough from Ryan Reynold’s Deadpool in terms of zany, almost cartoon-esque antics. Personally, I felt Robbie’s performance was at odds with the serious-minded stories of the other female leads and didn’t contribute to any of them beyond bringing them together. As her own character, her redemption is serviceable but Robbie really dials everything up to 11. It’s like if William Shatner tried to be Batman in one of Christopher Nolan’s movies. There are times where the movie would have been better off without her, and other times where her frenetic energy is hilarious, especially when she’s being hunted by all of Gotham.
Overall though, “Birds of Prey” is a serviceable R-rated superhero film. The supporting cast is really given a chance to shine and the writing can sometimes be clever, but it does use many of the same fourth-wall breaking jokes and nods as “Deadpool” and it doesn’t help that Harley Quinn is as cartoony as Ryan Reynolds. Yet despite the many branching storylines, there is a solid connecting theme of turning anger and confusion into a weapon that brings them all together. “Birds of Prey” is far from the worst the DC cinematic universe has to offer, but it’s a sign that they’re still trying to copy Marvel’s success.
Final Grade: C+