Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a superhero movie in some sense of the genre. It's based on comics by DC, set in the famous city of Gotham, and cares about a character’s journey to beating some brooding, ominous villain who pulls political strings behind closed doors. It has fight scenes, character development, and big, flashy sequences where all our heroes come together.
However, it's not about a superhero—it centers around one of Gotham’s most famous morally grey villains, Harley Quinn, and doesn't seek to make her some pure–hearted hero by the end. In fact, what's so great about Harley is that, while she grows, she stays far from the morally unwavering Batman or the unendingly brutal Joker. She is simply herself, which is to be the point of Birds of Prey. Harley is a unique person—and an interesting one at that.
Birds of Prey begins with Harley Quinn (a fabulous Margot Robbie) after the events of the disaster that was Suicide Squad. She has broken up with the Joker (originally played by Jared Leto, though unseen in this movie) and is now on her own. She goes on a weeks–long bender before exploding the chemical facility where she and the Joker transformed to send a message: she and the Joker are over. Of course, this sends the wealthiest men of Gotham after her head, primarily Roman Sionis (a deliciously evil Ewan McGregor) since, as she claims, she’s pissed quite a few people off. Sionis is after a diamond Harley must retrieve in order to save her own head, which, logically, entangles her in various other plots throughout Gotham.
Titling itself as an ensemble movie was Birds of Prey’s biggest misstep. This film is about Harley Quinn, starring Margot Robbie, and her post–Suicide Squad story rather than anything else. Certainly, the other characters are important, but it's vital that Birds of Prey tells its story through Harley’s eyes.
Of course, the Birds of Prey for whom the film was originally named are still lovely, with a few being relatively notable names in the DC Universe. Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett–Bell), also known as the Black Canary, is a singer at Roman’s club whom he creepily refers to as his “little bird” who eventually breaks free from him. Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a deadpan crossbow–wielder who travels across the city enacting revenge for the murder of her family. Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is a cop who consistently talks like she’s from a bad ‘80s TV drama. Finally, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) is a young pickpocket who accidentally ends up responsible for the major MacGuffin of the film, forcing her to be dragged along with Quinn’s insane shenanigans.
With these characters, Birds of Prey succeeds where Marvel movies often fail. It introduces personalities, makes them feel like actual people, and features a genuine coming together in the final act. The independent plot lines of each main character collide seamlessly, and their big fight scenes together work so well because they have reasons for collaborating, unlike Avengers: Endgame’s senseless girls–only scene.
What's also important is that Birds of Prey, while explicitly presenting sexism, is one of the few movies to do so gracefully. There are many moments where female characters face hardships, but they don't feel heavy–handed or irritating. Montoya’s male colleague gets promoted ahead of her, and while she's obviously annoyed, she's resigned to it—this is, of course, a fact of her life. These are characters who are established as important in their own rights and then face difficulties, but they interesting only because of what they put up with.
The movie doesn't seek to teach people about sexism, or even solve it, and that's what makes it so genuine—there's no solution, and even the most powerful of the heroes cannot stop it. Birds of Prey's feminist tilt may be disagreeable to some audiences, but it handles the subject matter with such finesse these critiques seem entirely unwarranted. Birds of Prey is not attempting to be woke, overly performative, or man–hating in its handling of sexism. It only seeks to portray reality.
In fact, the more salient error of calling the film "Birds of Prey" has been cited as one of the reasons for the film's box office fumble—a fault that has been amended, with the movie now titled "Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey." Opening at a mere $33 million domestically, many news sources have been quick to call the movie a flop. Relative to its budget of $94.5 million—compare it to The Avengers' $220 million budget—Birds of Prey's worldwide gross, at $81 million, has almost made back what it cost, but the numbers are still somewhat disappointing.
Some claim the movie's lack of success has something to do with its R–rating, its apparently unknown lead, or its comedic gore. A few of these reasons seem a little questionable—who hasn't heard of Harley Quinn, especially all those die–hard fans who care about the Joker? Additionally, this movie is effectively an all–female version of Suicide Squad—complete with its ensemble title, unknown characters besides Harley Quinn and the Joker, and focus on antiheroes. Yet why did Suicide Squad have a pretty fantastic box office despite its negative reviews? Perhaps, what might be turning people off is that it's about a female antihero at the helm and its liberal use of curse words more than anything else.
Sure, this movie is no gritty Joker or solemn Batman v. Superman, but it has something those two films gravely lack—a sense of excitement. Harley is funny, silly, often foolish, and a joy to watch. There’s a certain adrenaline burst that accompanies watching her strut through a police station armed with glitter bombs and a metal bat. (Editor's note: this should be mandatory to all action movies) Its lackluster opening weekend is a tragedy of circumstances and likely a result of the film's female–focused cast making it seem unappealing to certain audiences. It's unfortunate that this film isn't performing well, because what makes Birds of Prey so good is an element many superhero movies have forgotten in the search for serious, poignant material—overall, the movie is supposed to be fun.