The night began innocently enough, with a trip to the same theater I’ve been to countless times for press screenings. Usually the biggest obstacle is simply getting there, since, sadly, it’s in the heart of Times Square. But just as soon as I entered the building and put my guard down, in came the Harley Quinns. I believe there were four of them, roaming the lobby, asking people whether they wanted (a) selfies and/or (b) their faces painted like Harley Quinn. If someone with social anxiety didn’t like being approached by strangers, I’d argue that feeling is twofold when said strangers look like they’d been shot out of a confetti cannon. (Not trying to dunk on them—they were hired for the gig, and the fans who engaged with the Harley Quinns seemed to have a great time.) Such an experience, however, ended up being a perfect prelude to Birds of Prey: a movie so delirious in its effort to imitate Harley Quinn’s headspace that it’s easier to just list some of the things that happened, so that’s exactly what I’ll do.
Here’s an incomplete-but-truly-chaotic list of things Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) does throughout Birds of Prey: She obsesses over a breakfast sandwich from her favorite Gotham bodega, noting the six-month-old expired cheese is part of the appeal; drives a fuel truck into a chemical plant; adopts a hyena (and after the man who sold it to her tries to solicit Quinn, she feeds him to the hyena); joins a roller derby team; quits the roller derby team; fantasizes about doing a Moulin Rouge!–esque musical number with actual Moulin Rouge star Ewan McGregor; ingests cocaine in the middle of a fight, which serves the same function as getting a Star in Mario Kart; and we’re informed she voted for Bernie Sanders. That last part isn’t a joke—somehow, it’s DC Extended Universe canon that Harley Quinn feels the Bern.
These moments don’t necessarily cohere as much as they double down on Birds of Prey’s gonzo energy, which hits like a sugar rush—with all the good and bad that feeling entails. At its worst, Birds of Prey gets a little too high on its own supply (Harley Quinn cocaine boost notwithstanding). I mean, the full title of this movie is actually Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn; it’s doing a lot. But when everything’s clicking in a ridiculous way, the film reaffirms that the best thing the DCEU did for itself was ignore any pretensions of Marvel-like franchise interconnectivity so that each new installment (Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Shazam) can exist on its own terms, with a sequel maybe in mind. The DCEU isn’t exactly an auteur’s playhouse, but its recent films have a more unique fingerprint than what rolls out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s assembly line; in this case, director Cathy Yan’s vision of Gotham feels like a contemporary, pop-punk update to Joel Schumacher’s ’90s-era Batman movies. (Minus the Bat Nipples.) And it is, thank the lord, a far cry from Todd Phillips’s grimy, Oscar-nominated Scorsese World.
Because Robbie’s version of the character precedes the DCEU’s change of direction—I know we all want to forget Suicide Squad, but it did happen and inexplicably won an Oscar for makeup and hairstyling—Birds of Prey is as much about emancipating Harley Quinn from the franchise’s unflattering beginnings as it is about her breaking up with the Joker. In Robbie’s defense, she was almost universally accepted as one of Suicide Squad’s few bright spots, doing the best with what was an aimless, incoherent mess. It certainly didn’t help matters that the movie’s Joker, played by a very try-hard Jared Leto, appeared in only about 15 minutes of the film yet made you feel like you were unstuck from time in a hostage situation by a dude in a terrible Comic-Con fit.
Thankfully, Birds of Prey never threatens you with a Leto reprisal. Instead, once you get past all the chaos, the Joker’s absence actually makes for an interesting premise. Because she was the Joker’s girlfriend, Harley Quinn essentially had immunity in Gotham’s criminal underworld: Despite constantly stirring up trouble, nobody was going to mess with her because that would mean dealing with the Crown Prince of Crime. (You have to suspend your disbelief and imagine being scared of Jared Leto’s Joker.)
And so, once word trickles out that Harley is on her own, everyone is looking to settle the score, including McGregor’s nightclub-owning murderer, Roman Sionis, and his knife-wielding lackey, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina). That setup eventually leads Harley to meet and team up with the rest of the ensemble: Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer at Sionis’s nightclub with secret powers; Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a young pickpocket; Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a disenfranchised Gotham detective looking to build a case against Sionis; and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an assassin looking to avenge her slain family.
The group itself is hit-and-miss—Cassandra Cain is a human MacGuffin; Huntress is an icon. And the closest superhero-film analogue to Birds of Prey is probably Deadpool. Like Deadpool, the movie sticks to its lead’s POV—down to the movie’s narration and nonlinear storytelling, intended to imitate Harley’s scattered headspace—and gleefully leans into its R rating. Faces are peeled, bones are crunched; again, a lecherous man is fed to a hyena. The most pleasant surprise, though, is the action sequences, which have cleaner compositions and longer takes than you normally see in superhero movies. This could be indebted to John Wick maestro Chad Stahelski, who reportedly worked on the film as a second-unit director for its action scenes. Birds of Prey doesn’t hold a candle to the films featuring the Baba Yaga, but in it, you definitely can see traces of their DNA.
There are much worse things a superhero movie can be these days than fun, absurd, a little dumb, and occasionally incoherent: I will take the chaos of Birds of Prey over many of the fine-tuned, by-the-numbers entries from the MCU. And while we shouldn’t have to label this as progress in 2020, it’s refreshing to see Birds of Prey positioned as a female-led ensemble that doesn’t have to aggressively market itself as such. I know I stand in the minority, but I didn’t find either Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel particularly good—they didn’t have any scenes as cringe-worthy as Avengers: Endgame’s “girl power” moment, but neither pushed the envelope in any meaningful way en route to another third act with generic CGI mayhem. Birds of Prey is a bonkers, violent, hyperkinetic movie that just so happens to have women front and center.
Behind the scenes, the film also foreshadows where the DCEU is headed. Birds of Prey screenwriter Christina Hodson—who penned 2018’s surprisingly good Transformers spinoff, Bumblebee—has been tabbed to write the upcoming Flash and Batgirl stand-alone flicks. Having a recurring scribe might help streamline the DCEU—were they ever so inclined to bring several superheroes back into the same movie and not have it flop as badly as Justice League.
There might always be corners of the DCEU fandom clamoring for the Snyder Cut, but it’s evident that the post–Justice League mandate of throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks has yielded satisfying box office returns, more critical acclaim (admittedly, the bar was low), and in one particularly nihilistic case, the potential for Oscars glory. It’s hard to see the cast of Birds of Prey coexisting with those of Aquaman, Wonder Woman, or Shazam, but that’s the point. That such a chaotic directive is coming from the MCU’s closest superhero competitor is genuinely fascinating, and a little bit endearing. The DCEU is wild enough that I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if the head of the operation were, in fact, Harley Quinn.