The DC Comics Universe Is Ready for a Rebound

In Birds of Prey, both Harley Quinn and the studio behind her are reckoning with past mistakes.

Warner Bros.

“Me and the Joker? We broke up,” Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) tells the camera early on in Birds of Prey, Cathy Yan’s new DC Comics–inspired film. This announcement of a plot point is also something of a mission statement—a declaration that Harley’s new adventure (subtitled and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) will be quite different from her last. The cartoonish, Brooklyn-accented, mallet-wielding supervillain is still a cheerful agent of chaos, but she’s no longer shackled to the Batman nemesis who launched her to fame. Birds of Prey, in short, will be no Suicide Squad.

That 2016 film, a box-office hit reviled by critics, featured Harley Quinn as she is traditionally presented within Batman media: a clownish sociopath with the ultimate bad boyfriend. The story line focused on her relationship with the Joker (played by Jared Leto), though it is perhaps a stretch to say Suicide Squad really “focused” on anything, given that it was one of the most unintelligible blockbusters ever presented on-screen. Birds of Prey is thus a very pointed breakup movie. Its goal is to separate Harley Quinn not only from the Joker, but also from the fearsome muddle of early DC Universe movies (including Batman v Superman and Justice League) that Warner Bros. is tossing aside to prepare for a more playful superhero future.

Sadly, comic-book movies made with craft and care, as opposed to jumbled horrors such as Suicide Squad, are about the best moviegoers can hope for from major studios these days. And Birds of Prey, a bloody and goofy enterprise that brings a host of other female heroes into Harley’s orbit, just about clears that bar, coming off as fun and stupid rather than purely offensive like its predecessor. Yan—an emerging filmmaker whose 2018 debut, Dead Pigs, was never widely released in America—does her best to escape from the dour palette of past DC Comics movies, filling the screen with detail and color where she can. Robbie embraces the chipper, Looney Tunes side of Harley, eschewing the moping loser who only had eyes for the Joker (or, as she put it, her “Puddin’”).

The screenplay, by Christina Hodson, loosely reminded me of High Fidelity, a masterpiece of breakup literature (and cinema) in which one big separation prompts the hero to analyze many of his past sins. After all, given Leto’s fetid rendering of the Joker, it’s hard to see his departure from Harley’s life as much of a loss in itself. But without her frightening boyfriend to back her up, Harley is forced to reckon with the gangsters and heavies who come out of the woodwork to punish her for her former misdeeds. Her biggest crime, it seems, has been obnoxiousness; Birds of Prey’s chief villain, Roman Sionis, a.k.a. Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), seems to be after her simply because she’s annoyed him for years.

Robbie skillfully wields her character’s personality as a challenge to the audience. Rather than shying away from Harley’s absurd traits—her wince-inducing accent, her habit of talking to the camera—she dials them up, daring viewers to sympathize with a heroine who should by all means be banished to the dankest prison cell. Robbie is one of the most elemental movie stars to emerge in Hollywood’s past decade, and her natural charisma just about carries off the performance.

She also has the advantage of being pitted against Black Mask and Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), a pair of repulsive antagonists who push each other to new heights of silliness whenever they share the screen. McGregor’s hatefulness is particularly lavish; he turns a B-list comic-book villain into a trust-fund gangster, a preening, velvet-suited club owner with delusions of Scarface grandeur. His vendetta against Harley serendipitously unites her with a group of similarly antiheroic women: the jaded cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez); the vengeful, crossbow-wielding Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead); the singer/bouncer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell); and the teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).

Though all these characters are drawn, with varying degrees of faithfulness, from the Birds of Prey comic series, the film takes its time knitting their stories together, as Harley’s narration flits from plot to plot with chirpy capriciousness. The reliance on fourth-wall-breaking humor and slow-motion, bone-crunching action seems indebted to Suicide Squad and its cynical, Deadpool-inspired ilk. Yan’s own flair as a storyteller is more noticeable in goofy asides: One action sequence functions as a visual ode to an egg sandwich, and Winstead’s Huntress reads every line with an exaggerated lack of self-awareness.

All in all, Birds of Prey is a mostly satisfactory amusement-park ride. The narrative is basically coherent, leaves ample space for satisfying sequels, and won’t force future entries to spend half their running time disavowing its failures. For its own part, the film picks and chooses what to carry over from its forebears in a way that’s both fascinating to watch and—as is typical with DC Comics movies—gives the sense of a plane being built in midair. But fortunately for Birds of Prey, that manic energy suits Harley Quinn just fine.