BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) – Film Review

It’s open season on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) when her explosive breakup with the Joker puts a big fat target on her back. Unprotected and on the run, Quinn faces the wrath of narcissistic crime boss Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), his right-hand man, Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), and every other thug in the city. But things soon even out for Harley when she becomes unexpected allies with three deadly women — Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is not only one mouthful of a movie title, but it was one of my most anticipated movies in years. It was most certainly my most anticipated comic book related film since last year’s Avengers: Endgame, which I ended up really adoring. I know that later on in the year, May to be specific, we are getting the new Black Widow movie which many Marvel fans have been waiting years to see, myself included, and while I am definitely excited for that, Birds of Prey just seemed more enticing to me.

The eighth film in the long-spanning DC Extended Universe (DCEU), Birds of Prey truly looked completely different from any other installment in the franchise to date. Not only that, but it looked like it could be one of the most unique comic book films of all time.

Margot Robbie as Harleen Quinzel / Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020).

It may be a controversial opinion, in fact, I am sure it is, but I truthfully enjoy every single DCEU movie to date. For the most part, people enjoyed Man of Steel, but on the other hand, its sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, not so much. I personally loved it. However, the film in the franchise that perhaps gets the most hate, is none other than David Ayer’s 2016 feature Suicide Squad. Many people watched the trailer and got extremely excited and ended up being incredibly disappointed in the final product. While I certainly agree that the film could definitely have been better, overall, I had more positives with that movie than I did negatives.

But the thing that critics and audiences all around the world seemed to agree upon with that movie was that Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn was absolutely amazing. She embodied the character perfectly, and so many people were excited to see what adventures her character would go on in the future. The character is without a doubt one of the most beloved in all of comics, and has been featured in many different forms of media.

Now, let’s go back to Birds of Prey. I vividly remember watching that first official “See You Soon” teaser trailer that was released over a year ago and getting extremely giddy over seeing the return of Robbie’s Harley Quinn and the introduction to plenty of new faces such as Huntress and Black Canary. Plus Ewan McGregor as the villanious Roman Sionis / Black Mask sounded like an absolute dream. Honestly, all of the promotional material for this film was top notch, and I’d even argue that the film was marketed better than its predecessor too, which was hailed for its posters and trailers even though many did not like the final product as I mentioned earlier.

If anybody knows me, you know that I greatly enjoy comic book movies. I have been an avid comic book and superhero fan ever since I was a young kid, and so getting to see all these characters that I grew up loving on the big screen in live-action format is always a ton of fun to see. However, as a film critic, I have to make sure to never go into any movie with bias. I couldn’t just walk into Birds of Prey and say it was amazing simply because I love Harley Quinn or something like that. I have to watch this film, and every film, with a critical viewpoint. I have to look out for things that just don’t work. Plot holes, continuity errors, script problems, etc.

Now that all of that is out of the way, let me say what I have been wanting to say for a long time now. Birds of Prey is one of the best comic book films of all time. I would even argue that it is top three of all time. This is a movie that is so bold and in your face and so unapologetically weird and it is all the better for it.

Margot Robbie as Harleen Quinzel / Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020).

From the opening scene alone it is evident that director Cathy Yan had an extraordinarily fresh and exciting vision for this film. She was not setting out to make just another generic and forgettable superhero story. She does things with these characters that we have truly never seen done before and she ensures that there is always something exciting happening on screen whether it is character wise or visually.

Her direction is some of the best there is to be found in the genre. The way she crafted Birds of Prey is honestly inspiring, especially considering that she is a woman. Not too many superhero/comic book movies are directed by women, which is a shame. But Yan has a powerful voice and she uses it with this film.

Birds of Prey‘s script is written by Christina Hodson, who previously wrote the screenplay for the 2018 Transformers spinoff Bumblebee, another movie that I ended up greatly enjoying. The thing that Bumblebee did the best was show its heart. It proved that even a Transformers movie could make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, and Birds of Prey made me feel the same way. Hodson’s script here is so wild and insane that it is actually kind of interesting to think how she went about writing this movie. There is truly never a wasted moment here. There’s never a scene where there is a bit of down time. Every single scene has something of meat and interest happening, and the dialogue is pitch perfect, too.

She writes the character of Harleen Quinzel / Harley Quinn in a way that has never been done before. Harley Quinn has always been a character that has primarily been seen as the Joker’s girlfriend. His sidekick. The Clown Prince of Crime and the Cupid of Crime. Even in the aforementioned Suicide Squad, Harley was almost always involved with Jared Leto’s Joker in one way or another. But Hodson aimed to change that seemingly for good in this cinematic universe, and it worked tremendously well.

Never did I ever think that the character of Harley Quinn would make me emotional and almost inspired. She is a character that does a lot of crazy things and she is not typically seen as a hero or anything. She is a villain by nature. She even does some villainous things in this movie. But Hodson’s script gave her such a great character arc and developed her as a character so much. She actually found a way to bring Harley Quinn down to Earth and make her relatable to us all. Like I said, yes, she does do villainous things in the film. But she also does some great heroic stuff too, and by the end of the story, you are rooting for her all the way.

Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis / Black Mask in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020).

Speaking of this character, Margot Robbie yet again delivers an absolutely show-stopping performance. Robbie was born to play this beautifully chaotic character, and after watching Birds of Prey, I truly cannot see another actress playing the role as well as she does. Whether it is dancing around, doing crazy acrobatics or even bringing a tear to our eyes, Margot is one of the biggest reasons why Harley Quinn is so lovable this time around. She genuinely delivers in my opinion, her greatest performance of all time and this film further cements her as one of the most talented actresses not only of this generation, but of all time.

But let’s take a moment to talk about the other members of this team. Huntress is a character that was deeply funny at times, but also had a tragic and depressing backstory that makes you feel for her and understand her plight. She wants to set out and do something and you understand why completely. Mary Elizabeth Winstead does a terrific job in this role and she gets plenty of scenes to truly shine.

Another excellent addition to this cast was Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Dinah Lance / Black Canary. She is probably one of the characters that gets the most screen time, besides Harley Quinn. Canary is fleshed out perfectly here, just like the aforementioned Huntress. We always understand what her mission is, what she wants to do, and why she wants to do it. There is also one scene involving her that honestly left me with my mouth dropped in complete shock. It was such an amazing scene.

In addition, Rosie Perez portrays Renee Montoya, one of the lead protagonists in the story. Her character was one that seemed fairly normal at first. But as the film progressed, the more lovable and hilarious she became too. This is without a doubt one of the best performances of Perez’s career. Finally, Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain is brilliant. Her character is absolutely pivotal to the overall storyline here, and so casting the right child actress for the part was surely a hard task. The casting team did a great job at picking an amazing Cain. Basco has not acted in much as of now, but with this great performance now under her belt, I expect that to change soon.

Throughout the course of the past decade, ever since the release of Man of Steel, one of the biggest complaints with the DCEU is its color palette. Many people have complained that almost all of the movies look extremely bland and watered down, with the exception of the excellent Wonder Woman. Even though I do enjoy these movies like I said, I have to agree that the previous films in the franchise look quite dull. Luckily, the same cannot be said about Birds of Prey. This is without a doubt one of the most colorful and visually eye-pleasing comic book movies of all time. Every single frame is bursting with beautiful colors with many of diverse colors in the palette being used. There was truly never a scene that looked ugly or boring.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Helena Bertinelli / Huntress in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020).

What also helps these colors shine through is the superb cinematography by Matthew Libatique, who has previously served as the director of photography on other superhero films such as Iron Man 2 and Venom. This is definitely Libatique’s best work in the comic book world to date. The way he frames certain shots was utterly brilliant and is one of the most well shot films in the genre.

Something that I have seen a lot of people take issue with in Birds of Prey is its editing style, with many comparing it to Greta Gerwig’s Little Women. Both films have had many people complain and say that the storyline is hard to follow and is incredibly confusing because of its editing, but I have to disagree completely. Actually, I found the editing to be extremely fresh and exciting, with many of the edits being fascinating.

As this is a comic book movie, I expected Birds of Prey to contain some wild and intense action sequences, but even still, I was blown away by how well done the action and fight choreography was handled here. Chad Stahelski, director of the John Wick franchise, served as a stunt coordinator on this film, and it is so easy to tell. All of the action scenes look beautifully crafted. All of the fight sequences are in camera and there is no shaky cam utilized. We can always tell who is fighting who. The entire stunt team found ways to do some incredibly impressive things here and their work needs to be praised.

Birds of Prey is going to get some comparisons to Tim Miller’s 2016 Marvel feature Deadpool. In fact, I have already seen the comparisons. But, truthfully, I enjoyed Birds of Prey a whole lot more than I did Deadpool. Keep in mind that Deadpool is a movie that I adore. The main reason why these two films are getting compared to one another is due to its wacky sense of humor and its use of fourth wall breaking. Deadpool constantly talks to the camera in his film, and Harley does the same in this film and even narrates the entire story.

But like I said, I think that Birds of Prey handled its humor and self-awareness better. The humor here is gut-bustingly hilarious with every single joke landing flawlessly. I kept waiting for a joke to come and fall flat, but that never happened. It is one of the funniest movies in years which is all the more impressive when you consider that it is a superhero movie.

As a whole, this movie floored me. Rarely do I get this giddy to talk about a film, but when a movie like this comes around, that excitement happens. This is the type of film that will inspire me and many others around the world to make movies. It’s a movie that means something to me and I cannot wait to see it a second time. Then a third time. Then a fourth time.

Birds of Prey is an unapologetically bonkers and beautifully colorful comic book adventure and is one of the genre’s all-time best. It also boasts stellar performances all across the board, namely from Margot Robbie who perfectly encapsulates Harley Quinn.

Overall Grade: A+

MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and language throughout, and some sexual and drug material

Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor

Directed by: Cathy Yan

Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures

Release Date: February 7, 2020 (United States)

Running Time: 109 minutes

 

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