The first twenty minutes of Birds of Prey left me broken.
For a moment, I thought it was 2016 again, when DC Films batted below average. The early moments of Birds of Prey feel like a throwback to the era of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, which made it tempting to write it off.
Then, something incredible happened.
In theaters Friday, director Cathy Yan's Birds of Prey jumps off from David Ayer's Suicide Squad. Margot Robbie returns as villainess Harley Quinn, on the rebound from splitting with Joker (Jared Leto never shows up, which is probably for the best). She soon finds herself tangled up in a hunt for a precious jewel that's the key to accessing the Bertinelli crime family fortune.
After a wobbly first act that feels like the product of reshoots, Birds of Prey takes a hard 180 when it shifts into a true "getting the gang together" heist romp. Harley teams up with disgruntled detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), misfit teenager Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), butt-kicking club singer Dinah (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and the vengeful Bertinelli heiress Helena (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Together, they take on Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), a violent crime lord who needs the Bertinelli fortune to ensure his reign atop Gotham City's underworld.
Just as Robbie eerily inhabits Harley's skin, Birds of Prey succeeds because the supporting cast serves up definitive onscreen versions of comic standbys Huntress, Black Canary, and Batgirl. It could have been so easy for Robbie to have a movie all to herself. Instead, the actor-turned-producer wisely surrounded herself with a killer ensemble.
It's the most authentic representation of the comics since Superman and Deadpool.
Dinah is the necessary straight arrow, Cassandra is The Kid, and Rosie's Renee is the seasoned cop who should be too old for this shit but secretly can't get enough of it. Then there's Helena, the true breakout with a relentless appetite for chewing scenery, Winstead her long-deserved moment to shine as an action hero, years after Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and 10 Cloverfield Lane showcased her formidable chops.
A certain segment of the fandom will grumble that Birds of Prey's stars don't look like they do in the comics (see this dunked-on viral tweet for one example). Dinah is one of the most famous blondes in the DC Universe, while Cassandra Cain is a mute Eurasian ninja. But Smollet-Bell is black, and Basco, a Korean-Filipina, plays Cassandra as a pickpocket who can't fight. Yet it's abundantly clear these actors intimately understand their characters to the core; in their own way, each of them is flawed and eager for the belonging only close friendships can bring. When all these women are together, the movie is dynamite.
Birds of Prey may be the most visually disloyal comic book movie in DC history. But at its heart, it's the most authentic representation of the comics since Superman and Deadpool.
Don't let all this talk of heart and intimacy fool you, though. Birds of Prey is a martial arts movie in disguise, with choreography reminiscent of The Raid, the liberal bloodletting of Logan, and camera direction straight from the Jackie Chan playbook. It is boldly unafraid to punish Harley Quinn, who takes the most brutal licks of the gang.
Too often, superhero movies refuse to let heroes look vulnerable. Birds of Prey brings gravity back to the comic-book universe.
More often than not, that punishment is meted out by Ewan McGregor as the violent, flamboyant crime boss Roman Sionis/Black Mask. In one scene, he berates a bar patron, forcing her to strip on a table amid deafening silence, save for her shallow sobs.
It's a world away from the sensitive fellows McGregor's best known for playing, from Obi-Wan to Beginners. Still, there's something out of sync with Black Mask, and it somehow feels like he's forcing himself into a movie where he doesn't totally belong. While his Drag Race inflected take on the character is mesmerizing, other than the bar scene, he's not really all that nefarious. Perhaps hewing closer to the Patrick Bateman-like comic version would have allowed him to be a bit more menacing, but overall it feels like a missed opportunity.
Birds of Prey isn't perfect, but in moments it soars, bringing attitude and grace into a crowded superhero space. It sets a new high-water mark for DC movies, and shines in contrast to the clunky writing and forced "outrageousness" of Suicide Squad. With characters who feel alive and dimensional, a candy-coated hip-hop soundtrack, and more bloodlust than the Avengers ever had, Birds of Prey will leave you craving for more.
Birds of Prey opens in theaters on Friday.