The DC cinematic universe has a complicated timeline. That may be a simple statement on a long-gestating problem, but for the fans who champion DC’s superhero films, there have been few genuinely successful ones in terms of both tone and fan engagement. Even then, the successful ones manage to mar their quality with poorly thought out sequels (e.g., Wonder Woman and then, unfortunately, Wonder Woman 1984.)
Not to say that DC hasn’t managed to imbue its screen efforts with the same level of quality found in its comics. In recent years films such as Shazam! and Aquaman brought new life to the genre through either a fresh conceit or endlessly charming lead (Jason Momoa).
Even greater still are all of the animated outputs the studio has mined over the years. From Batman the Animated Series to the more recent Harley Quinn, the animated series have instilled new energy into longtime canonical characters while ranging in tone, style, and plot. And only one live-action entry into the DC cinematic universe captures the similar vibrant energy of the animated series, and that’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
Between director Cathy Yan’s unbridled enthusiasm behind the camera and her confident take on who Margot Robbie’s iteration of Harley Quinn is, Birds of Prey is an endlessly watchable and vibrant take on the superhero genre. Operating like an animated film with its bouts of dream sequences, cartoonish violence, and stylized set pieces, Birds of Prey captures the livewire energy a movie about Harley Quinn must possess while also convincing the audience why this character is someone worth rooting for. Here’s why you should stream Birds of Prey before it leaves HBO Max on November 14.
Harley Quinn’s characterization has been all over the map between Birds of Prey and both versions of the Suicide Squad. But it’s Yan’s version that is most layered, offering the most complex understanding of the character so far. Here Harley is (pointedly) more independent in the aftermath of her being dumped by “Mr. J” as she tries to avoid all of the enemies she has now that she no longer has the Joker’s protection while healing from that toxic relationship.
Therefore, Birds of Prey showcases her greatest traits. She is an amalgamation of contradictions, from her street-savvy intellect and ability to be easily distracted to her fierce, relentless fighting style and impulsive curiosity. She has heart — as shown by her protection of Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), but the story doesn’t defang Harley. She is always tirelessly ruthless. Even while injected with a sedative, she manages to get a few petty stabs in (literally) to Chris Messina’s henchman Victor Zsasz.
The ensemble as a whole is strong, especially the actresses that round out the titular “Birds of Prey” with Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jurnee Smollett. They all instill enough life into the characters of Renee Montoya, The Huntress, and Black Canary. We’re able to believe that even if they don’t like one another, they will work together to take down Ewan McGregor’s villainous Black Mask.
So much of the film's success hinges on Robbie and the writing, and both she and screenwriter Christina Hodson are up to the task. There’s blissfully very little subtlety in Birds of Prey, a movie that prefers bombastic set pieces and colorful, crisply choreographed fight sequences to anything nearing reality. Robbie delivers just enough subtlety, however, for her broadly drawn and fascinatingly depicted character to still feel real enough so that the stakes — both self-inflicted and she’s a victim of — are high.
These contrasting aspects build Birds of Prey to be such a wildly engaging ride of a film. The absurdist elements don’t undercut moments of catharsis, such as Harley and her team raiding her old storage armory to confront upcoming threats, essentially weaponizing her troubled past to confront her deadly present. The “serious” moments don’t take themselves all that seriously too.
Instead, Yan, Hodson, and Robbie take Harley Quinn and her emotional wounds seriously while never forgetting the fictionalized and heightened world she lives in. Because of that, Birds of Prey executes a brilliant tonal balance that makes the film the best DC cinematic universe and one of the best superhero films, period.
Birds of Prey is streaming on HBO Max until November 14, 2021.