'Birds of Prey' gives Harley Quinn the attention she deserves — if not a coherent plot

Considering how badly “Suicide Squad” was received, it’s a little surprising how much “Birds of Prey” leans into the original’s chaotic and violent tendencies.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Rosie Perez as Renee Montoy, Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary in "Birds of Prey."
Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Rosie Perez as Renee Montoy, Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary in "Birds of Prey."Claudette Barius / DC Comics/Warner Bros.
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By Ani Bundel

“Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” is the latest installment from DC Films, a would-be rival to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. The movie is a direct sequel to 2016’s flop “Suicide Squad,” considered the nadir of the franchise. It stars the only character worth keeping from that misbegotten experiment: Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, and is the first female-led superhero film that is neither a period piece nor a prequel. It’s also the first of four superhero films to be helmed by a female director in 2020 (Cathy Yan), and one of three blockbuster franchises in 2020 written by women (Christina Hodson).

This all-woman superhero film is just as loud, scattered and mindlessly violent as its predecessor. But it has a lot more fun — and heart — then “Suicide Squad,” suggesting DC Films has finally found a way to turn the franchise in the right direction.

This all-woman superhero film is just as loud, scattered and mindlessly violent as its predecessor. But it has a lot more fun — and heart — then “Suicide Squad."

The current DC universe, at least on the big screen, began with 2013’s “Man of Steel.” Initially envisioned as a the first of a trilogy, “Man of Steel” was supposed to remake Superman as a dark anti-hero, like “The Dark Knight” had done for Batman. But the success of Marvel’s box-office smash “The Avengers” in 2012 meant that, overnight, standalone comic book trilogies were rendered last century’s news in favor of multifilm interconnected universes.

As it turns out, reorienting an already bleak and fascist-leaning Clark Kent to be the basis of an entire franchise was a bad idea. The follow-ups, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Justice League,” were laughed at by critics for their pouting powered people, as the series attempted to make superheroes into disillusioned souls.

“Suicide Squad” went a step further, taking comic book villains and giving them the anti-hero spin. But the result was a hard-bitten, pessimistic and grotesquely violent horror show more interested in making sure audiences could hear the bones crack than follow the plot.

DC Films has recently had a few more hits, like “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman,” which succeeded by leaving behind that early cynicism for idealism and hilarity. Both of those, plus a third hit, “Shazam,” were all the beginnings of new trilogies within the overall universe, not sequels to previous failures.

Unfortunately, “Birds of Prey” does not excise the ugly of its previous outing. Nor does it abandon the reimagining of Harley from a Harlequin-bodysuit-wearing cartoon into a Lolita sexpot. Considering how badly “Suicide Squad” was received, it’s a little surprising how much “Birds of Prey” leans into the original’s chaotic and violent tendencies.

So Harley is still fighting in Daisy Duke shorts, but she’s cut her pigtails short and is clearly having a blast with a new wardrobe that’s still pretty impractical and a lot more sequined. The film begins right after Quinn breaks up with Joker, blessedly relegating the already overplayed character to offscreen. (Sometimes you have to throw the whole man away, no matter how many Oscar nominations he has.) To celebrate her freedom, Quinn blows up Gotham City’s toxic chemical waste plant, goes on an epic bar crawl and finds the ultimate hangover breakfast sandwich.

But Quinn’s lack of a love life is not all that’s happening in Gotham. It would be impossible to sum up the convoluted, ridiculous plot in a few words. The important bits include a new serial killer in town (Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress), a police detective who is tired of being passed over by her department’s boy’s club (Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya) and a singer who is becoming more and more enmeshed in the city’s underworld (Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary). Most importantly, there’s a kid, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who just swallowed a diamond belonging to Gotham kingpin Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who also happens to be the supervillain Black Mask. And he really wants that diamond back.

Quinn’s lack of a love life is not all that’s happening in Gotham. It would be impossible to sum up the convoluted, ridiculous plot in a few words.

Chaos obviously ensues, as do several fight sequences that revel in Quinn’s love of baseball bats and her Harlequin hammer. But though Robbie’s Quinn is the film’s selling point, she’s not actually the title character. (The film’s absurdly long subtitle exists to fit her in.) The titular “Birds of Prey” are Smollett-Bell, Perez and Winstead, which means all three get plenty of solo screen time. Perez and Smollett-Bell take up the bulk of it, leading to long stretches depicting two women of color kicking butt.

It’s a little disconcerting that, like “Suicide Squad,” the violence is so in your face. It’s also remarkable that after the bright spots of “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman,” “Birds of Prey” goes back to the dark and rainy Gotham established in “Man of Steel.” But at least Yan uses this gritty milieu as a canvas for her brightly dressed heroines to pop against as they wreak havoc.

By the time the film gets to its main showdown — five women again Black Mask’s assembled “Men of Gotham” — the action has melted down into a funhouse romp featuring women taking down male attackers in increasingly ridiculous and enjoyable ways.

“Birds of Prey” serves as a reminder that the “Suicide Squad” concept wasn’t wrong; it was just badly done. The new film finds a bit more joy amid the cracking limbs, and a lot more family. Also, random footwear changes during major fight sequences. Trust me, you’ll be glad Quinn found time to put on roller skates. Alongside the talented Robbie, this big-screen franchise may finally be rolling in the right direction.