On February 7th, Warner Brothers released Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), their first DC film of 2020, with mixed results. An indirect sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey tells the story of Harley Quinn as she teams up with a group of heroines to escape a mad man with a habit of cutting people’s faces off.
Margot Robbie reprises her role as Harley Quinn, but she’s the only returning player from Suicide Squad. Alongside her are newcomers Black Canary, Huntress, and Renee Montoya, played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Rosie Perez, respectively.
Featuring not only a mostly female cast, but a mostly female production team, Birds of Prey pulls its weight when it comes to female representation in Hollywood. “I think there is this sort of cinematic history of it,” said Director Cathy Yan in an interview with NPR. “You know, you want to just hoot and holler when these antiheroes stick it to the system. These are bad guys that these women fight, and they represent a system that has been pushing these women down. A lot of people can relate to that. And at the same time, it's fun.
Robbie is also teaming up with screenwriter Christina Hodson to run the Lucky Exports Pitch Program. “The new initiative has selected six women to participate in a four-week program where they will break, outline and develop their ideas into studio-ready pitches.” wrote Borys Kit in an article for the Hollywood Reporter. “The projects are intended to be original action features with the aim of demonstrating the participants’ ability to write action.”
There are parts of this movie I loved and parts that I think are questionable, but overall I thought it was a solid movie. Most of the film’s 109 minute runtime is spent on Harley’s breakup with the Joker and subsequent fallout, which ends up working really well. Unfortunately it comes at the cost of Black Canary and Huntress’s character arcs.
The story is framed as a retrospective from Harley’s point of view, meaning that she’s retelling the story to the audience after the events have already happened. Because of this, the story is told in a totally jumbled non-linear mess that can be difficult to follow, and I love it, it’s exactly the way that Harley Quinn would tell a story and it makes for an excellently paced movie.
Opposite Robbie’s Harley Quinn is Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis, better known as the Black Mask, the aforementioned mad man who likes “defacing” people (see what I did there?). On paper, Sionis is a pretty “whatever” villain: he’s greedy, sadistic, and he likes cutting faces off. Why? It’s anybody’s guess. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s clear from the very beginning that McGregor is having a blast, and the energy he brings makes him so much fun to watch on screen.
Now onto what didn’t work. While Harley gets to spread her wings and take center stage, the other heroines feel sidelined for most of the movie. Black Canary’s entire reason for being in the movie is because Sionis suddenly decides that, instead of singing at his club, Black Canary should be his… driver? It’s a decision that completely broke my immersion because I couldn’t stop asking myself why that would happen. And to top it off, her defining moment during the climax is poorly setup explained within the context of the film.
And Black Canary was the better character. I straight up forgot that Huntress was supposed to be in the movie because she isn’t even introduced until there’s thirty minutes left. There are breadcrumbs throughout the film that hint at her existence, but she feels shoehorned in for the final fight without the proper amount of time utilized to develop her character.
Birds of Prey is the third female led comic book movie of the modern day, being preceded by Wonder Woman in 2017 and Captain Marvel in 2019. Wonder Woman was praised on virtually all fronts and earned a 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, and while Captain Marvel had mixed reception, it became the first female led comic book film to break a billion dollars at the box office.
While Birds of Prey has done generally well critically, it’s an undeniable box office flop. Both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel broke $100 million on their respective opening weekends, but Birds of Prey only made $33.5 million, and still hasn’t even made $200 million worldwide.
Birds of Prey is currently number three at the domestic weekend box office at just under $7 million, coming in behind The Call of the Wild at number two with just under $25 million, and Sonic the Hedgehog at number one with over $26 billion. Sonic gained a massive following after Paramount completely redesigned the titular hedgehog, which means that Birds of Prey is likely to continue suffering at the box office.
Overall, Birds of Prey is a good time at the movies. There’s a strong female empowerment message layered within a fun and well paced ass-kicking adventure, and there are (hopefully) more to come. Cate Shortland’s Black Widow releases in May, and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 releases in June.