Margot Robbie’s anarchy-addicted Harley Quinn was one of the few good things about the DC Comics movie Suicide Squad (2016). The punk princess of comebacks and chaos, fashionably mismatched clothing and lurid make-up had a thing for the Joker, but Robbie’s considerable comic skills and physical energy moved this sidekick to centre stage.
A spin-off has been duly served, and it fits in neatly with conversations about the Me Too movement as well as demands for superhero films to appeal to female fans. Equal parts origins story, pop feminist saga and let’s-blow-up-a-few things adventure, Birds of Prey, directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson, is as giddy and glib as can be.
Robbie is in dazzling form as Harley Quinn, who goes from appendage to main muscle in a boisterous and cheeky ode to sisterhood. Harley has broken up with the Joker, which means that she is now vulnerable to attacks from everybody she has ever wronged (the list is long).
Harley’s trajectory from reluctant singleton to professional vigilante involves a bunch of female wayfarers: police officer Renee (Rosie Perez), who is constantly passed over for credit at her workplace, nightclub singer Dinah (Jurnee Smollet-Bell)¸the mysterious crossbow-wielding Helena (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and the young pickpocket Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco). The excuse for assembling these disparate women is the smooth and sinister Roman Sinions (Ewan McGregor), who seeks to extend his empire by grabbing a whatsit with the power to unlock immense fortune and unbridled power.
Harley might have had a thing to say about how contrived the set-up is – and she does. Her knowing and ironic patter sends up the ponderousness that is often found in movies adapted from comic books. Harley’s pet hyena is named after a much-loved caped crusader, and her commentary, which serves as a voiceover, urges us to be caught dead before asking, “Why so serious?”
The frivolity thins out the material, but suits its treatment. The pop-hued production design is a visual delight, and the kinetic action pieces, set to rock music performed mostly by female artists, are as relentless as Harley’s snark. The tone is light and the violence gratuitous, but the performances by the entire cast are very serious. Ewan McGregor’s outstanding turn ensures that Roman is both a preening joke as well as a despicable monster. Roman’s greatest fault isn’t his overweening narcissism but his misogyny, and McGregor sometimes switches tone from parodic to beastly within the same sentence to reveal his sordid nature.
The Joker is both absent and present in Birds of Prey. Jared Leto’s take on the iconic villain in Suicide Squad left much to be desired, and he is mercifully missing from the new movie. Joaquin Phoenix’s layered interpretation in Todd Phillips’s Joker (2019) too has perhaps buried Leto’s version for good, which can only be a good thing.
Birds of Prey gives Harley a new direction, but the need to soft-pedal her journey of self-discovery and locate her in a crowd of similarly put-down women means that she doesn’t evolve too much beyond Suicide Squad. Harley has a bigger canvas to play with, more heads to bash in and more things to blow up, and Margot Robbie’s spunk and charisma ensure that Harley’s nihilism retains an edge of humanity. Birds of Prey delivers a satisfying action spectacle led by women, but poignancy is the one element missing in the make-up of its addle-brained heroine. The seriousness that accompanied the Joker’s latest outing is sacrificed for ultraviolet and ultraviolent mayhem laced with feminist-lite assertions about how girls can have fun too.