It feels like DC has finally discovered what fun means. Combined with the surprisingly delightful SHAZAM from last year, there’s a new air about the iconic publisher turned film studio. Gone are the leatherbound alpha men and the self-important amazons; this year belongs entirely to the women of Gotham. In a twist that no one saw coming, BIRDS OF PREY is not just a fantastic movie, it just might the important step DC needed in the right direction.
Yes, it’s still very silly and no, it’s not going to win Oscars. Your mileage will also vary by how much you put up with meta-shenanigans. For those willing to take a ride, BIRDS is exactly the kind of revitalization this genre needs. Funny without being a parody; dark without being edgy; sexy without being sexualized, Cathy Yan’s brilliant blockbuster is a balancing act of great skill. It feels like a breath of fresh air, despite not doing anything particularly new. Instead it uses familiar tropes to re-establish genre rules as told by a woman.
In a first for DC (or Marvel), BIRDS is an entirely female-led film that’s neither a prequel or a period piece. Previous films have allowed women to only play in established timelines, leaving any future worldbuilding solely to men. Even BLACK WIDOW, out in April, sets the story between the CIVIL and INFINITY WAR films. So when BIRDS begins with Harley breaking up with Joker (unseen in the film) by blowing up the Acme Chemical Plant and her ties with “established lore,” you know it means business. Not content with just being its own thing, BIRDS OF PREY feels like a trendsetter in the DC universe.
Harley and Joker break up, leading to Harley becoming the number one most wanted in Gotham. Everyone wants her dead, and without her ex for protection the next few days promise to be interesting. Mimicking both KILL BILL and BORDERLANDS, BIRDS introduces us to would-be assassins with helpful prompts explaining their beef with Harley. These range from the understandable (fed brother to a hyena), to the hilarious (Harley voted for Bernie.) There’s also an aside regarding The Big Bad and his desire for a diamond, but it’s a macguffin at best. Black Mask (a terrifying Ewan McGregor) is fine, but he’s the kind of villain more fun to thwart than listen. Mocking misogyny and fragile masculinity with gusto, McGregor has crafted one of the finest comic book villains to date.
The smart script by Christina Hodson weaves in more than a few subtle and overt jabs at societal issues, each unexpected but wholly welcome. The leads are anti-heroes with unsound methods, but also products of a patriarchal society that made them this way. Dealing with abusive relationships, trauma, and harassment culture, BIRDS handles its heavy themes with surprising nuance amidst the hyperactivity.
That’s not to say the film isn’t gloriously loopy when it wants to be: In one of the less subtle moments Black Mask literally objectifies bodies for display in his apartment. Narrated by the ever unreliable Harley, BIRDS gets away with some contrivances on pure charm alone. The plot speeds along nicely and is never boring, but because Harley is by nature unpredictable and loopy, some of the detours feel a tad excessive. It’s a minor quibble, especially about a film that uses a musical number as a coping mechanism for violence.
Though bright and colorful, Gotham feels like a city that greatness left behind years ago. Mixin both modern and timeless together, Yan and her team have created the most believable Gotham since Christopher Nolan. I believed at every turn this is a city where something like the Acme plant could be right around the corner. A late game trip to an abandoned amusement park is also a killer. Built on a rickety pier decades ago, it holds the kind gothic majesty last seen in Tim Burton’s BATMAN RETURNS.
The action likewise is better than in anything in recent memory, even compared to grandiose fair like INFINITY WAR. Yan smartly keeps the camera far from the action as possible, giving us a clear view of the elaborate and brutal choreography. Much of the heavy lifting is done by a very game Margot Robbie, who rises to the task effortlessly. (A highlight sees her take on goons in an evidence lockup where random items get weaponized with increasing efficiency). It finally makes it clear why Harley is such a feared figure in Gotham. It’s also a great joy in seeing one of the all time greats, Rosie Perez, get her due as a badass action hero on the big screen. Not that anyone is a slouch: BIRDS features one of the finest combinations of actors and stunt crews in ages.
Speaking of crews, BIRDS thrives when the leading ladies share a screen together. Hodson’s script allows each of them a brief origin story (though not the way you might think). When it happens, their alliance feels like a natural extension of singular adventures. Each shares a wonderful chemistry with one another, and their camaraderie is a delight. Whether it’s the overlapping dialog or friendly teasing, the group feels like they’ve always belonged on the big screen. While the breathless pace allows for some character building, a sequel will benefit from more gabbing and less punching. Where something like JUSTICE LEAGUE struggled to get some of the biggest comic book icons to stay in the same room for five minutes, BIRDS feels loose and relaxed.
Clocking in at a brisk 100 minutes, BIRDS is just as long as it needs to be. Are the things that could have been cut? Sure. An unremarkable scene involving sexual harassment goes on too long without accomplishing anything we didn’t already know. And the opening might be somewhat twee for certain tastes. But honestly? Who cares. This is a standalone comic book that doesn’t rely on anything else but itself, and it doesn’t set up a sequel. It’s just so self-assured that it naturally assumes we’re going to want one.
And damn it, they’re right. Where her beau has settled for becoming an icon for impotent white rage, BIRDS OF PREY breathes new life in a franchise running on empty.