“A harlequin is nothing without a master,” says an intoxicated Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) as she’s drinking her feelings away at a nightclub, trying unsuccessfully to move on from The Joker. Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is the DC Universe’s attempt to make Harley the master of her own narrative in her first solo film. Directed by Cathy Yan, the film is set in its mission to carve out a semi-feminist path for the usually sidelined character. The character’s origins trace back to the beloved Batman: The Animated Series, which gave her agency and pathos as often as it did quips and gags in service to her boyfriend boss The Joker. As she quickly became a fan favorite, expanding to comics and other adaptations, ensuing depictions have faltered. For every Harley Quinn (DC Universe’s original animated series), there’s a Suicide Squad, which fumbled its portrayal of Harley as a sexualized sidekick to The Joker who was subject to one too many Male Gaze moments. Still, Margot Robbie’s performance elevated what was on the page into being one of the film’s rare bright spots. Viewers wanted to see more of her—and less of Leto’s Joker. Birds of Prey makes the effort to distance itself from the legacy and concerns of the universally panned antihero movie that introduced us to Robbie’s Quinn and establishing itself as a liberating girl-power movie centered on a chaotic, unapologetic woman who no longer is tied to any man.
Ed note: Mild spoilers for Birds of Prey follow.
Birds of Prey is a breakup movie. It starts with Harley announcing her split from Joker, telling the audience that she handled it with poise when, really, she tries to overcome the breakup messily (like most of us would): she chops off her hair, orders Chinese takeout, adopts a hyena, and tries to get rid of the physical mementos of her relationship. Unlike most people, Harley takes everything to the Ultra Destructive Level. She drunkenly stumbles across the Ace Chemicals plant where she vowed her love for The Joker, drives a truck into the plant, and watches the phantasmic explosion with a feeling of liberation and peace—all while incidentally painting a huge target on her back.
A Harley who announces herself as apart from The Joker is a Harley who announces she’s no longer under his formidable protection, a card she’d previously pulled enough places around Gotham to rack up a ton of enemies who’d love to exact revenge now that they can. The most dangerous of which is Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), an eccentric gangster trying to assume control of Gotham City’s power vacuum.
Concurrently, Prey features several other classic Batverse women: the tough-as-nails Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, in her bag playing Rosie Perez), the mysterious Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who might murder everyone else in the ensemble with the least screentime), and the jaded would-be hero Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), all of whom end up rallying or threatening young Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco, dialed in for maximum Precocious Teen). All told, this movie could’ve just been Suicide Squad: Ladies’ Night. But Yan, and the script’s sole credited writer Christina Hodson, weave the storylines together with style and flair, employing everything from nonlinear timelines to funny lower-thirds for every one of Harley’s would-be assassins. It’s far from groundbreaking, but every time Prey approaches a cliche—like Montoya’s stock cop one-liners or Huntress’ antiheroine badassery—the film fully leans into it and all-but winks at the camera.
All of it adds up to, if not the best movie since DC and WB began trying to get a post-Nolan universe going, then the most fun one. As proudly ridiculous as Aquaman is, as sturdy and thrilling as Wonder Woman could be, both films—considered the beacons in the universe—lose steam, flounder, in places, suffer from Milquetoast Villain Syndrome, etc. Birds of Prey has Ewan McGregor chewing every line reading of “Ewww” like it’s filet mignon and getting fits off alongside an overqualified Chris Messina as the film’s requisite psycho henchman (to say nothing of their understated but oft-implied homoerotic relationship).
Birds of Prey is a colorful, eccentric, somewhat scatterbrained journey that gives Harley the shines she deserves. More importantly, it’s consistent for its entirety and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Powered by strong performances, some deftly choreographed fight sequences, and a full embrace of the R-rating, it’s an antihero movie that liberates its protagonist from the narrative soup of the universe’s previous films and gives her her own agency. She moves on and kicks ass, without a care in the world for whose ass she kicks. “A harlequin is nothing without a master.” Consider this Robbie, Yan and Hodson’s redefinition.