Cathy Yan sets a new benchmark for the female-led superhero film with this relentlessly enjoyable crime caper
In what promises to be a new era of female-led comic book adaptations, many of which are set to hit our screens in 2020, director Cathy Yan arrives leading the charge with Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Accompanied by an airtight script from writer Christina Hodson (Bumblebee), her film is a wildly confident and relentlessly entertaining punk rock caper, filled to the brim with gleeful brutality and fronted by an exhilarating lead performance from Margot Robbie.
It begins, appropriately, with Harley dumping the Joker, Gotham’s most feared criminal – and with him, her immunity. No one would have previously dared to mess with “Joker’s girl,” but having made their split public after a particularly explosive farewell, she inadvertently invites anyone bearing a grudge to come and claim their pound of flesh.
In a neat visual flourish, on-screen text informs us of the names and grievances of those who arrive seeking revenge. The most dangerous of these grudge-bearers is nefariously narcissistic crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), better known as the “Black Mask.” When it comes to Sionis, the list of Harley-based offences is too long to fit the screen, marking her out as his most formidable enemy. Luckily she’s not the only dame on his hit list, and Harley finds herself teaming with Black Canary (a sublime Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) in a bid to keep young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) out of harm’s way.
Unapologetically breaking the fourth wall, Birds of Prey has Harley narrating her own story, so she can – in her own words – “start where she fucking wants.” As she chops and changes her account, often retracing her steps, we’re invited to revisit scenes and altercations from different angles. It’s thrilling to watch this character (often beloved merely for her body or devotion to the Joker) unashamedly taking the reins of her own narrative, whilst Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff’s whip-smart editing allows for some excellent comedic moments as we move back and forth through time.
Female viewers will no doubt find familiarity in moments where Gotham’s men throw words like “bitch,” “slut,” and “whore” at the film’s heroines whenever they fail to comply with their demands. Yan doesn’t try to hide these hardships, but she doesn’t make the material feel heavy either, allowing these women to take revenge by way of some highly gratifying and creative fight sequences that match the pounding beats of the female-dominated pop soundtrack. In the process Harley and the girls battle mobs on trampolines, in roller blades, and in mirror mazes. You name it and they probably do it, and in a spectacular fashion.
Yan creates a gloriously messy vision of Gotham that is rough around the edges, and Quinn is right at home in its centre. Unfiltered but not exactly recast as a hero, she certainly has a moral compass (as off-kilter as it may be), demonstrated by a scene in which she utilises a non-fatal bean bag rifle (it still hurts!) and glitter bombs in order to light up a police precinct. That’s not to say she doesn’t break her fair share of legs in the process, as do the film’s other heroines. These women fight tooth and nail, and it’s oh-so-fun to watch.
Everyone in Birds of Prey is clearly having the time of their lives; witnessing it all unfold has the same effect. Ewan McGregor’s villain oozes equal parts charisma and sleaze, unafraid to take his performance to campy extremes, chest hair peeking out from behind a purple crushed velvet suit jacket. Perez, meanwhile, is wonderful as long-time GCPD Detective Montoya, suitably jaded but still hopeful as she fights for a cleaner Gotham, despite getting none of the credit.
In a world where no one cares who women are beyond the men they associate with, Yan insists that we have nothing to prove – we should have a seat at the table regardless. Birds of Prey exemplifies what a superhero blockbuster can be when we let women take the lead. Signalling a long overdue change at the start of a brand new decade, this is the film that Harley Quinn and Gotham’s unsung women deserve.Where to watch