If you know anything about Cathy Yan’s 2018 directorial debut, DEAD PIGS, then you’d be just as surprised as I was to find that she was helming DC’s SUICIDE SQUAD sequel/retcon/whathaveyou, BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN). There’s no denying that it’s a little curious for a director to segue from a Jia Zhangke-esque query on modern Chinese capitalism to a multi-million dollar comic book movie, but what Yan lacked in experience she more than made up for in authorial heft. Not since Guillermo del Toro made the transition from Mexican horror fare to BLADE has an aspiring filmmaker delivered a comic book movie that actually felt, well… “directed.”
Here’s the rub: BIRDS OF PREY, albeit a silly throwaway piece of entertainment, is arguably more fun than any Marvel film. It actually looks and feels like a comic book, is anchored by Margot Robbie’s unrivaled dedication to the bit, and carries with it a killer sense of rhythm and style. It’s fun! There’s really not a Hell of a lot more to say than that. The jokes land, the action is satisfyingly brutal, and the ensemble, though never reaching the heights of Guardians of the Galaxy, endears itself to the audience.
BIRDS OF PREY’s surprise twist is Ewan McGregor, who has more visible fun playing a comic book antagonist than maybe any actor in the history of film. McGregor is a loose cannon, buckwild hilarious and tonally incongruous, literally an inch away from registering as a scrapped I THINK YOU SHOULD LEAVE character. Is he an old-school mob boss? Is he a gay club owner? I don’t know! It’s campy to a T and had me in hysterics for most of his screen time. The same can be said for Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who comes out as an MVP alongside McGregor with her razor-sharp comedic timing.
And sure, BIRDS OF PREY isn’t exactly a home run. Among a string of less egregious pitfalls, it incorporates a few too many of the intro flashbacks that SUICIDE SQUAD used to its detriment as well. None of the character arcs really ring true with any resounding impact, but Robbie is so immersed in the role that it almost doesn’t matter. When all is said and done, I’d sooner use BIRDS OF PREY in the same breath with RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE than literally any A-list superhero film, and I mean that as a glowing endorsement if only for the simple reason that BIRDS OF PREY isn’t all too concerned with how it’s threading the needle of a decades-long tentpole. It’s purely aesthetic escapism, and though I struggle to call it elevated, it’s never regressive in the way so many blockbusters this past decade have been.
I know not calling it elevated is fighting words
But the real holdout here is, ironically, the absence of Jared Leto’s Joker. Say what you will about the ghastly SUICIDE SQUAD, but one can’t shake the feeling that BIRDS OF PREY is only half a story, one that commences with Harley Quinn’s heartbreak after Mr. J and her break up, only to never come full circle in this yarn. I mean, let’s face it, if you don’t give us any one-on-one interactions with Quinn and the Joker, then it’s damn near impossible to deliver an emancipating tale of a girl unshackling herself from her toxic past relationships. It reeks of a studio-mandated edit, and critically misdirects the audience in regards to what the film is actually about. What is introduced as a story of a girl learning to get over an ex actually becomes a tale of said girl learning to not be a shitty person?! It’s problematic to say the least, if only because it accidentally equates her relationship status with her awful personality and not with her literal psychopath of an ex-boyfriend.
DC, unlike Marvel, appear to have recently committed themselves to the idea that their films can function as standalone entries in their constantly-changing Gotham netherworld. JOKER has no ties to BIRDS OF PREY, and it’s hard to even imagine BATMAN V. SUPERMAN taking place in this universe at all. As such, it’s a little baffling that BIRDS OF PREY still feels inclined to connect the tissue between this and SUICIDE SQUAD, instead of retconning the film entirely. As a result, it does sometimes feel like the film is at odds with itself. Do superpowers exist in BIRDS OF PREY? By all accounts, they do not; that is, until a peculiar third act reveal changes that internal logic. It’s a little frustrating, but when reflected upon retroactively, one can accept that BIRDS OF PREY is embracing the Scorsese-coined “rollercoaster” of the superhero film in a way that none of its contemporaries really have. So yeah, I think I’ll shut up and let you have a good time with this one!