Typically before sitting down to write a review I’ll look over what other reviewers have said about a film to assure that there isn’t some thematic quality I missed or personal bias impacting my experience. In the case of Birds of Prey this is impossible since, even after opening to the public, the review embargo (as of this moment) has yet to be lifted, which is usually a sign that the studio behind the film is uncertain of its quality. Combined with an early February release, a time notorious as a dumping ground for movie studios, it’s easy to see that critical consensus on Harley Quinn’s solo outing isn’t expected to be kind. Now, I am fully ready to concede that my opinion could be an outlier for more reasons than just being a male reviewer. I get that. I also get that there are aspects of Birds of Prey which will undoubtedly appeal to some people, as indicated by the only advanced statements I could find about the film including praise so glowing it makes me uncertain whether or not we’d watched the same movie. But one thing I have the utmost certainty of is that considering the release window, the lack of pre-release reviews, and the fact that this film is a follow-up to the mind-numbing Suicide Squad, I entered Birds of Prey with no expectations, and those expectations were met.
What else is absolutely certain about Birds of Prey is that it is trying really, really hard to be cool. Everything about the way it looks and sounds, from the Suicide Squad-style graphics that pop-up for the characters to the soundtrack of covers of popular rebellious rock songs to the sheer amount of swearing, screams that it wants so so so sososososoooooo badly for the audience to think it’s fun and edgy and cool. Even more than its predecessor, which DC wanted so badly to be a music video that it was re-edited by a music video company, Birds of Prey is trying. Just. So. Incredibly. Hard. To be cool. Even the film’s full title – Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – tries too hard with its excessive length and juxtaposition of highbrow and made-up language. And if there’s one thing that is certain to kill any attempt at being cool, it’s trying to be cool. It shows not only that you care about being cool, which isn’t cool, but also that you lack the confidence needed to be cool. The lengths to which Birds of Prey tries to be cool makes it all the more frustrating when it so very, very often fails.
The other thing Birds of Prey really wants to be is Deadpool, but with several pounds of glitter shot from a t-shirt cannon. From the opening scene, picking up an unspecified time after Suicide Squad, the plot structure, narration, and general R-rated irreverence shows that Warner Bros is trying to make their own version of the Merc with a Mouth. The difference is that where Deadpool is self-aware and deprecating, Birds of Prey carries itself with the same complete lack of awareness that has plagued most of DC’s cinematic offerings. Despite wanting to disassociate itself from Jared Leto’s misguided attempted at Joker (so much so that he isn’t even seen or heard in flashbacks) and other remnants of the Snyder-verse, Birds of Prey and perhaps the DCEU in general still can’t break out of the mold created by its earlier films. Moments which the film thinks are intense or awesome or dramatic or innovative or which it actually tells us are cool come off as painfully unearned. A musical sequence which could otherwise have been delightfully whimsical is instead forced, as is everything else, to show just how wacky crazy Harley is. In fact, there is next to nothing in the film that is offered for any reason other than Harley is crazy. She’s so crazy that she buys a hyena for a pet for no reason other than Harley is crazy. She gets mad over a dropped breakfast in the most obvious set-up since Guardians of the Galaxy 2‘s unripe fruit because look how crazy she is!
But what causes frustration is that Harley Quinn, both as a character and as the center of a possible film franchise, is capable of so much better. According to her fictional biography, which the film summarizes at the start and then again halfway through just in case you somehow missed it the first time, Harleen Quinzel is a brilliant psychiatrist and a genius level intellect. Harley’s most compelling moments aren’t those where she’s being wacky and smashing dudes’ faces with a baseball bat but those where she breaks down the neurosis and traumas affecting other characters, once quipping to Mary Elizabeth Winstead‘s Huntress that vengeance rarely provides the catharsis we desire. Yet she does this only two times in the entire movie. Harley is perfectly capable of balancing her knowledge of psychology with her own psychosis, making her bizarre, unpredictable behavior a weapon she uses to throw her often much larger opponents off balance (in the way that James Brown once described as “I don’t know karate, but I know ka-razy”). But instead of demonstrating this on screen we get a hundred examples of she’s just crazy. Oooh, now she has roller skates during a fight, how did she get them on? I dunno. That’s just how crazy she is *unearned wink at the camera*.
Even worse is that much of what happens on screen is quite good. The vibrant, colorful aesthetics are unique, if at times distractingly so, and effective stunt work makes Birds of Prey‘s fight sequences fun, even if the same flipping-over-from-being-hit stunt is played in slow motion three separate times. Margot Robbie, a two-time Oscar nominee, clearly loves and is committed to playing this character. While Winstead’s Huntress is the standout, with her seriousness providing both a needed puncture to the overwhelming levels of silly and, conversely, the funniest moments in the film, the entire cast does their best to elevate the material they’re given. Sadly that material is underdeveloped characters with the minimal requirements of depth, dialog that sounds like a middle schooler who just learned the F-word, and themes so heavy-handed it makes Endgame‘s every-female-superhero-in-the-shot sequence look subtle. I’m thrilled when female characters are given a chance to shine, and more than happy for women to see models of independence on screen, but these can be done without being as blatant as Jurnee Smollett-Bell scowling her way through “This is a Man’s World” or Ewan McGregor literally forcing a woman to have her dress cut off while dancing on a table for his amusement. Making all but one of the bad guys be male, most of them wearing masks for no reason, and the big bad shout “men of Gotham” before hunting down the all-female crew comes off like bashing the audience in the head because we’re too stupid to understand the nuances of a film which literally has “Emancipation” in its title. Given a better script, which utilizes the strength of its lead character, and better pacing, which allows moments to build before they’re paid off, and Harley could have a really good movie.
Perhaps some of the uncertainty in Birds of Prey is meant to mirror Harley’s own lack of confidence. She is on her own for the first time and while she tries to pretend not to be bothered, it’s isn’t hard to imagine how scared she is. Sadly though, we have to imagine this because the film doesn’t offer us moments where Harley uses the skills and knowledge that make her unique to survive in a “man’s world.” It just gives us crazy Harley and her cool friends that we know are cool because she tells us they’re cool. And there’s nothing less cool than telling everyone that you’re cool.