By Andrew Rodden
It’s easy to brush off Cathy Yan’s 2020 film “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey”— previously titled “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” — as just another superhero movie. It is, mostly, but the film turns out to be a surprisingly fun romp through the life and mind of a hilariously unhinged Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie).
“Birds of Prey” has its ups and downs, but there is something in it for everyone, be it the excellent performances from Robbie and Ewan McGregor, the flashy fight choreography, or the boisterous and wacky style.
The first act of “Birds of Prey” follows Harley Quinn trying to navigate life as a newly single adult, highlighting her appreciation for roller derby and egg sandwiches. However, without the protection of her ex-boyfriend, the Joker (who broke up with her in the film’s 2016 predecessor, “Suicide Squad”), all the people she wronged in the past desperately want to collect their dues. This angry mob is led by terrifying crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), who mandates Quinn return a diamond stolen by young thief, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), to him, or else …
It is difficult to follow the exact order of events in the first and second acts, as there is a rampant back and forth between Quinn’s present story and her past. This non-linear story structure seems out of place, especially when audiences are inundated with bombastic, R-rated fight scenes which make the movie-going experience all the more disorienting.
I must admit that the fighting sequences in “Birds of Prey” are stylishly choreographed by the stunt and fight choreographers, who have most notably worked on the “John Wick” series. There exists true sophistication underneath the loudly poppy and disjointed visual style of the film, mainly stemming from strong editing and colorful production design. While the actors and stunt people pulled off some genuinely sweet moves, I felt hollowly overwhelmed by the action; there’s so much fighting in superhero films, and the stakes are always undercut by the fact that we all know the protagonists will ultimately save the day.
Superhero movies are more engaging when they stray away from the typical path of big action and focus on a slice of a character’s life. Whether it be the high school life of Peter Parker or a maniacal navigation through Harley Quinn’s life, it is easier to care about the characters when they are given proper development as actual characters, and not as expendable vessels for action scenes. This “spectacle fatigue” can be attributed to the sheer number of superhero movies that rely on spectacle to entertain audiences, and I suppose I have become tired of it as a movie-goer.
While Yan falls victim to the tiresome effects of an over-saturated superhero movie market, she succeeded at making one of the stronger superhero movies in recent memory. Sure, “Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey” might just be another superhero film, but it is hard not to have fun watching it.