Opening Birds of Prey the weekend Joaquin Phoenix is likely to win an Oscar for playing the Joker might just be smart marketing, but it’s also a sly riposte to Joker’s operatic anguish. The Joker, or “Mr. J,” as Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) calls him in her thick Brooklynese, doesn’t properly appear in Birds of Prey, unless you count the movie’s cartoon prologue or the sketch of his face she uses for target practice. But the movie begins in his shadow, with Harley laid low by a bad breakup with her erstwhile protector and paramour, and takes shape as the story of a woman, and a franchise, wriggling free from his clammy grip.
The full title of Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a trigger warning for sad sacks, the kind who associate comic-book movies with thin-lipped grimaces and rain-slicked black-on-black tableaux. Harley’s Gotham City is a grim place, ruled by Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a crime boss with a penchant for velvet sport coats and flaying his enemies alive (I leave it to the reader to decide which is worse). But unlike Joker’s cesspit, it’s not a place where everyone is out to get you. It’s true that, once word circulates that Harley and the Joker are quits—a message she sends, loudly, by blowing up the chemical plant where their alter egos were formed—her enemies seem to sprout through the cracks in every sidewalk. But whenever a new antagonist appears, the screen freezes and captions their scowling faces with the reason they’re out to get her, and most of their grievances are legit. (“Fed his brother to a hyena” is one. “Voted for Bernie” is another.) It’s a dangerous place, but that’s at least in part because Harley has made it that way.
Although she’s introduced sobbing as she fills her mouth with spray cheese, Robbie’s Harley can handle herself in a fight, especially if she’s got something heavy to swing. When the character was introduced in 2016’s Suicide Squad, her secret weapon was her sexuality: She’d lure men into staring at her as she did gymnastics in tight clothing, then clobber them as they drooled. But in Birds of Prey, which was directed by relative newcomer Cathy Yan and written by Bumblebee scribe Christina Hodson, that weapon stays in reserve, replaced by a fierce instinct for self-preservation and, although the word itself might make Harley gag, friendship.
The bonds Harley forms with her eventual partners in crime—superpowered chanteuse Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), crossbow-wielding avenger the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), crusading police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco)—are forged by the simple things: a mutual love of the perfect breakfast sandwich, a hair tie proffered in the middle of an all-out brawl. But these women also share a history of being wronged by men, whether it’s the partner who stole the credit for Montoya’s big case or the mob boss who murdered the Huntress’ family. That doesn’t mean the movie is set in a world where all men are bad, although some of the people who are offended on principle by the existence of a female-fronted DC movie will undoubtedly read it that way. But it does mean that even so-called nice guys are not to be trusted. It’s not an accident that Roman’s sadistic henchman, Victor Zsasz, is played by rom-com mainstay Chris Messina.
Although Yan and cinematographer Matthew Libatique give the proceedings a Day-Glo sheen, the overlap with Suicide Squad’s edgelord provocations sometimes dampens the fun. One scene uses a young girl having her face cut off while she’s still alive as a morbid punchline; in another, Roman humiliates a woman by forcing her to strip and dance on a table in his nightclub, and the movie forgets about her before the scene is even over. Watching it is like being on a scavenger hunt, and not just for scraps of representation, although it’s worth noting that Montoya has an ex-girlfriend played by Ali Wong, and it’s briefly implied that Harley was once in a relationship with a woman (in college, of course). There’s also a flirtatious quality to the exchanges between Roman and Victor, with McGregor camping it up and Victor reserving his most vicious acts for women who have caught his boss’s eye. The movie knows, just barely, better than to endorse the idea of gay lovers as murderous psychopaths, but rather than rewrite the stereotype, it just muddies it a little.
Birds of Prey often leaves you puttering around the edges, being grateful for its modest achievements: fight scenes that are, if not exciting, at least coherently staged, and Robbie’s comic timing, which is so often sharper than the lines she has to deliver. Although a Huntress-centered detour near the end of the movie is its brightest flash of wit, the leaps back and forth in time feel like a desperate attempt to dress up an uninspired plot, the same device that’s already the punchline of the “record scratch, freeze frame” meme. For a movie that touts its protagonist’s emancipation, Birds of Prey still feels very much in chains.