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Birds of Prey finds the fun in Harley Quinn’s breakup and breakdown

Harley Quinn gets her groove back in Birds of Prey.

Margot Robbie in Birds of Prey
Warner Bros.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

An essential moment in the superhero movie genre is when our hero doesn’t believe they’re a hero yet. Something, usually something horrible, has to trigger and inspire the hero to be something better — something super. Batman witnessed his parents die. Spider-Man wasn’t there for his Uncle Ben when he needed him most. Iron Man saved the world over and over, and finally sacrificed himself in his last attempt to do so. John Wick’s puppy was murdered.

For Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) in the energetic Quinn breakout flick Birds of Prey, this pivotal moment happens during a painful breakup with the villainous Joker.

“Mr. J” is abusive (obvious to everyone but Harley) and hogs the spotlight. She’s done living in the shadows and being seen as the girlfriend, something she finally realizes after getting dumped. The last-straw insult after Harley Quinn is broodily single is when she overhears a flock of other friends talking behind her back, saying how, at the end of the day, she’ll be back in the Joker’s arms and back to having no identity of her own.

The rest of the movie isn’t as simple and clean as the setup of Harley’s revelation-bringing split, though. Much of Birds of Prey features Quinn, in a Deadpool-like fashion, narrating her own backstory and providing slapdash dossiers about other characters to explain how she and a band of street-level superheroic women are all connected to a flamboyant, psychologically brittle villain, a diamond, and a foster child.

All this exposition begins to feel as if director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson were trying to find ways to make this movie be more than an excuse to watch Harley Quinn and friends dole out pounds of stylish violence on well-deserving men for almost two hours. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Yet with how effective Bird of Prey’s multiple, thrilling action sequences are, it would’ve been better to cut some of those flabbier attempts at substance. Instead, the film would be better served by fully leaning into the uncomplicated, John Wick-like satisfaction of devilishly cool women unleashing crunching brutality — like breaking a single leg in three different directions — in sublimely entertaining and orchestrated fight scenes. There’s nothing wrong with a movie that favors style over substance, and Birds of Prey is a prime example of how sometimes substance is overrated.

Margot Robbie and Ewan McGregor lead a fantastic cast to tell the story of the Birds of Prey

The Birds of Prey in Birds of Prey.
Warner Bros.

Birds of Prey is, at its heart, a fresh start for Harley Quinn. On the big screen, Quinn last appeared in the horrendous Suicide Squad, with Robbie’s performance cited as the best thing about the flop. Jared Leto’s Joker was often cited as one of the worst parts, and addition by subtraction, story-wise and Leto-wise, feels like the credo for Birds of Prey.

Having gone through a breakup with the Joker (Leto’s, not Phoenix’s), Quinn finds herself in the crosshairs of every person she’s ever wronged. She no longer has the Joker’s protection, signaling to every miscreant that she’s now fair game.

Robbie makes the difficult task of bringing a character like Quinn to life look fairly effortless. Unlike many of DC Entertainment’s superheroes (think: Wonder Woman) and supervillains (think: Phoenix’s Joker), there’s an edge of camp and crassness to Quinn— oftentimes cartoonish humor undercuts her violence and horror. Unlike in Harley’s animated roots and comics appearances, live action doesn’t lend itself as easily to those visual gags, leaving Robbie to do the heavy lifting of injecting the right amount of comedy into Quinn’s mania. Sometimes she loosens her face into a smile amid bone-breaking violence, or sharpens her features into a pout as Quinn completely and uncomfortably misreads a situation.

As the crime boss Roman Sionis, Ewan McGregor is operating at the same level as Robbie, having so much fun playing an impossibly charismatic fancy daddy of a villain. His “superpower” is being very rich, and he’s ready to pounce on Quinn’s lapsed criminal immunity. Sionis is totally grossed out at messiness, loves Botox, and also has a sociopathic quasi-boyfriend henchman in Victor Zsasz (a platinum-haired Chris Messina).

McGregor spends much of the movie flipping his wrist to signal a murder like a conductor directing an orchestra, lounging in silk robes, dancing to no music, and saying the word “birdy” over and over in reference to his lackeys. He just about slinks away with the entire movie, making you wish his Roman and Messina’s Zsasz had their own Warner Bros. supervillain prequel where they get to be gay and do crimes.

Caught in the middle of Quinn and Roman’s pursuit of her are Roman’s lounge singer Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), an assassin named Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and a street urchin named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). They end up grouping together to form the Birds of Prey, a crime-fighting group cobbled together out of circumstance. Each of these actresses makes their heroes her own, just like Robbie does — Smollett’s Black Canary is instantly likable despite her steeliness, Perez gives Montoya a relatable weariness and indomitable dignity, and Winstead’s Huntress is delightfully awkward.

The problem arises when the movie goes about connecting all these disparate characters in an inefficient way. There’s a lot of backtracking and time-jumping, a way the movie emphasizes Quinn’s attention span-less style of storytelling. But at times it also feels like the only way to tell such a roundabout plot. The movie would have been so much better had it simplified its story by half.

Birds of Prey’s action scenes save the movie

Harley Quinn and Cassandra Cain in Birds of Prey.
Warner Bros.

Birds of Prey’s most thrilling aspect, instead, is its stylish disregard for pain and the human body. As the director, Yan isn’t particularly concerned with showing you the physical toll of superhero-ing, like the way we see Captain America wince and strap his shield to his bloody, broken arm in Endgame for one more fight.

Instead, Yan shows us how balletic, mesmerizing, and gruesome it is to get into a scrap with these powerful women.

The movie’s fight scenes are like highlight reels in themselves, mashing together visual artistry with bone-crunching savagery. Each woman has her own style of fighting, from Harley’s sloppy ability to turn anything into a weapon to the precision of Huntress’s almost silly crossbow to Black Canary’s speedy street style.

One memorable sequence finds Quinn amid a jailbreak. Because we’re in Quinn’s point of view, every one of her moves — gunshots, grenades, pistol whipping — comes with bursts of confetti or mustard-tinted smoke or bright paint. It’s perhaps a way to signal to us that Quinn can’t see the mortal consequences of her actions. And somehow, even in this technicolor chaos of Quinn obliterating a daisy chain of murderous thugs, the fight is never confusing, and even dips into physical comedy at multiple inflection points.

Every part of it works, and the fight represents the movie at its finest.

It’s frustrating, though, to see a movie so tight and entertaining in its action and so gangly in exposition. The result is a rambunctious women-driven revenge thriller, filled with tentpole moments of crackling verve that is knit together by flimsy exposition and voiceovers. I suppose Yan was aiming for something more ambitious with Birds of Prey’s narrative attempt at Quinn’s loose empowerment story. But I’d be more interested in seeing the purely action-driven, fight-scene-after-fight-scene music video of a movie she avoided making.