Hollywood’s lack of originality has been bemoaned for decades, if not literally since the inception of the very concept of Hollywood. Remakes and adaptations have been a currency since the dawn of talkies, at the very least, and so to decry their presence on the landscape isn’t particularly pertinent.
The weirdest era for intellectual property, however, has to be the ’90s. Blockbuster studio filmmaking in the ’90s was an absolute free-for-all clusterfuck that guaranteed only one thing: any adaptation was unpredictable. The very idea that a movie was being made of something like The Avengers or The Mod Squad guaranteed nothing. There was absolutely no conceivable way for audiences to predict or anticipate what that movie would look like and, more often than not, the end result was more baffling than anyone could expect.
This is not necessarily the case with blockbusters in 2020. Increasingly risk-averse and conscious of the bottom-line, studios are putting more and more money into making films that are more and more anonymous, more indebted to an ever-elusive fanbase and more conscious of everything that surrounds them. To make a superhero movie in 2020 involves less standing out and more going-with-the-flow, which is why the absolute best thing I can say about Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey is that it feels like a superhero movie that was conceived, made and released in a world where superhero movies are nowhere near the dominating cultural force.
Birds of Prey (which is subtitled And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) takes place soon after the events of Suicide Squad. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has been dumped by the Joker. She finds herself despondent and acting out even more than usual, getting drunk and leaving a trail of wreckage behind her. The bigger problem is that without the Joker’s protection, every two-bit gangster in Gotham is free to seek revenge for any perceived slight that may have occurred when she was under the Joker’s protection.
This puts Harley right in the scope of extravagant gangster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). He is also on the hunt for a diamond containing encrypted information that will help him find the collective fortunes of a long-assassinated mob family. That diamond happens to be in the hands of pickpocket teen Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who lifted it off of Sionis’s right-hand man (Chris Messina), prompting a frantic race that also involves Gotham cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), superhuman cabaret singer Dinah “Black Canary” Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and a mysterious masked crossbow murderer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
It’s a lot to juggle, especially given the film’s explicit goal of trying to stand alone in the tangled and confusing web that has become the DC Universe. It’s certainly energetic enough to paper over its narrative incoherences. At time it recalls the work of Baz Luhrmann, Edgar Wright (Birds of Prey is very Scott Pilgrim in its early stages, though that general aesthetic starts to peter off by the midpoint) and even Gaspar Noé (!) in its frenetic, pull-out-all-the-stops approach to pretty much every aspect of the filmmaking. Though some of its aesthetics and humour are stuck in a bygone era of off-the-cuff edginess (think Deadpool without the constant pop culture references and fourth-wall-breaking and you’re halfway there), Birds of Prey has a relentless confidence that smooths over even its dumbest jokes. A lot of that has to do with Margot Robbie, who devotes herself full-tilt to a nearly impossible character. Her characterization of Harley Quinn was the best part of Suicide Squad, and here it continues to do much of the heavy lifting.
It must be said that, on paper, the character of Harley Quinn doesn’t seem to lend itself to a flesh-and-blood adaptation: she’s a homicidal Gothic Lolita with a glass-shattering accent perched somewhere between a baby and a Long Island construction worker. It’s the kind of creation that rarely works outside of its original context, and one that can very easily be manipulated into being the wacko fantasies of your average Funko Pop-hoarding manchild. The sheer gusto and confidence that Margot Robbie brings to the part, however, is more than enough to power what’s ultimately a fairly boilerplate story.
There’s also the idea that, by emancipating herself from the Joker, Harley Quinn is taking her story into her own hands. (Of course, Harley Quinn isn’t real and she certainly isn’t directing this movie, so the idea of her having total agency is a little misleading.) As is usually the case now, this has led to the creation of two warring factions: the (mostly male) contingent that suggests Birds of Prey is nothing but woke exploitation that removes the film from its “original” comic book context into a feminist screed or whatever the fuck, and the (mostly female) contingent who see Birds of Prey as a radical text that upends the male domination of the superhero genre.
Frankly, both seem like a lot to be hanging on a movie whose main narrative thrust centres around whether or not a teenage girl will shit out a diamond. The political and social implications of Birds of Prey are fairly innocuous, though it’s undeniable that simply by placing the snark on an almost-all-female cast, Yan gets mileage out of otherwise familiar material.
Birds of Prey has remarkably well-choreographed action (courtesy, in part, of John Wick director Chad Stahelski) paired with remarkably unoriginal needledrops (when you hear the Runaways, you know you’ll hear “Barracuda” somewhere down the line) that have nothing to envy Suicide Squad. It has some pretty effective comic setpieces and one weirdly long sequence in which Sionis orders his henchman to cut the faces off of people. It’s a movie with a boisterous tone that veers in every direction.
No idea is too outlandish for Birds of Prey, and yet the film feels curiously reined-in. Here I thought that a lack of freedom was what made so many superhero films feel same-y; Birds of Prey is about as free as these things have ever gotten, and it still feels somewhat perfunctory. So much of its madcap energy seems to be designed to paper over a script that has a lot going but nowhere to get to — another element in the Rube Goldberg machine that is the DC cinematic universe. There are lots of gears and rubber bands and pistons in this particular machine. At least Birds of Prey is something mildly weird, like a balloon that pops to scare a hamster into running in its hamster wheel. ■
Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, starring Margot Robbie, opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Feb. 7. Watch the trailer below.
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See our review of the recently released film Bombshell, co-starring Margot Robbie, here.