Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020): a Fantabulous Amount of Fun

I have this thing about franchise movies right.

‘Joker’ was meant to be the last one that I go see. I’m just, so, so tired. I’m tired of the reboots, I’m tired of the sequels, I’m tired of the remakes. Coming this fall: ‘Ghoulies: Bite Back’ – the dark gritty reboot of the b movie classic, that, although it is both dark and gritty, stars Kirstin Wiig. For some reason. To be double-billed with ‘Downhill’, the ‘Force Majeure’ remake. 

I’m just tired. 

So, ‘Joker’ was meant to be the last one. I put a moratorium on seeing ANY of these films in the cinema, and YES this included ‘Toy Story 4’. I just couldn’t take any more. I made ‘Joker’ the last because it looked interesting and then that was going to be it, (see how well that went though). 

For some reason though, regarding ‘Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)’, I didn’t care. For some reason, ‘Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)’, looked like something completely outside of that trend. I mean it definitely ISN’T outside of that trend, that’s just the vibe I got. Just, oh how do I put this? Well… The interesting thing about the DCEU is that it actually seems to be a kind of healthy place at the moment. After the nadir of trying to pander to a predetermined audience that was ‘Justice League’, a problem that’s been particularly prominent in the DCEU, they really do seem to be flailing for an aesthetic. I mean, grimdark hasn’t worked so what will? The answer seems to be just making a film with an aesthetic to match the subject matter. In a very short amount of time DCEU have produced: ‘Aquaman’, a cheezy action romp that was a bunch of fun; ‘Shazam’, a tender fantasy coming of age film in the vein of ‘The Pagemaster’ or ‘The Goonies’, that was a bunch of fun; ‘Wonder Woman 1984’, which seems to be really revelling in the glorious 80s synthwave aesthetic; and now, ‘Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)’, which is oodles of fun. It’s not at all trying to ape Marvel, and it’s not actively running in the other direction waving it’s naked Marthas in the street as it goes. 

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)’ follows Quinn in the fallout of her breakup with Joker. She falls into the service of Ewan McGregor, a devious club owner with daddy issues to spare. There’s Jurnee Smollett-Bell who plays a singer turned driver for McGregor, who begins to become a party to his dastardly plans, Rosie Perez plays the washed-up detective on the tail of McGregor, and Ella Jay Basco plays the petty thief who swallows the MacGuffin. Gradually, all their paths intertwine and it soon becomes apparent that everyone, is out to murder or screw over everyone else. 

So what is it that makes ‘Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)’, (yes, I’m going to say it in full every time, no it’s not just to hit the word count, and no, no one can stop me), such a deliriously good time? For a start, it’s full of ideas and life. As soon as the conceit of everyone in the whole world wanting to kill Harley Quinn gets going, the film has this little gimmick of the film stopping and a little crayoned kind of thing comes up that lists everyone’s name and their grievance against Quinn. This by itself is interesting because it just shows up ‘Suicide Squad’ for the lack of charm and grace that came with its similar gimmicks but then ‘Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)’ has jokes on top of jokes regarding this little gag, it keeps adding on ways that it plays with this idea. It’s a shame these kinds of overlays and little fourth wall breaks and self-referential notes kind of go by the wayside as the film goes on. That doesn’t mean though that the jokes and ideas stop coming because they don’t. The film looks gorgeous as well. 

The other thing that carries the movie are the performances. Especially those of Robbie and McGreggor. Robbie is absolutely crazy good in this movie. She totally embodies a character unlike any other that she’s played. Her voice and mannerisms capture the manic, crazy energy, and also heartbreak perfectly. She is the perfect match for the tonal target of the movie, and as a producer, completely understands and gets the measure of the material. McGregor is another shining star in the picture. I always have an interesting response to McGregor’s performances, because I never see the character, I always see McGregor acting, admittedly well. The only time before this where that hasn’t been a case for me had really been ‘Trainspotting’ & ‘T2: Trainspotting’. Here, I totally got lost in the character he was performing. Scumbag villainy is not something I’ve really seen from McGregor before, and he really carries it off with aplomb, I’d like to see more of it. Chris Messina is also a standout and completely unrecognisable. If this isn’t his breakout role I’ll be surprised. 

Is this movie perfect? No. For a start, it really annoys me that a film that presents itself as a kind of, radical step forward queer codes and gay baits its villains so absolutely. If you do take that reading to it, it falls into other deeply problematic elements as well. It’s also evident that this is the director’s first big, million-dollar budgeted action film, because the action, as well-choreographed as it is can sometimes feel lumpen, and the editing can really undercut the pacing and make it very clear when stuntmen are just standing around waiting for their turn to fight, whereas other great action work in big group fight scenes normally hide this really well. Think the throne room scene from ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ or ‘Oldboy’. The third act also feels, painfully contrived. Also, something that I liked about it was that it just felt like a grounded crime story with outlandish characters that happened to share a universe with Superman, so when superpowers are explicitly shown later it feels like a break of audience contract and doesn’t feel very set up either. 

Despite these flaws though, ‘Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)’ is an absolute romp through a cartoon, candy floss Gotham. It does have its flaws, yes, quite significant flaws, but that doesn’t stop it being an absolute good time. It’s just astonishing to me that this takes place in the same universe as ‘Suicide Squad’, ‘Justice League’, & ‘Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’. 

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