The film fulfills Suicide Squad’s promise of unadulterated Hollywood fun, but still has something serious to say.
Suicide Squad was an interesting beast. Released way back in August 2016, the third entry in the DC Extended Universe was critically-maligned and made $746.8 million worldwide without opening in China. Its pop-punk Hot Topic aesthetic had a longer cultural shelf life than expected, with its soundtrack ending up as the 96th biggest album of the 2010s. The elements that generally received praise were the makeup (it won the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling) and some of the actors’ performances, particularly Margot Robbie as Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn. Robbie directly involved herself in the development of a follow up: an R-rated spinoff centered on some of Gotham’s female (super)denizens, which she produced under her own production banner and enlisted Chinese-American blockbuster newcomer Cathy Yan to direct.
The result, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), is messy. Not in the Suicide Squad, ‘We reshot half the film in order to perform a drastic tonal change then spliced together cuts assembled by two different editing companies (one of which had only worked on trailers before) and soundtracked the result to an inch of its 175 million dollar budgeted life’ kind of way, but in a, ‘We wanted to make a true-to-our-protagonist mess on our own terms and knew exactly how we wanted to go about that, and it was freeing’ kind of way. The movie is eclectic, giddy, violent, gaudy, and enjoying the opportunity to be itself with an openness that is both disarming and legitimately ingratiating.
You could teach a class on the male gaze using the differences between Robbie’s appearance in Suicide Squad and here. It is thrilling to see female action (anti-)heroes dressed up for no one but themselves, wearing what they think looks cool, while still allowing them to comfortably beat the absolute shit out of the men trying to kill them (John Wick’s Chad Stahelski came in as the film’s second unit director, bringing with him action sequences of the same caliber as those that have defined his Keanu Reeves-led franchise). The conspicuous absence of hypersexualized outfits here starkly contrasts how definingly and unceasingly women in blockbusters are sexualized.
Almost completely free of actual superpowers, the film is a refreshing reminder that blockbuster action can, and should, be fun. Instead of giant beams in the sky, CGI gallimaufry, or enervating color palettes, we get grounded, expertly orchestrated, consistently brutal set pieces incorporating everything from confetti guns to roller skates. Gotham emerges as something of its own city, a cartoon New York with a tenacious crime problem.
Screenwriter Christina Hodson delivers a marked improvement over her previous scripts (Bumblebee the most notable among them), creating a sufficiently well-rounded and developed cast of characters that are likable and interact naturally with each other. She frees Harley Quinn from her relationship with the Joker and gives the time and attention for her to undergo a breakup and (at least part of a) larger self-reinvention. While the comedic fourth-wall breaking is at times overly reminiscent of Deadpool, the film’s sensibility overlaps squarely with that of its main character. It’s a superhero film that makes space to take a cartoon and cereal break, go grocery stealing, directly confront rape culture, lust after the perfect egg sandwich, adopt a hyena, and confirm that it voted for Bernie Sanders. Its villain is a gay, misogynistic, sadistic, narcissistic crime lord (gamely played, with some truly spectacular chest hair, by Ewan McGregor).
Musically charged like its predecessor (though to a far less overbearing degree), its all-female soundtrack features cuts from artists including Doja Cat, Megan Thee Stallion, and Halsey alongside lesser known up-and-comers. Destined as it might be to being liked rather than loved, the film fulfills the original promise of Suicide Squad, delivering filmmaker-driven stories about anti-heroes who maintain that prefix.