Birds of Prey, or How DC Figured out How to be Funny

Back in the heady days of early 2016, when Batman v Superman came out, DC was heavy handed about its unwillingness for its characters to inject levity in the way that Marvel characters do. Even when Suicide Squad, a movie that should have always been funny in some ways just due to the disparity of personalities, neared release, this vision held. Then someone got smart, and Suicide Squad and subsequently Justice League, saw an injection of humor. Aquaman saw a lot more fun as well, leaning into the fantastic aspects of its character and setting and gaining some humor out of Jason Momoa’s skill playing the character.

Suicide Squad was, of course, largely derided for its uneven plot and missed opportunities with characterization. But, even though she wasn’t given the greatest material, Margot Robbie stole the show as fan favorite Harley Quinn, enough to where she became the only holdover into James Gunn’s version of the Squad, and parlayed her newfound clout into putting Harley front and center in this film.

Birds of Prey has had a few different versions, including a short-lived TV show that made a brief cameo in the CW’s Crisis on Infinite Earths. And the script that became this movie didn’t even feature Harley Quinn initially. Enter Robbie, who is a producer on the film, and suddenly it gets done, and becomes a critical darling.

And with good reason. Robbie carries the movie, using all her charisma to play into Harley’s natural silliness. She corrects the oversight of character development from Suicide Squad, as well as the piece of the Harley portrayal that particularly stuck in my craw: The accent. Harley did not have her traditional voice in the original film, but finally hearing her spout “Mistah J” finally satisfied the traditionalist in me.

The film uses circular storytelling to get the job done, and it works really well because of how the narrative ebbs and flows with Harley’s narration, which sometimes goes too far ahead and has to be run back. It’s a perfect look into how her mind works.

As a viewer of Arrow for its entire run, I’ve run across the Huntress, and of course multiple Black Canaries. For whatever reason, in that show, Dinah Lance was Dinah Laurel Lance, and was called Laurel throughout. Dinah became Dinah Drake, a fully separate character, and the love affair between Dinah Lance and Oliver Queen never really materialized.

This Dinah Lance and this Huntress are vastly different, partly owing to the medium change and the tone of the film. Huntress is unfortunately kind of underused, playing a largely background role for most of the film before dropping in on everyone. Dinah has a large part to play, and despite her role with Black Mask, is much more given to be the champion of justice that Black Canary has always been in the comics.

Speaking of Black Mask, Ewan MacGregor plays the character as completely unstable as he should be. He drifts from calm, to crazy obsessions, to outright batshit bonkers, depending on what’s happening. And that’s perfectly good. And having Zsasz hanging around to feed into it at the right times makes great comedic timing between the actors. This is the second time in as many media versions that psychotic serial killer Zsasz has been portrayed as a crazy mob enforcer, and while I like Anthony Carrigan’s version in Gotham a lot, the film does well enough by him. Though if you dig into the character’s history, mob enforcer would not be the thing you’d say he would be.

There’s no way this movie could exist without the R rating, and this is once again another indication of the Deadpool influence with edgier characters. Harley Quinn should be able to feed a guy to a hyena named Bruce because it’s funny, and DC finally acquiesced to allow such things to happen. Though the audience results have thus far not measured up, this is a truly fun movie from start to finish, and there’s no question to its girl power motif. DC may have biffed its Snyderverse notion, but they are leaps and bounds ahead of Marvel in female-led films and female character development. There may not be a consolidated vision like Marvel, but what they’re making is working in spite of it. Amazing what happens when you let creators create.

The lower than expected domestic box office may create issues with a sequel, but there aren’t many better, off-the-wall times you can have with a comic book film. A-.

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  1. As someone who hated Suicide Squad, disliked the other DCU movies, likes most of the Marvel movies, and tends to think Harley Quinn is overexposed, should I see this? All my priors are against it, but if it’s a change of direction I would consider seeing it.

    • …I still haven’t seen the movie so I’d hesitate to say yay or nay but when you say “overexposed” I’m pretty sure she’s still hoodies&hotpants Harley & not full-body-suit Harlequin outfit Harley in the Birds of Prey film?

      …the Gotham City Sirens run of comics was (iirc) one where Paul Dini (who I think created the character?) addressed a good bit of the more “problematic” attributes she’d acquired & I was under the impression that the film had tried to cover some of the same ground with the Birds of Prey substituting for the Sirens?

      …so there’s at least a chance that it might win you round but it’s hard to say for sure

  2. I saw it last weekend, and it was a lot of fun. Both my wife and daughter enjoyed it thoroughly. There’s some uneven parts, and I don’t know why they named a character Cassandra Cain since she’s utterly unlike the comic Cassandra, and could be named literally anything else. But outside of that utterly trivial quibble, I really had no problems with it.

    To be fair, I enjoyed Suicide Squad for the most part too.

  3. …haven’t caught the movie yet…& honestly was a little concerned they might somehow manage to fuck it up so it’s great to hear they seem to have managed not to

    …but it should be increasingly hard to fuck up Harley Quinn…there are runs of comics that have made the character justly beloved rather than a paper-thin exercise in stockholm syndrome & I have to say the current animated series that bears her name is pretty great

    …so it might could be a little harsh on the “regular” birds of prey that she somewhat hi-jacks their movie…but that does seem like a Harley kind of a thing to do

    …but mostly I want to know if she gets to hang out with Ivy at all?

    …for whatever reason the combination of Poison Ivy & Harley Quinn seems to make both characters “work” just better than they did before someone shoved them in the same title…& I’m pretty sure it isn’t just me that came away with that impression?

  4. I’ve been planning to see it, going in with low expectations because it’s DC. I do like Margot Robbie so she’s the primary drive for me going. Hopefully I’ll manage to see it this weekend.

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