Officially, the new film featuring characters culled from DC Comics is called simply Birds of Prey. After a disappointing opening weekend at the box office, several theater chains have conspicuously revised their marquees and websites to affix the the name of Harley Quinn, the role Margot Robbie established in the dismal yet successful Suicide Squad, to the front of the title. The desperate measure actually makes some sense when considered against the context of the film itself. Although it can arguably be seen as a feature length origin story for a big screen version of the comic book superhero team that gives the film its title, there’s no question about who’s the protagonist and the main attraction. Realistically, the best title for the cinematic extravaganza is already right there, in the dashed off, blithely comic, parenthetical subtitle: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. The degree to which Birds of Prey works as a film is directly proportional to its adherence to the promise of fantabulous emancipation.
Written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan, Birds of Prey opens by racing as far away as possible from the tone and style of Suicide Squad. Harley Quinn is no longer in a codependent relationship with the Joker (who, Oscar voters will be dismayed to learn, doesn’t appear in the film), soothing her heartbreak with booze, bawdiness, and mildly menacing hijinks. Through a series of events, Harley finds herself on a mission of self-preservation, trying to retrieve a stolen gemstone in the possession of a young pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). I’m not being any more dismissive of this plot thread than the film itself, which operates with such disinterest about the storytelling mechanics that the item everyone is chasing after might as well be called the MacGuffin Diamond. The prop is merely a means to a set piece, or really a series of them.
Continuing the confusion that runs through practically all the films that fit into the loose alignment that is the DC Cinematic Universe, Birds of Prey seems to be positioned as the aspiring entertainment empire’s answer to the MCU-adjacent metafictional wisecracker Deadpool. But the film doesn’t quite have the moxie to commit to the conceit. The fourth quakes off some plaster dust on occasional, but it never entirely topples. And the most defiantly unhinged moment, when Harley imagines herself into the Marilyn Monroe spot in a riff on the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” production number, is presented so tentatively that it’s as if the filmmakers wanted to give themselves an out to claim the footage got in there accidentally. An anarchic spirit is left under the smothering quilt of product safety.
Sometimes, though, excitement glimmers through the cracks. Robbie’s beaming charisma can’t be hidden, and other cast members have their moments, especially Mary Elizabeth Winstead as the socially awkward, helplessly glowering Huntress. With five heroes in the mix against a bevy of hired thugs, the grand finale, set inside a carnival funhouse, would require John Woo in his prime to fully take advantage of all the scenario’s possibilities, but Yan acquits herself nicely. There’s a believable physicality that contrasts against the CGI boom-boom-boom that typifies the final acts of superhero flicks. As the camera zooms around, it’s one more reminder that what Birds of Prey needs more of is a conviction in making the audience.