‘Birds of Prey’ flies low

Margot Robbie in Birds of Prey

“The clown may be the source of mirth, but – who shall make the clown laugh?” – Angela Carter

I owe the makers of Joker a big apology. Yes, they did screw a lot up, but at least that film’s Gotham City felt like one. What we see of this setting in Birds of Prey (and the extremely stupid subtitle I didn’t bother to learn) is just so obviously Los Angeles with no attempt whatsoever to give it any sort of distinctiveness. That sentiment, as it turns out, permeates the whole to a greater degree. 

Joker sidekick Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has had enough of the mistreatment from her puddin’ and breaks away from him. This, however, has the unintended effect of giving her enemies cause to go after her. Chief among them is the gangster Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), who is also after her to retrieve a diamond stolen by Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), the young pickpocket that Harley has taken in. Also factoring in are his henchwoman Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who will eventually find themselves having to ally with the other two.

Essentially a cartoon in live action, Birds of Prey’s most obvious comparison is Deadpool, which also features a manic antihero talking directly to the audience. But Birds copies so many of its signature elements to a suspicious degree. Lives with an elderly person? Check. The story about trying to save a kid, complete with a jailhouse fight? Check. Love for Mexican food? Check. 

More troublesome, though, is how it repeats some of its predecessor Suicide Squad‘s worst habits. It is overly stylized, throwing crazy font words up on the screen every few minutes. Also returning is the penchant for repeating stuff the audience has already seen and licensed soundtrack where most song choices are far too on the nose. The slowed-down cover version of a famous song makes an appearance too (in this case, “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”). I cannot comprehend why studios have convinced themselves that viewers want these (they are in practically every other trailer). Let me be blunt: we don’t. These are awful and never any good. Enough already. 

But the real issue, like Joker before it, is that it has little to do with its title characters. Anyone familiar with this property knows that the Birds of Prey team originates with Barbara Gordon, who wants to continue fighting crime even after her paralysis. Barbara does not appear in this movie (her father the Commissioner is strangely never mentioned either), and handing her act of bringing the team together over to the associate of the man who paralyzed her is a really bad look.

Unfortunately, this is not the film’s only instance of disability erasure. This movie’s Cain is a mouthy teen that does get a funny line or two, but that is completely contrary to who she is in the comics. This character is supposed to be mute. As in does not talk. Someone with a brain that lacks the capability for speech and has to struggle with that plus the life of a junior assassin is (at least) a million times more interesting than what we get here.

Though, really, if your part isn’t the one played by Robbie, you got shafted. McGregor is deliciously hammy and would have been right at home in the Burton-Schumacher era, but I would’ve been more interested in seeing the serious version of this character. Smollett-Bell is highly miscast while Winstead is barely present and Perez could have been cut entirely without issue. But who we do have and plenty of is Harley. Robbie is a lot better here than she was in her previous outing, committing to the role with great zeal.

There’s a much better version of what this is trying to be out there right now. It’s an actual cartoon starring Harley Quinn called, well, Harley Quinn. As for the flesh and bone version, it’s now up to James Gunn to put her in something worthy.

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