Birds of Prey is a breakup movie. This is obvious from minute one when Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, reprising her role from Suicide Squad) explains via an animated prologue her history as a psychiatrist who fell for Batman’s most notorious villain, Joker. (Twisted!) It breezes through the complicated series of events that led to their abusive relationship coming to an end. That’s how you get the subtitle, written in Harley’s intentionally obnoxious voice: The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.
But Birds of Prey isn’t just about Harley’s breakup with Joker (who never appears outside of that prologue and a pair of extremely quick shots where he’s not quite in frame). It dumps everything that’s now par for the course in superhero movies: boring action mostly featuring men and computers, and stories about their stodgy tortured psyches. It’s very loud and absolutely gleeful about the mess it makes. And somehow, it pulls it off.
The movie is meant to seem like a big team-up between Quinn and several other DC antiheroes, but in reality, the story centers itself squarely on Harley and the many people who want to take revenge on her now that she’s no longer under Joker’s protection. Chief among these grudge-bearers is Roman “Black Mask” Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a cartoonishly vain and possessive crime lord with eyes on expanding his corner of the Gotham City underworld. When Sionis catches up to Quinn, the two strike a deal: he’ll spare her life if she gets a diamond with mob secrets etched into it for him. Since he plans to kill her anyway, Sionis also hires every bounty hunter in Gotham to get the diamond as well.
It’s through this treasure hunt that Birds of Prey introduces and brings together its main players: Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) is a pickpocket who stumbles across the diamond, Helena “Huntress” Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an assassin after the diamond for personal reasons, Dinah “Black Canary” Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is an employee of Sionis who turns on her boss, and Detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is the cop who’s piecing it all together.
Unfortunately, the cast is introduced via a nonlinear timeline that revisits the events of Harley’s first week post-breakup before rewinding at key moments to explain how each new face factors into the grand plot. While it’s most likely meant to give the movie a fun, kinetic feel — Birds of Prey would rather die than pump the brakes on anything — it mostly highlights how thin the plot is outside of Harley. Every character and performance is vibrant and fun, but few feel fleshed out beyond Harley and Sionis. While everyone is great, McGregor is the only actor who comes close to Margot Robbie’s level of energy, gleefully throwing himself into the sleaziest performance he can possibly give. He’s a highly flammable ball of misogynist grease, and you can’t wait to have someone toss a match at his pretty mug.
The good news is that the movie abandons this choppy structure roughly halfway through, mostly in favor of unmitigated mayhem. There are things that can be grating about that — the movie cannot have a punch thrown without a needle drop on an extremely on-the-nose song, and there’s way too much slow-mo — but there’s much more to like when Birds of Prey goes full Chaos Queen.
This is a superhero movie that finally gives a shit about how its action looks and isn’t interested in relying solely on computers to give fight scenes a pop of color. Just about every big fight in the movie is choreographed and staged in the most interesting way possible: pink and blue smoke fills the air, a grenade launcher fires glitter bombs, there’s a car chase on roller skates, and the movie’s biggest brawl is a big game of keep-away on a merry-go-round. Add that with Robbie’s tremendous talent for physical comedy and every character having a distinct personality expressed via their fighting style, and the movie’s big set pieces are among the most fun in modern superhero cinema.
There’s a largesse here that, weirdly, hearkens back to Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, movies that envisioned Gotham City as a neon funhouse full of the loudest-possible architecture and even louder personalities. This is a good thing. Sure, the movie leans a little too hard into Harley’s “Lisa Frank but with murder” schtick, but it’s much more preferable than the very safe and increasingly stale Marvel Cinematic Universe. Anything can happen, and Birds of Prey relishes in the havoc that implies.
That manic energy is all that’s holding Birds of Prey together at times, and the fact that all of its characters seem to thrive in it makes it all the more disappointing that the movie doesn’t really take any time to get to know them better. It’s almost enough to derail the movie, but at a brisk hour and 47 minutes of genuinely fun spectacle, it’s hard to hold too much against it. Breakups are messy, but at their best, they’re also cathartic as hell.