HEAT VISION

'Birds of Prey': What the Critics Are Saying

Margot Robbie's return to Harley Quinn is a stylish, violent affair — according to the reviews.

The first superhero movie of the year is just around the corner, although it could certainly be argued that Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is far from what audiences expect from a superhero movie.

With Margot Robbie returning to the role of Harley Quinn for something that’s part-Suicide Squad spinoff, part-solo vehicle and part-launchpad for an all-new team of all-female superheroes, Birds of Prey has a lot of heavy lifting to do in introducing an all-new cast, satisfying fans of the popular Harley Quinn and proving itself to an audience uncertain if there’s even space for a new superteam in the wake of last year’s Avengers: Endgame. Perhaps surprisingly, pre-release reviews appear to suggest that the movie is successful in its missions, even if things aren’t entirely ideal.

Director Cathy Yan, writes The Hollywood Reporter’s John DeFore, “finds plenty of opportunities for exciting set pieces: Extravagant action choreography makes the most of colorful set design, unlikely gimmicks and wrasslin'-style brutality. But [Christina] Hodson's script offers far less diverting banter than it might've between the fight scenes, and has a hard time imagining the unconstrained id that makes Harley Quinn so magnetic. One or two beautiful sequences — like the one in which Harley's longing for a perfect breakfast sandwich leads to tragedy — don't suffice to keep the character's magnetic madness alive onscreen.”

Matt Singer of Screen Crush was similarly disappointed in the writing. “Novelty goes a long way in this world, and Birds of Prey has a fair amount, along with plenty of punk-rock attitude. I do wish it had a bit more interest in its characters — and specifically Harley herself — since the movie is ostensibly about her emancipation from this awful guy,” Singer argues. “The story churns through subplot after subplot, but Harley doesn’t really resolve those issues so much as she forgets they existed in the first place. (Of course, it’s sort of tough to resolve those issues when the person who caused them is MIA.)”

Is the Joker truly missed, however? Most critics seem to argue not, with a common thread between reviews being an appreciation of the cast’s internal dynamic.

“Director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) have created a fun ‘Girls rule, guys drool’ ethos,” suggests USA Today critic Brian Truitt. “In one action scene you won’t see in an Avengers film, Harley bonks a random henchman in the head with a hammer before handing a hair tie to Dinah, aka Black Canary, so her long locks don't get in the way of throwing down. Dinah and Helena, an antiheroine with rage issues who goes by Huntress, are as essential to Birds working as Harley, and some of the best stuff comes when Yan has these women just sitting around drinking margaritas or waiting for Cass’ laxatives to kick in.”

Empire’s Ian Freer agrees, writing, “It’s so much fun when the group finally come together, it feels like a misstep not getting them together sooner and more often. Save Harley, the characters aren’t deeply drawn but they are winningly played: [Jurnee] Smollett-Bell is authentically hard-as-nails, [Mary Elizabeth] Winstead is funny as an assassin who takes umbrage that people get her superhero name wrong, and [Rosie] Perez reminds you she is not in nearly enough movies. But the MVP is Robbie, who lends Harley charming quirk and believable menace, hinting at Harley’s inner life without reams of dialogue.”

As fun as the character interactions may be, however, they’re not the highlight of the movie, it seems, with Alex Abad-Santos of Vox putting it like this: “Yet with how effective Bird of Prey’s multiple, thrilling action sequences are, it would’ve been better to cut some of those flabbier attempts at substance. Instead, the film would be better served by fully leaning into the uncomplicated, John Wick-like satisfaction of devilishly cool women unleashing crunching brutality — like breaking a single leg in three different directions — in sublimely entertaining and orchestrated fight scenes. There’s nothing wrong with a movie that favors style over substance, and Birds of Prey is a prime example of how sometimes substance is overrated.”

Indeed, the style of the movie was commented on by many. “[Yan] and her expert director of photography, Matthew Libatique (Black Swan, A Star Is Born), have a clean and steady eye for action, as do the editors Jay Cassidy and Evan Schiff,” notes Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang. “Together with a crew that includes costume designer Erin Benach (The Neon Demon) and production designer K.K. Barrett (known for his inventive work with Spike Jonze), they enliven the relentless groin-smashing, bone-crunching mayhem with periodic bursts of gaudy color, including Harley’s tinseled pompom sleeves as well as multihued eruptions of smoke and glitter. With a soundtrack of busy, dreamy pop covers like ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ or ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot,’ it’s all as tasty, chewy and disposable as bubble gum.”

According to The Daily Dot’s Gavia Baker-Whitelaw, “The real visual draw is the action sequences,” with Yan and cinematographer Libatique creating “a wonderfully smooth way of exploring hand-to-hand combat scenes, outshining the trend for choppy editing in many superhero movies … [M]y favorite moment was when Harley obliterated a squad of goons with a baseball bat, a scene that positively screamed ‘Margot Robbie is doing her own stunts!’ Fight scenes look better when you can actually see and appreciate what’s going on; who knew?”

James Whitbrook of io9 agrees, calling the fight sequences “increasingly intense and bombastic moments of action that stand out as some of the best in the entire DC cinematic oeuvre. Gone are the CGI-enhanced, uber-destructive superpower-laden brawls of prior films, replaced by tight, kinetic, grounded spurts of violence with the occasionally zany bit of comic book flair.”

If all of this makes Birds of Prey sound like a good old fashioned piece of garish action comedy, then that’s probably the point. Perhaps The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw sums it up best. “This film is a blitz of bad taste, a cornucopia of crass, and it is weirdly diverting – more than you might expect, given the frosty way Suicide Squad was received critically – and engagingly crazy. Watching it feels cheerfully excessive and unwholesome, like smoking a cigarette and eating a chocolate bar at the same time.”

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) opens Friday.

 

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