Birds of Prey: not quite fantabulous, but better than expected

March 9, 2020

 Image courtesy of wired.com

Like countless other paying customers, I was disappointed when I spent my money on Suicide Squad and was given what I was. The characters were almost entirely without empathetic motivations, the villain(s) were boring and two dimensional, it underused some potentially very interesting characters and absolutely overused the dull ones. While Birds of Prey was a massive improvement, it sadly continued to fall into some of the same shortcomings, most heinously the complete misuse of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress. This isn’t to say the character was bad, far from it; she was by far one of the more interesting characters. But like Katana in Suicide Squad before her, she was woefully ignored (despite her heavy use in the advertising suggesting otherwise). Perhaps she was so underused because her origin story was so incredibly pointless. It was tied in to the obligatory MacGuffin that superhero films have apparently given up trying to make interesting, which in this film takes the form of the “Bertinelli Diamond” (I had to google what it was called, that’s how forgettable it was). This diamond has details to access the wealthy crime family Bertinelli’s bank accounts somehow and for some reason hidden inside it, so the film’s ‘Big Bad’ Black Mask (who we’ll get to later) wants it because with that much money, he’ll finally own Gotham. Which is fine, I guess. It beats whatever was happening in Batman vs Superman, but is still pretty dumb and is completely ditched halfway through. All in all the film is a screenwriter’s nightmare: not only is the MacGuffin boring and pointless, but it is filled with deus ex machinas including Black Canary having a superpower that is hinted at exactly once and used exactly once to save everyone’s lives from almost certain death. Narratively and structurally speaking, I was terribly disappointed.

But I’ve made it through the drudge, now’s the time for the fun stuff (of which there is plenty).

Robbie is more endearing as Harley Quinn than she has ever been before. Throughout, you can tell she’s having the best time, and this enthusiasm is infectious. Some jokes didn’t land, but the rate with which they were being made meant you didn’t have time to contemplate how bad the last joke was before you’re laughing again. As mentioned before, Mary Elizabeth Winstead was pitch perfect as socially awkward Huntress, raised for the sole purpose of revenge on behalf of her family and thereby never having had experienced a fulfilling emotional relationship. Cassandra Cain instead of being a hyper sexualised nth batwoman as she is in the comics is replaced by a pickpocket child that helps Harley, Black Canary, Huntress and Montoya come together, learn to respect each other and learn parental responsibility. A storyline repeated for male heroes constantly (see Logan, the Tom Holland Spiderman films, et cetera, et cetera) now plays out for the women, and it works! Not to mention the fact that she too is played with endearing charm by Ella Jay Basco – a character that could have so easily ended up another deathly annoying kid we have to suffer through becomes an asset to the film overall. Although I do want to address complaints some people have had concerning our protagonists: this is one of the first films where the female heroes are wearing clothes that women would actually wear, that don’t seek simply to highlight what male fanboys would consider their assets. The costumes are a total joy, a fantastic expression of creativity in female superhero films not seen before. And no, Cassandra Cain is not the boring spandex clad supermodel you were hoping for, fanboys, but she is fantastic nonetheless. It just goes to show that sometimes the comic book lore gets in the way of a better, more interesting story (it had to be said).

So, Black Mask, the big bad. There is now a belief among fans of superhero films that DC films have the best villains, and if you doubted before (thanks, doomsday) you would stop your doubt here. McGregor plays him perfectly, the spoilt man-baby that has a tantrum every time he is told “no” is done so well, exaggerated to the point of being funny throughout but not so much that he becomes a caricature, quite the contrary; his special brand of hyper-angry narcissism and childlike tendencies mixed in with his sometimes casual, sometimes painfully overt misogyny is so easily recognisable to most of the female audience. The aforementioned fan-boys have been found to complain that he was unrealistically over the top are sadly unaware his attitude is incredibly reminiscent of their own, only adding to his believability.

On a more technical note, the fight scenes are some of the most fun and exciting moments of the film, often to catchy songs and fast as lightning, the terrifically fun sequences are some of the best I have seen in any superhero film for years. Not to mention further proof that stunt performers deserve everything (including their own Oscar category). These action sequences are set in the most weirdly beautiful sets (that is when our heroines don’t find themselves in some poorly CGI’d fairground) that just go on to highlight the fun everyone in this film is having. In fact you could probably just skip anything in a mostly grey colour palette which tends to be full of boring exposition and skewers the tone of the film dramatically and just get to the fun, the dazzling and the exciting.

The film is no masterpiece, it’s tonally all over the place, narratively weak, at times confusing. But! It is a lot of fun, it’s nice to look at and it’s worth going to see if you just want to relax your brain and be taken on a weird drug-induced rollercoaster ride.

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