DC Comics’ Gotham City has not traditionally been a kind place for women. Bruce Wayne’s mother Martha was assassinated in the street for her pearls alongside her husband Thomas, but she barely registers as an influence on Batman in either Christopher Nolan’s or Todd Phillips’s films about the Dark Knight or the Joker, respectively. Catwoman, whether played by Michelle Pfeiffer or Anne Hathaway, has always been skewed by the male gaze. And sure, Poison Ivy was a genius scientist and ecoterrorist, but her character was always bustier-forward.
All of this is to make clear what Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn does, which is acknowledge the myriad simplified or sexualized reads of Gotham City’s women and then smash in the kneecaps of anyone who would further those paper-thin characterizations. Director Cathy Yan’s film about the Joker’s onetime accomplice and ex-girlfriend rejects the genteel affectations of conscious uncoupling and goes all-in on intentional violence, blowing misandry a kiss with a mouth decorated in matte lipstick. The plot of Birds of Prey is typical B-level villain stuff, an overly complicated tale about various organized crime figures fighting it out for control of Gotham, but the subtext of female rage and resentment is, well, the actual text. This is a movie about emancipation, obviously, and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn leads a fierce ensemble cast of women who disgustedly throw up a middle finger at any man who wronged them, whether professionally or personally, before punching him right in the face.
Birds of Prey begins after the events of David Ayer’s 2016 film Suicide Squad, in which psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel falls in love with the Joker, her patient at Gotham’s Arkham Asylum, and starts a life of crime with him after taking a tumble into a vat of acid at Ace Chemicals. In her ripped-up Daddy’s Lil Monster top, multicolored pigtails, and booty shorts, Harley was a spin on Gillian Flynn’s Cool Girl archetype but, ultimately, always an accessory to the Joker’s story. In Birds of Prey, though, things finally change: Harley and the Joker break up. And without the protection that came with being the Joker’s girlfriend, Harley realizes, a little sadly, that quite a lot of people want her dead, in particular nightclub owner and mob boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, wonderfully deranged). The grievances of Harley’s enemies appear in colorful scrawled handwriting and emojis overlaid on the screen, and Roman’s complaints about Harley are the longest, from her crippling of his driver to her voting for Bernie Sanders to her existence as a woman. Roman wants Harley gone, and with his smirkingly masochistic associate Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina, doing a lot with his evil grin) by his side, he hatches a plan to kill her.
As Roman and Harley circle each other, the film’s other characters appear in various flashbacks and subplots, including foster kid and pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who ends up with something quite precious to Roman; Roman’s nightclub singer-turned-driver Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), who feels indebted to him for taking her off the streets; perpetually passed-over police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who has watched nearly all the men in her precinct advance past her despite lesser work; and the mysterious Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who whizzes around Gotham on her motorcycle, shooting men through the throat with her crossbow. What these women have in common, primarily but definingly, is their experiences as women, of being underestimated and undervalued, of being belittled and mocked, of being considered inadequate and lesser-than and unworthy.
“I lost all sense of who I was,” Harley realizes of her abusive affair with the Joker, and Christina Hodson’s script is full of moments like that: dialogue that takes a wide look at how our patriarchal society keeps men like Roman in power structurally, and that focuses tighter on interpersonal dynamics and relationship imbalances. “Some people just aren’t born to stand on their own,” Harley hears her roller derby teammates say of her prolonged sadness after her split from Mr. J, and Birds of Prey makes clear how much work it is to rebuild yourself, and how impossible it is to connect with anyone else until you do.
Robbie is flat-out stellar here, complicating the impish chaos she brought to Suicide Squad with a real sense of Harley’s interior devastation and her exterior manifestation of that feeling. She’s cheekily funny, purposefully aggressive, and still understandably wounded; she can transform that wide smile from innocent glee to frenzied anger in a heartbeat. More than anything, Birds of Prey is about Harley discovering herself again, shaking off what other people expect her to be, and living truthfully—whether that means expressing her love for greasy breakfast sandwiches, glittery manicures, vicious hyenas as pets, or baseball bats as weapons. Robbie does it all; her physicality during these bone-crushing, jiu-jitsu influenced fight scenes is impressive, while a fantasy scene, where she imagines herself as Marilyn Monroe performing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” to escape the reality of a vicious beating, nods to the mental toll of domestic violence.
Robbie, who also produced, gets a lot of help from a uniformly excellent cast and crew. K.K. Barrett’s production design brings verve, color, and life to this normally drab city, and an abandoned amusement park and pier are perfectly spooky locations for the film’s conclusion, giving us a sense of Gotham’s history. Erin Benach’s costumes provide modern updates to comic book boldness and keep female characters sexy while removing their objectification; Smollett-Bell and Winstead in particular look strong, powerful, and in control in their crop tops and leather pants, even with their midriffs out. And Robbie’s supporting cast is obviously having fun: McGregor and Messina hamming it up with real misogynist menace, Basco showing off Cain’s sleight-of-hand tricks, or Winstead practicing her threatening one-liners in the mirror at home before hitting Gotham’s streets.
What Yan and Hodson accomplish with Birds of Prey is the balance that’s sometimes lacking in comic book films: They fulfill both the demands of the story and the demands of the characters, broadening our understanding of Gotham City while also developing the women within it. That’s a refreshing change for a franchise that often seems to forget what its female characters can do. Although the film sometimes dampens its forward momentum with an needlessly complex timeline, Birds of Prey is, ultimately, deliciously empowering. It never loses what it wants to say about the everyday struggle of being a woman in a world that benefits from female victimhood, and its unapologetic vulgarity and boldness are thrillingly unforgettable.