Going into a DC Extended Universe movie always feels like rolling the dice. You might be in for a grim punch-fest like Batman v Superman, or you might get a joyous adventure like Shazam. So it's hard to know what to expect from Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), the first outing for DC Comics' all-female superhero team.
An excellent animated introductory sequence gives us the origin story of lovable supervillain Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), setting us up nicely for the wacky adventure to come. Following the events of 2016's Suicide Squad -- in which Harley was one of the few positive elements -- she's broken up with Joker and not in a great place emotionally. She deals with it in a pretty realistic way, by eating junk food in her dingy Gotham City apartment and drinking heavily in a nightclub run by wannabe crime lord Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor).
Deciding to escape the Joker's shadow and strike out on her own, Harley is soon drawn into Sionis' plot to retrieve a diamond that'll help him seize control of the city. However, Birds of Prey is more about its characters and mood than its plot. Harley's narration jumps between various points in the few days over which the story takes place. That makes the first half of the movie a bit more chaotic than it needs to be.
Sionis' hunt for the diamond is complicated by teenage pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), who steals and swallows the precious stone. This kicks off a cat-and-mouse chase involving Harley; long-suffering cop Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez); nightclub singer and secret badass Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell); and crossbow-wielding vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), before they team up to take on Sionis and his goon Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina).
Even though the movie jumps between all of these characters, Harley remains the star of the show. Robbie's portrayal turns the character into an R-rated live-action version of the character from the beloved '90s animated series that spawned her -- a cartoon gloriously brought to life, with a moral core that sees her smoothly transforming from villain to unpredictable antihero.
Screenwriter Christina Hodson also smoothly reminds us how smart Harley is behind her ditzy act -- she was Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel before turning to a life of crime -- as she uses her training as a psychologist to deconstruct other characters' motivations.
Those skills turn out to be useful in her increasingly dangerous encounters with Sionis, a sadistic monster whose misogynistic streak makes him a wonderfully detestable villain. McGregor is clearly enjoying himself playing a guy whose mercurial nature sees him jumping from hilariously campy to chillingly terrifying in seconds. He's absolutely electrifying whenever he's on screen, and his dynamic with Messina's Zsasz is a joy to watch.
Watch this: New Birds of Prey trailer drops
Despite Robbie and McGregor's scenery-chewing charisma, the other actors get plenty of chances to shine. Smollett-Bell makes Dinah the most relatable member of the crew (even though she's the only one with actual superpowers), Perez delivers a comically hard-boiled performance as Montoya, and Basco infuses Cassandra with a nice mix of roguishness and vulnerability.
Huntress is a bit underserved in terms of character development -- she feels like a character whose story is playing out in its own movie -- but Winstead will make you forget that with her exceptional comic timing. Each member of the ensemble brings her own energy to the group, and the tension between them is fun, but it's overcome a little too easily before the climax.
Beyond the character moments, Yan's movie mixes things up with plenty of wonderfully choreographed action sequences. These prove to be wince-inducing ballads of violence that'll remind you of the John Wick series -- with a little more of Harley's unique flair. It's all set to a fun soundtrack from mostly female artists and Daniel Pemberton's energetic score.
Gotham City itself is more colorful than we're used to, reminding us the world Harley and company inhabit is very different from the filthy dystopia seen in 2019's Joker or the more realistic take in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy. It does feel a bit odd that this movie's explosive action fails to attract Batman's attention, and that the city's most famous superhero barely merits a mention.
That's probably for the best though. Harley Quinn's first adventure as a headliner is among the DC Extended Universe's finest movies so far, and didn't need the shadow of the Bat looming over it any more than it needed Joker. By the time Birds of Prey reaches its spectacular finale, Harley is well and truly emancipated.