February is the month of love, or at least the commercial expression of it, and also the month of Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Birds of Prey is the equivalent of an exorcism of Suicide Squad, the bloated carcass of FYE excess that DC had pulled into a back alley to die.
At this juncture, Suicide Squad exists as the perfect foil for Birds of Prey. Where Suicide Squad feels like a joyless grimdark action film run through a blender with a pastel mall goth, Birds of Prey feels like joy in celluloid. Comparing the two is an interesting contrast. Birds of Prey has a scene where Harley passes a hair tie to Black Canary because her hair is getting her face midfight and Suicide Squad has a scene where a serial rapist (Slipknot, he can climb anything) punches a woman in the face because she has a mouth.
Birds of Prey picks up soon after Suicide Squad ends, even if the movie isn’t a direct sequel. Sometime between escaping lockup with the Joker, she and him split ways and she decides to become her own person. Unfortunately, years of running around with the Crown Prince of Crime has made her have a bit of a target on her back, and now the entire city seems to be gunning for her. Add in a teenage pickpocket, a murdered crime family and a diamond worth more than diamonds normally are and you have Birds of Prey.
In Suicide Squad, aside from some cut scenes in the Extended Version, Harley Quinn is relegated to a Hot Topic t-shirt generator. Her dialogue is frequently “OMG you gaiz I’m so random but also like crazy!” and there are very few of her actual lines that wouldn’t just make below average t-shirts sold in a bargain bin (normal is just a setting on a dryer!). The extended cut gives her a few character building moments where she psycho-analyzes the crew or where she asserts to the Joker that she is deserving of his love, and you can see Margot Robbie actually trying to do something there but she isn’t given anything to work with. By contrast, in Birds of Prey she’s given an actual character and people to act off of whose personality isn’t “vaguely racist depiction of a crocodile cannibal.” She goes from being a Halloween costume to a fully fledged character and it only took a spin off movie and a woman led creative team to make it happen.
The DCEU has a recurring problem where they want to make the first Avengers movie without any of the prep work that was required for the first Avengers movie. It leads to a bloated mashup of introductory sequences that introduce you to main characters you’re intended to care about but can’t possibly because the run time is two hours. You see this in Justice League and Suicide Squad — here’s 45 minutes of quick and fast character introduction and an hour and a half of anemic action that is quickly overblown with particle effects and inhuman movements.
Birds of Prey quickly seems to move on from that. There are character introductions but they’re almost natural to the premise of the movie, and having one strong known character (Harley) makes for a more interesting premise than simply giving them trailer flash illustrations and title cards while blaring obvious theme music (ahem, Black Skinhead when introducing Will Smith’s Deadshot). There’s only one character with a super power, which isn’t revealed until the final fight of the movie, so the rest of the film is allowed to focus on the acrobatic fight sequences that seem to have been shot with action in mind. The camera follows Harley as she flips around a dude in a police evidence locker instead of cutting away rapidly to show fourteen other similar fights happening. Rewatching Suicide Squad after Birds of Prey really highlights the nauseating style of the prior film, the messy fights the predominate 2000’s era superhero movies where you can’t tell what faceless goon is getting wrecked by which superpowered individual but you can tell what you had for the meal prior. They’re a byproduct of the effects laden era and they need to die, and Birds of Prey is one of the few superhero movies of recent era that seem aware of the fact that they’re gleeful action movies.
Joel Schumacher once said something asinine about comic book movies in the process of making the gayest superhero movie to date Batman and Robin; namely “”They’re called comic books, not tragic books.” Schumacher was a weird superhero director and his movies primarily serve as examples of camp (bat nipples!) but in the face of middling, whiny superheroes who wear the remnants of the gun that orphaned them in their bat symbol and who are secretly just pathways by which we relitigate a fascist state, Birds of Prey is different because it’s just so fun. Harley Quinn has its share of the dark stuff that populates so much of modern superhero endeavors (she was abandoned by her parents for a six pack, she is exiting an abusive relationship, every man in her life wants her dead) but it’s not treated as deep opera — queue Ben Affleck as Batman shedding dramatic tears when he figures out that he and Superman have a mother who shares the same white woman name. It’s just treated as one woman trying to figure out who she is when she’s not a part of a relationship.
And fighting off a large criminal enterprise that wants her dead. And she’s going to look fabulous while doing it.