The DC universe is a terrifying and confusing place. This is especially true when it comes to cinematic origin stories, where some details from the comic books are included while other are discarded in an offhand manner.
In 2019, Todd Phillips flipped the genre on its head with the surprisingly sensitive and insightful Oscar-nominated “Joker”, about how Arthur Fleck became one of Gotham City’s most-feared villains.
“Birds of Prey (And the Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” (WB/DC), in IMAX no less, returns the origin story to its maniacal and mind-bending roots. With an overreliance on narration (because without it, you’d be lost), Harley Quinn (an outstanding Margot Robbie), born Harleen Quinzel, begins by telling us how she got to where she is. From her birth through her history of behavior issues to her education, including receiving a PhD and becoming a shrink, and ultimately falling in love with Joker and becoming part of his deadly posse.
However, love is a fickle feathered friend and Harley Quinn and Joker are no longer a couple. Struggling to move on with her life, Harley attempts to find a new identity after being so closely associated with Joker. For example, she gets a pet hyena named Bruce and she becomes a roller derby queen. But old habits are hard to break, and Harley soon discovers that what she used to get away with as Joker’s main squeeze are no longer acceptable.
Harley, who gets all her best ideas when she’s drunk, decides to blow up the Ace Chemical Plant which figures into her history with Joker, and is an act inspired by her new single status. So, in addition to attracting the attention of the Gotham City police force, including lesbian detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Harley is being pursued by a series of people whom she wronged over the years. Additionally, sexually ambiguous Roman Sionis (a miscast Ewan McGregor), aka Black Mask, is aware of Harley’s antics (which included breaking the legs of his driver).
Soon, Harley becomes enmeshed in a complicated (and confusing) scenario involving a young streetwise pickpocket named Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco) who managed to abscond with a very valuable diamond encoded with information relating to the fortune of the slaughtered Bertinelli mafia family. Meanwhile, the lone survivor of the Bertinelli massacre, Helena (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), aka Huntress, has been busy exacting revenge on those responsible for the annihilation of her family.
Two other characters, closely tied to Roman, also figure prominently in the expansive story. Victor Zsasz (a creepy Chris Messina), Roman’s self-disfiguring assassin, who is clearly in thrall with his boss, carries out his orders with glee. Somewhat less cooperative is Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), aka Black Canary. A singer in Roman’s nightclub, she is recruited to become his new driver. Aside from being a talented singer, she is also an expert fighter and possesses a “killer voice” that comes in handy near the end of the movie during a final showdown with Roman and the mercenaries he has enlisted to capture Cassandra and dispose of Harley.
From start to finish, “Birds of Prey” completely belongs to Robbie. None of the other actors can hold a candle to her fiery performance. That’s a drawback when this movie is meant to introduce yet another series in the increasingly overcrowded DC universe. Director Cathy Yan does an admirable job of keeping the action moving at a steady clip, but in the end some audience members may find it difficult to keep up with all of it.