The most accessible way to assess Harley Quinn as a character is by comparing her two distinct iterations from two films Suicide Squad (2016) and Birds of Prey (2020), both portrayed by Margot Robbie.
The former, directed by David Ayer, introduced Quinn as one of the girls in a male-dominated team; established as a villainess who is not necessarily a team person but would do anything to please her boyfriend, the crime-lord Joker.
The latter, directed by newcomer Cathy Yan, stripped Quinn of her relationship with The Joker and decided the choice to learn how to stand on her own. This time, in Birds of Prey, Quinn gets disconnected from other established characters from previous DC films such as Batman, The Joker, and just about every other character from Suicide Squad. On that fact alone, the film already sought to be its own, refreshing beast.
Comic book movies, especially with a property like this with an existing cult following, tend to include as much familiar references for the sake of churning out as much reaction from its audience. Thankfully, the world of Birds of Prey is built and designed isolated from the rest, and if any laughs, thrills, or warranted reaction comes out, it’s because they (finally) dared to try something uniquely singular.
This film’s version of a Harley Quinn is one that longs to escape faulty caricature. At times, the film allowed her to reflect crazy decisions in the past, which mostly has something to do during her relationship with The Joker. This take is no game-changer, but it’s something that fleshes out the character naturally.
A female perspective in the form of director Cathy Yan allowed its female-driven narrative to sail seamlessly without feeling too forced on having a more feminist messaging. Yan’s director simply crafts a fun movie enabled by a team of female heroines, who also happens to prefer kicking a lot of men’s balls.
In essence, Birds of Prey is a team of heroines who banded together to fight crime (or in this film’s case, mostly, seek revenge). Harley Quinn is joined by the assassin Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), singer/ rat of a crime group Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), and the young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).
It took a final climactic set-piece to group them, who were initially shown in their independent storylines. While they’re fun to watch all together, it can be tough to be emotionally seal them together with their eventual assembly. It feels like finally finishing off a puzzle without the thrill of completion.
But then again, this is a Harley Quinn movie. If done a few more times and with consistency, this could easily be Margot Robbie’s signature role. She fits well with the zaniness of the character, and even more, a raw, humanity.
Birds of Prey vies for something fresh. It wasn’t. And it’s nowhere near perfect. However, it’s always fascinating to see a film be transparent with its genre politics and yet be playful with it without resorting to being too serious. It’s the kind of playfulness that converts its frustrations to violent action scenes involving women taking vengeance aimed at abolishing toxic masculinity.
See the trailer here: