Harley Quinn deserved better than her botched big-screen debut in Suicide Squad. The character was first introduced as a one-off henchwoman in a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series, but proved so instantly magnetic that her creators soon invented a twist-laden origin story to heighten her tragic allure. She was once a psychiatrist who treated the Joker, until she fell for her maniacal patient. An all-consuming love for him drove her to redefine herself as the criminal Harley Quinn. But for her efforts to win his affection and help him take over Gotham, the Joker rewarded her with emotional and physical abuse so severe that, now and then, it jolted Harley into moments of clarity. She’d swear the Joker off and, in subsequent episodes and comics, even struck out on her own, falling in with fellow villainesses like Poison Ivy.
The toxic cycle of Joker and Harley’s relationship almost always restarted again. But it was those moments when she’d tear herself from his side that deepened the character beyond her origins and made her one of geek culture’s most beloved and enduring anti-heroines. You’d root for Harley because sometimes, however briefly, she’d snap free of her obsession and start rooting for herself, too. That is not the Harley Suicide Squad was interested in, however.
Margot Robbie’s charmingly manic performance notwithstanding, the Harley Quinn of David Ayer’s 2016 film existed as little more than a literal punch line; the movie never probed the tragedy of her broken psyche, nor allowed her a moment of even temporary revelation. Instead, it settled for playing the violence against her for laughs, ogling her body, and uncritically romanticizing her abusive relationship with the Joker. (In the film’s take on her origin story, to make matters worse, it’s the Joker who transforms Dr. Harleen Quinzel into Harley Quinn by throwing her into a vat of potent chemicals; in B:TAS, she robs a prank store, chooses her new jester’s suit and weapons, and emerges transformed all on her own.) That the movie itself was also, structurally and artistically, an irredeemable mess helped put a damper on what should have been Harley’s triumphant debut.
While not a do-over, director Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) lives up to its lengthy title in more ways than one. It centers Harley in a story post-breakup with the Joker, yes. But in tone and spirit, it also divorces Harley from the leery, superficial gaze that first defined Robbie’s version of the lady prankster. The film is as irrepressibly fun, girly, and gleefully violent—this is the rare picture aimed straight at the cross-section of adults passionate about both pink glitter and bone-crunching practical stunts and effects; my people, that is—as its demented protagonist. And it conceives of her as more than a sexy lost-girl pinup. Harley’s a ditz, a fuck-up, often naive and selfish but also plainly eager for connection. Without the Joker around to steal her thunder, there’s finally room to scratch the depths of her mania.
Robbie herself became the impetus for the movie’s revised vision of Harley, enlisting screenwriter Christina Hodson and director Cathy Yan, while producing the film under her own banner, LuckyChap Entertainment. The result is as distinctly female-driven as it is irreverently, intoxicatingly madcap, veering from animated sequences to musical dream numbers to dazzling fight scenes in which many of the actresses, including Robbie, perform their own stunts, allowing Yan’s camera to train on them for thrilling long takes (rather than the choppily-edited CGI slugfests often favored by modern comic-book movies). And though Birds of Prey eventually bands Harley together with a crew of fellow female misfits, its motivations are less patronizingly simplistic than Hollywood’s recent spate of corporate girl-power vehicles. It isn’t a profound movie. Nor is it a perfect one. But it knows just who its audience is and how to delight and indulge them to a euphoric contact high.
Harley narrates her own story as she nurses her broken heart, alternately seething at and pining for the Joker. As she goes through the motions of young female heartache—cutting her own hair (and instantly regretting it), downing too many shots at the club (and breaking a guy’s legs clean backwards), adopting a new pet (in her case, a hyena)—she crosses paths with a new lineup of enemies, assassins, and uneasy allies. They include police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who’s out to hunt Harley down; a young pick-pocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco); a crossbow-wielding assassin with poor people skills named Huntress (scene-stealer Mary Elizabeth Winstead); and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a singer-turned-reluctant henchwoman for crime boss Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), a self-supposed sophisticate with an inferiority complex. They reside in a Gotham unlike any seen so far in live-action: it’s sunnier, scrappier, more like Flushing than midtown Manhattan.
The plot is neither groundbreaking nor difficult to follow, though it’s also barely the point. Instead, the movie belongs to its outsized performances (especially McGregor, Winstead, and Robbie), the self-aware humor of Hodson’s script, costume designer Erin Benach’s eye-popping array of fantastical pieces, and Yan and cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s eye for the playful, colorful, and unconventional. When Harley storms a police station, explosions of glitter and pastel-colored smoke bombs fill the air as she evades and subdues officers left and right. When goons come after her and Cass in the evidence locker, sprinklers go off and a riveting fight sequence full of glimmering slow-motion splashes unfolds. Each fight sequence suits the style of its central heroine: Black Canary’s first, for example, adopts the flair of a ’70s martial-arts movie. Better yet, each sequence does more than just trade screentime for adrenaline: they propel individual stories forward, revealing more to us about each heroine, her abilities, and how far she would go (and who she would hurt) to obtain or protect what she wants.
Women’s influences behind the camera manifest onscreen in smaller ways, too. These women actually sweat when they fight! Long, untied hair gets in their way! In one tiny, miraculous moment, Harley hands Canary a hair tie mid-battle! (Not to mention the look of sheer, unadulterated affection Harley reserves exclusively for New York bodega-style bacon egg sandwiches; when I interviewed Yan, she laughed, "That's the real female gaze.") Such human touches in an R-rated studio action movie starring women shouldn't be so noteworthy—yet they are, because when was the last time we saw them?
That said, Birds of Prey is uninterested in casting these women as role models; even Cass, who looks up to Harley for her brazen criminality, constantly questions her decisions and tastes. When all five women are finally forced to work together near the end of the movie, they do so because none of them have a choice in the matter, not because girls just gotta stick together. Still, there’s something faintly heartbreaking about the eagerness with which Harley latches onto her new comrades, proposing slumber parties and tacos. You get the sense she’s rarely enjoyed female friendship.
It’s a shame that, however entertaining Harley’s solo antics are, relatively little of the film is left for low-key moments like the one in which all five women do go out and get tacos; most of their limited time together is spent scrambling to stay alive in the big finale. Still, it’s refreshing that Yan, Hodson, and Robbie are content to part with Harley by movie’s end not after reforming her, but after she has simply rediscovered a bit of who she is without the Joker. She’s still a wanton and violent criminal, still a hair’s trigger away from falling apart—she’s still Harley Quinn. We’ve just finally gotten to know her a little more on the big screen beyond that.