Ah, the DC Extended Universe. It’s a bastard child of a franchise that, ever since Batman V Superman, has been running away from itself while being pushed around by a rotating team of executives in every different direction. It wanted to be the answer to Marvel, but there never seemed to be a terribly strong voice at the executive level, like a Kevin Feige, to operate as a guiding hand. I suppose Zack Snyder had too much early control, determining the first steps of the franchise entirely on his own (in movies that I admire, by the way) while the franchise as a whole ended up feeling like an afterthought.
Seriously, whose idea was it to make Suicide Squad the third movie in this franchise? Never mind the movie’s flaws, why would a team up movie about a group of villains, none of whom had been seen before in this iteration of the franchise and only one of whom had any real cultural weight (and even then, Harley Quinn was never exactly a household name) be the third movie in this franchise? I know Wonder Woman was just down the pipe, but that should have been third. Fourth should have been maybe a stand alone Batman, but no, the third was freaking Suicide Squad.
The franchise never really recovered. Wonder Woman has its fans, but I’m not really one of them. (Joss Whedon’s) Justice League is a clusterfart of legendary status. And then they started just handing movies off to some of the most inappropriate talent. James Wan for Aquaman? Really? Cathy Yan for Birds of Prey? Seriously? Even Shazam! brought on David F. Sandberg, a horror filmmaker, for what essentially amounted to a children’s movie (that works reasonably well, by the way). The franchise seemed to have veered from over-controlled blind hands at the executive level to a complete hands-off approach.
So starting from the bottom, let’s talk about #10…
Birds of Prey and The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn
This movie has a single objective: to hate men. There’s literally no other reason this movie exists. No male character is remotely good in the end, they’re all backstabbing rapists and psychopaths while even the criminal women are all sympathetic to the extreme. So, fine. That’s its ultimate theme, but what about how the movie tells its story? Well, let’s judge it purely on that, never mind its rampant misandry. It’s, um, it’s terrible.
So, the movie is sort of told from Harley Quinn’s perspective. We regularly see things that she never sees or could know about, commenting on it like she is seeing it. I suppose it’s supposed to be like a Deadpool fourth wall breaking central character running commentary, but Deadpool was, you know, funny. Quinn really isn’t, but that’s not the biggest problem with how the movie is built. The biggest problem is that the first half or so is intentionally poorly built. Quinn is telling the story like she’s drunk and can’t remember things in the right order. It reminds me of the Treehouse of Horror from The Simpsons where Homer was telling a ghost story out of order, undercutting every scare he was trying to pull off. There’s a reason structure is important in storytelling, and it’s not because it’s the rules. It’s because structure provides the base on which audiences stand and understand the characters, plot, and theme of the film. Screwing with structure like this, where Harley constantly backtracks to cover information we should already have, preventing the story from flowing forward, ends up creating a frustrating, at best, experience.
So, digging through the back and forth that prevents any solid grounding, Harley Quinn has broken up with the Joker, and she’s struggling. She goes to Black Mask’s club and wreaks havoc, letting them all think she’s still Joker’s girl. When she decides, in a drunken moment, to blow up Ace Chemical, where both she and the Joker got their palish hue, everyone in the world instantly recognizes it as Joker having dumped Harley, because of course? I mean, the second the police character, Renee Montoya, shows up at the scene, she instantly says that this obviously means that they broke up based on the necklace with a J on it found near the scene. Okay, whatever.
This action gets all of Gotham to go after Harley, having made so many enemies over the years, and here’s where the movie’s problems with structure are most acute. You see, we’ve seen some of what Harley has done to anger the underbelly of Gotham against her, mostly her jumping on Black Mask’s driver’s legs and breaking them, but the driver wasn’t terribly distinctive and then none of the other people who show up have ever been seen before. The way they appear feel like they’re supposed to be comedic appearances, “OH! That guy!” sort of responses, but the movie has to completely stop to explain who the person is and why they’re angry. The kind of introduction the movie does for all of them with a freeze frame and quick text with some quick flashback (which they did in Suicide Squad to terrible effect, by the way) is what you do when you start piling up the grievances as a joke, not how you introduce them all from the beginning. The kicker is that the guy we do know, the driver, is not even the first introduced or even that recognizable.
So, alongside this is the actual plot which is that Black Mask is looking for a diamond with bank information laser etched into it that had belonged to a Mafia don who had died a dozen years ago in a hit. How this diamond is eventually found is unclear, but Black Mask sends his new driver, Black Canary the former lounge singer at his club that he elevated to his driver for not terribly good reasons (she beat up some customers that were trying to steal Harley Quinn which would make her a good driver because…?) and Victor Zsasz to recover it from an importer. As Zsasz waits for Canary to return with the car, a young pickpocket, Cassandra, easily takes it from him and gets immediately arrested for having stolen other stuff (with a squad car instantly in support because…?). Black Mask needs that diamond that Cassandra swallows. At the same time, Black Mask’s men pick up Harley Quinn, and Black Mask is gonna relieve some stress by cutting of her face. However, she…manages to talk him into letting her find the diamond because…she has no actual skills in finding things other than some weird story about a picture of naked Eleanor Roosevelt that had belonged to the Joker? And then he immediately just puts out a $500,000 bounty on Cassandra for anyone to collect anyway?
What? This is dumb. This is really dumb.
So, Harley gets to the police station and gets through with a powerful confetti gun in an action scene that exemplifies everything wrong with this movie’s action scenes. They make literally no sense. There’s having thin women defeat waves of larger men that make sense, like with the enhanced River Tam in Firefly and Serenity, but Birds of Prey makes no such kind of effort. She’s attacking a police station with a weapon, and the only time anyone pulls a ranged weapon on her is when they’re within striking distance of her own arms. This extends for about fifteen minutes as the action scene evolves to include prisoners and then the, ugh, other mercenaries. No one tries to fire a ranged weapon unless she can reach them with her arms. Also, no one will approach this woman more than one at a time. Now, it’s really hard to make convincing action scenes of one against many, but Birds of Prey simply highlights the fact that no one will approach Harley more than one at a time. Especially in the row of prison cells, with the sprinklers on to try and create a distinctive visual motif, the burly prisoners who…immediately attack the person who just released them from their cells (ugh) all go after her one at a time so that she can do gymnastics to defeat them.
They get away, hide away, and get betrayed by a man who gives their location away to…people. It’s unclear who. Anyway, while all of this is going on, the Crossbow Killer is going around killing people, supposedly bad people but it’s never quite clear. Now, the movie does have a handful of laughs, and the biggest one is probably about how the Crossbow Killer wants to be called the Huntress. Her exasperation at no one knowing what she wants to call herself is genuinely funny. It’s also short lived as the movie just goes back to being a confusing mess of nonsense.
So, everyone ends up coming together for a couple of action scenes in an abandoned circus attraction on the wharf that looks completely dilapidated on the outside but works perfectly on the inside (the Joker, I guess). The action scenes are…weak, designed to look cool but feel loose and poorly executed. It doesn’t help that Harley’s large hammer is supposed to be hard and we see it hit people pretty softly with regularity. The five women end up defeating hundreds of guys with nary a scratch, Black Mask blows up with a grenade, and the girls end up at a taco place where Cassandra finally poops out the diamond. Yay, I guess.
This movie has no center. It’s supposedly Harley Quinn herself, but she’s telling the story incredibly poorly, is incredibly unsympathetic, and would work far better as a supporting character. She was barely tolerable in Suicide Squad as a supporting player, and pushed to the fore here she’s grating. The movie has a handful of entertaining moments, but they’re really far and few between. This movie was poorly written, poorly shot, and poorly edited. It has the ambition of an aggrieved Tumblr account.
Originally published here.