You can't help but compare Birds of Prey to other superhero movies flooding the market. Our eyeballs are inundated with spandex and muscles and giant beams firing into the sky every other week. And with this saturation comes a new challenge: every superhero movie has to provide it is worth our time. Some do this with more star power, bigger crossovers, or new genre twists. Logan did the Western, Winter Soldier the spy movie, Ragnarok the buddy cop Shakespearean anti-colonial romp (maybe that last one isn't a genre).
But there's one genre that's been woefully overlooked: the fight movie. Movies where our rowdy protagonists go from brawl to brawl, depicted fully in their glorious violence, breaking bones and backs until they get what they're looking for (The Raid, The Night Comes for Us, John Wick, Atomic Blonde, to name a few). Yet so far, for a genre built almost entirely around boisterous action and showy set pieces, no superhero movie has been able to coherently display a fist fight with verve and rhythm. Enter Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
Margot Robbie leads a great cast in this action-packed romp, that whizzes through its plot. I can't tell you much about what happens in this movie, because I can't remember most of it. That's almost by design, as the movie is presented through Harley Quinn, who starts in the middle, then goes backwards, then forwards, until eventually we're smack-dab in the middle of the third act. This deliberate narrative confusion keeps us unstable as they try to catch up with Harley's mania. And though the movie eventually falls into run-of-the-mill "defend the helpless teen from a bad-guy", filmmaking flourishes like this structure keep the movie fresh.
Rather than the drab colours of prior DC outings or the mostly identical palettes of the MCU, Birds of Prey commits to a distinct visual style, with flashy colours and bold visual images. These pops in style carry into the movie's music too, where Cathy Yan shows she has as keen a ear as her eye. That keen eye and sense of rhythm is clearest in this movie's delightful fights. Cathy Yan knows that a good fight scene is like music. There is tempo, pace, and flow in the violence, as we go from broken leg to popped shoulder, baseball bat to chainsaw. There's something melodic in the carnage, if it's well-shot, expertly choreographed, and most importantly, fun. And these fights are fun. They're fast, whacky, inventive, and clear, a quality lacking in the explosive finales of most superhero movies.
The superhero genre is exhausting itself. But once in a while, a director is able to crack through the studio machine, like James Gunn, Ryan Coogler, or Taika Waititi and bring a new energy to the table. Cathy Yan joins this list, sprinkling anarchic glee all over the tired formula. The movie still has flaws, flaws that face most superhero movies, like a forgettable villain, a little too long a runtime, and some relationships lacking in depth. But even then, it adds enough to the tropes that it warrants a watch. So though the superhero movie genre may eventually tire itself out Birds of Prey injects some life into the genre, with a splash of colour, a killer soundtrack, and some good old-fashioned bone breaking.