Here’s a very well-made superhero(ine) movie in the new style: Its leading character is not exactly heroic.
The “hero” here is Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie,) the Joker’s girlfriend from the much-hated 2016 Suicide Squad film. As the story begins, Harley has been dumped by the Joker. She comforts herself and satisfies her inner anarchist by bombing a huge Gotham chemical factory. The flames and explosions delight her.
Harley has a backstory rendered quickly in an opening cartoon. Her irrationality seems to trace to an unhappy childhood, her training and work as a psychiatrist and the influence of the Joker, who does not make an appearance here. To be fair, not many superhero fans go to these movies for the character development, but here we are.
Anyway, without Joker to protect her, HQ is vulnerable to the predations of bad guys, particularly Gotham thug Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor.) Fortunately, Harley is good at fighting.
In one set piece, she takes down every cop in a police precinct, then does the same to a pack of jail guards and, finally, body slams a bunch of prisoners whose cells have come unlocked. This allows her to free a teenage pickpocket who has an item that Harley needs.
(Imagine Harley as the Halle Berry character in this Casablanca fight in last year’s Parabellum — but without the help of guns or dogs or John Wick, and you’ll get the idea. Chad Stahelski, who directed the John Wick movies, helped choreograph the many stunt fights in Birds of Prey.)
Over time, Harley gathers unto herself a squad of other tough women. These include Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) whose talents include free-range fighting and a superpower that derives from her fine singing voice; unappreciated police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) whose nontraditional sexual preference is not much discussed, and Cassie Cain (Ella Jay Basco) the teenage thief who lives with terrible foster parents. Toward the end, another tough gal, good with a crossbow, shows up in time to be included in the expected sequel.
Margot Robbie, a fine actress, camps it up as a gleeful Harley. Her lipstick and eyeshadow are perfect, and she has a really nice pet hyena named Bruce. It may be that Robbie is in the production for the money, rather as Scarlet Johannson has been doing Marvel movies that have built her nine-figure net worth.
In short, this is a hugely stylized and overstuffed comic book story — did I mention that it is really overstuffed? — with a wafer-thin plot in which every male character turns out to be a terrible person. But, again, it’s a comic book story, just like those comic books in which superhero men fight to protect themselves from terrible women. Oh, wait.
It’s nicely done, yes, but better for audiences with short attention spans. I’m not signing up for the sequel.
This movie, written and directed skillfully by women, was the only big movie opening last weekend. People who know about these things expected initially that it would gross nearly $50 million in North America, but it was not to be. Sales were in the low 30s.
There is a bit of a theme here. The female Ghostbusters was unpopular, and so was last year’s The Hustle, a female remake of a popular male-staffed comedy. Same with last year’s much-praised Booksmart, which had been pitched as a chick version of Superbad.
There seems to be a relatively narrow range of leading roles that work for top-billing actresses. If the times are changing, they are changing slowly.