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Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn and Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).

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Birds of Prey emancipates the superheroine with a joyful sucker punch

Eat your heart out, Deadpool

Photo: Claudette Barius/Warner Bros. Pictures
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Birds of Prey (Or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) continues a legacy. When Wonder Woman hit screens in 2016, it was considered a risky play. Captain Marvel, Marvel’s long-overdue woman-led vehicle, arrived in theaters to even more sturm und drang, from a review-bombing campaign to criticisms that Brie Larson — and the character she portrayed — didn’t smile enough.

Both movies shouldered studio skepticism and fan expectations in their own ways, but Birds of Prey is a glimpse of the future: A woman-led superhero movie that doesn’t groan under the pressure of being [announcer voice] A Woman-Led Superhero Movie. Cathy Yan’s riotous action-comedy — starring a half a dozen women, but mostly starring Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn — reveals just how much can be gained when creators and characters are emancipated from tokenism.

Which is all to say: Birds of Prey is a messy, leg-breaking, heartwarming, inspirational good time.

(L-r) MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD as Huntress, MARGOT ROBBIE as Harley Quinn, ROSIE PEREZ as Renee Montoya, ELLA JAY BASCO as Cassandra Cain and JURNEE SMOLLETT-BELL as Black Canary in walk out of a funhouse tunnel together in BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN). Photo: Claudette Barius

Robbie’s Harley, the Joker’s eternally perky moll, is the sun the rest of the characters orbit, a mix of star power and audience recognizability. Our story begins proper when she and the Joker acrimoniously part ways. This time, Harley swears, things will be different. This time, she isn’t going back.

Which would be fine, except that once Gotham’s underworld finds out she isn’t under the Joker’s protection anymore, it’s open season for every crook, goon, and roller-derby competitor that Harley’s ever pissed off. Topping the list is Roman “Black Mask” Sionis, Gotham’s latest up-and-coming sadistic mafia don. His ambitions are what pull the rest of the cast toward Harley.

Birds of Prey fills out its central girl gang with a quartet of supporting Batman characters — Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and a significantly re-worked Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). But thanks to some clever bait-and-switch with origin stories and personalities, Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson have made a superhero movie that might actually be more enjoyable for viewers who haven’t read a single comic.

Each character’s storyline is given a slightly different genre and tone, as well, one of a number of tactics the production employs to mimic Harley’s manic internal life. Huntress stalks around Birds of Prey like it’s a Kill Bill-esque revenge epic, while Renee Montoya is in a hard-boiled cop flick. The main heroine ensemble actors all breathe a wonderful amount of life into little-known characters overdue for mainstream attention.

Winstead delivers a comedic twist on the Huntress’s classic personality that I hope makes its way to comics as soon as possible, and the 13-year-old Basco deserves particular credit for holding her own alongside Robbie in their many scenes together. Robbie’s Harley Quinn is just as scene-stealing as she was in Suicide Squad, appearing to operate on at least 20 percent cartoon logic at all times — a useful skill for an occasionally fourth-wall-breaking narrator. Cartoon-channeling is also a useful skill for the star of a movie with such splendid fight scenes.

Birds of Prey’s clearly shot and inventively staged action sequences feel like the first superhero movie response to John Wick’s success. Doubtless some CGI was involved, but there are no slickly textured crash-test dummies bashing each other into submission here — in fact, sometimes the violence gets just a little too real. But between Robbie’s Harrison-Fordian ability to emote even in the midst of full-contact ballet, and Yan’s attention to making sure we see Harley’s face even in the middle of a brawl, it’s also clear that we aren’t watching stunt doubles.

Harley is everywhere in the movie, serving not just as narrator, but as its structural underpinning, which is bound by her characteristically disjointed storytelling whims. Nonlinear storytelling and onscreen title cards — not unlike Suicide Squad, the movie that introduced Harley to the live-action world — only occasionally wear out their welcome.

CHRIS MESSINA as Victor Zsasz leans on a table to talk to a seated EWAN McGREGOR as Roman Sionis, with JURNEE SMOLLETT-BELL as Black Canary in the background, in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN). Photo: Claudette Barius/Warner Bros. Pictures

Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor doing his best Sam Rockwell impression, is one of the film’s only consistently middling aspects. Birds of Prey’s version of the character is an apt caricature of masculine fragility, complete with his own enabling bro in the form of Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz. But his swings between laughably self-important preening and violent outbursts of face-saving domination feel like they belong to two different characters, rather than one man who can never grab enough power to erase his insecurity.

None of this is enough to harsh Harley’s mellow, however. Birds of Prey (Or the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t really here for the discourse. Yes, women band together in solidarity to raise their middle fingers at the patriarchal systems that have kept them down, and they kick the asses of, like, a million bad dudes. But the sociological implications are simply the atmosphere the audience is breathing, not the main course of the meal.

The main course is that Harley and her new friends are here for freedom and ass-kicking, and in order to secure the former, they’re going to have to do the latter. They’re not going to stop World War I by killing a god, or to recover their memory-wiped identity in order to single-handedly stare down an intergalactic empire — though there’s certainly nothing wrong with that! Birds of Prey’s freedom to discard the classic superhero story is a freedom well won. If there’s one thing Hollywood should learn from the experience, it’s this: Sometimes girls just want to have fun, whether they’re in superhero movies or watching them.