Like several of the movies in the DC superhero multiverse, Harley Quinn's "bad girl" empowerment film isn't as good as it thinks it is. And, just like the franchise, this villains-as-vigilantes flick is constantly adjusting and trying to find the right tone -- but it never strikes the perfect chord. Unlike Man of Steel, Wonder Woman, and Joker -- which strive to make fully realized and empathetic human beings out of comic book characters -- the villains in Birds of Prey remain ludicrous and over-the-top live-action cartoons that seem like they belong in the 1966 Batman TV series. Harley bebops around Gotham, narrating the story with a sassy wiseacre New York accent, adopting a pet hyena, and creating pandemonium by acting completely on impulse -- she blows up a chemical plant and it shoots off fireworks, just like you might see in one of the Looney Tunes cartoons she watches constantly on VHS. Even the storytelling is chaotic: Harley jumps back and forth in time more often than Marty McFly. Crime lord Roman Sionis/Black Mask is ridiculous, too, with comedy being mined from his narcissism. On a dime, Sionis pivots into a sadistic, gruesome psychopath: He doesn't just kill his enemies, he cuts their faces off. And, yes, viewers see that happen. And when he does it to a kid, the filmmakers try to make it funny rather than horrific. That level of dark irreverence manages to work in Deadpool, but it doesn't here. Maybe we're meant to feel as off-balance as Harley herself, but it certainly creates a longing for the days when Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan were telling Gotham's stories.
As Harley embraces being her own person and releases her attachment to "Mr. J," she encounters women who've been forced by tragedy to be self-sufficient and who are struggling to escape being controlled by men. Most of the movie's song choices are literally describing what's happening at the moment: The most on the nose is when Black Canary sings "It's a Man's World," which is pretty much the premise of the entire film. The women are empathetic and operate on a sliding scale of good-bad, but all the men are evil, selfish, and/or disappointing. A sexual violence vibe pops up in several scenes, but then it turns out that assault isn't the thug's intent after all. It's a little unclear what that's about -- perhaps to show how some men use sexual discomfort or humiliation to dominate the power dynamic? But when the movie crescendos to a funhouse battle in which the women fight off dozens of faceless, mask-wearing men, it becomes more clear that the last hour and a half has been a metaphor for the sexual and gender assault that many women experience as "life" -- and that they're just swinging and kicking, hoping to live another day. Many teens will see this movie, and -- despite the violence, the unevenness, and the main characters' moral ambiguity -- that might not be a bad thing. Birds of Prey makes clear this unfortunate truth: As a woman, you have to stay on your toes, you have to stay alert, and it's a lot easier to fight off bad men when you're part of a flock.