Two days from now, Joaquin Phoenix will likely win an Oscar for his depiction of the Joker in Todd Phillips’ lugubrious take on the super villain’s origin story. So, for your consideration, I give you Margot Robbie in Birds of Prey, a performance that is no less inventive and committed, but way more fun.
Robbie plays the notorious Harley Quinn. Her origin story goes like this: At one point a respected psychiatrist, she falls for her patient, the Joker, then falls (literally) into a vat of radioactive goo, and emerges a punkish anarchist with pigtails, hot pants, and zero you-know-whats to give. Does she have any actual super powers? Nothing notable, although she seemingly has more strength and speed than the average person (at least in one scene, that speed is fueled by the giant pile of cocaine she collides with). But her greatest superpower, I suppose, is her absolute embrace of chaos. The crazier things get, the happier she seems.
In the past, Harley has largely been defined by her love of Joker, so Birds of Prey has a pretty fun concept: What happens when Harley and Joker break up? Well, for one, she’s even more manic than usual. But also, the protection he provided her evaporates. She suddenly has several targets on her back. Each new character is introduced by the “grievance” they have with Harley. Suffice it to say she has a knack for pissing people off.
Robbie is having an absolute blast playing this character, an unholy combination of Alex from A Clockwork Orange and Cindy Brady. One minute she’s wreaking havoc on a nightclub—breaking a sexist creep’s legs, puking into a stranger’s purse—the next minute she’s giggling in front of cartoons and kissing her pet hyena. And, occasionally, as she’s glitter bombing a police station or blowing up a chemical plant, she’ll stop to dispense some long-dormant, dimly accessed bit of psychological wisdom. (“Psychologically speaking, vengeance rarely brings the catharsis we hope for.”)
But she’s not the only ass-kicking female in this movie. Harley will eventually end up with a squad, of sorts. There’s detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), fast on the heels of the evil smoothie, Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), but never getting credit for her work (that always goes to her male partner). Then there’s deadpan super assassin Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead)—she prefers “the Huntress”—who wields a crossbow like a champ and whose ninja-like ways impress the livewire Harley. There’s the tweenage pickpocket Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco). Finally, there’s Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell, in a star-making performance), a beauty with a killer set of lungs who more-or-less operates a resistance from within Sionis’ deadly organization.
Birds of Prey is directed by a woman—Cathy Yan—and it shows. Before you jump to conclusions, it has nothing to do with the amount of action or violence—both are eye-popping and plentiful. But each of its female anti-heroines has her own agency. Although they are all sexy, their sexuality is never exploited. They are not defined by the men in their lives. And although they are technically criminals (Montoya notwithstanding), they ultimately have a shared humanity that makes them natural, if reluctant, allies.
Kinetic, silly, candy-colored, and hyperviolent, Birds of Prey is a serious treat for fans of comic book films. But it wouldn’t work without the equal parts goofy, hilarious, and unhinged performance of its lead. I’ll be back at the end of the year to remind Oscar voters just how great she is.