What an endlessly fascinating thing Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe turned out to be: A comic book universe that’s really only “connected” in the same way IKEA parts all technically come in the same box. At this point, the DCEU is a hodgepodge of various tones, narratives, and even cast members. There’s been some terrible movies, some really fun movies, a few great movies. A Batman CrossFit montage. Battle sharks fighting warrior crab-people. An exceedingly jacked David Thewlis. A Joker with face tattoos and, get this, an entirely different, alt-universe Joker that makes his grand debut on a late-night talk show. It’s all here, people, and it’s all definitely stuff that happens.
The DCEU is jumbled, is what I’m saying, and into that eclectic pressure cooker now jumps Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), the sort-of-sequel to Suicide Squad from director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson. The reviews are positive—our own Matt Goldberg was lukewarm in his review — and I personally thought the movie whipped an almost unfair amount of ass. But what really stuck with me is its approach to world-building. It’s firmly set within the timeline established all the way back in 2013 with Man of Steel, but in reference only, not style or tone. It feels like the first entry in the franchise that’s simultaneously rejecting and embracing all the things that made the DCEU—less standalone than Shazam! but also far less beholden to a grand plan than Justice League—and that’s what makes it arguably the DCEU’s most fully-realized film to date.
But first, a recap of exactly when and how Birds of Prey fits into that increasingly complicated timeline*:
1918 – The DCEU kicks off as we know it when Amazonian Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) lightning-bolts the literal god of war to death and helps America win World War 1. She continues her crusade for good after the war, through 1984 and beyond.
- 2013 – Kryptonian-turned-investigative-journalist Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) battles his fellow extraterrestrial Zod (Michael Shannon) above—and, let’s be honest, through—the city of Metropolis, causing an ungodly amount of property damage and loss of life. This especially ticks off Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), known at night as Batman, leading to…
- 2015 – Batman takes on Superman in a knock-down, drag-out fight in a completely abandoned Gotham City location. (No casualties this time, no siree). The super-tussle to end all super-tussles turned into a 3-on-1 fight between Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman against Lex Luthor’s (Jesse Eisenberg) manufactured monster, Doomsday. Superman dies.
2016 – In a world without Superman shook by the possibility Amanda Waller (Viola Davis)—gravely overestimating the effect a boomerang, baseball bat, and/or climbing rope would have against a Kryptonian—puts together a team. That team is the Suicide Squad, and it is absolutely dog-shit terrible. But it introduces us to Robbie’s Harley Quinn, and in the end, Harley escapes Belle Rev prison with Jared Leto‘s Joker.
- ??? – ??? – A shockingly jovial Batman and the rest of the newly-formed Justice League bring Superman back to life and save the world from Darkseid’s uncle. Soon after, a whole-ass war happens under the ocean that only ends when a Lovecraftian sea-beast with the voice of Julie Andrews erupts from the Earth’s core. In Philadelphia, a high-school student is gifted with the powers of a god. This was a very busy time.
- 2016 – 2020(ish) – Meanwhile, Harley Quinn and the Joker carve a mostly unchecked, chaos-filled path across Gotham City, pissing off every crime-boss in town, until the moment their relationship ends and Birds of Prey begins.
One of the many glittery charms of Birds of Prey is the way it carves a unique niche into the already-established DCEU while never coming off as completely standalone. The film is refreshingly comic book-y in the way it feels like a set, beginning-middle-and-end story taking place in the pocket of a larger, crowded world. Like the deftest world-builders, Birds of Prey suggests a vastness without overtly showing it. Just the simple fact that the entire criminal underworld of Gotham City wouldn’t dare touch Harley until she struck out on her own does more for the presence and aura of this Joker than literally every choice Jared Leto could’ve made on-screen.
But this is Harley’s movie, and it feels like a Harley movie; Cathy Yan has crafted a confetti-covered Gotham that looks like an ordinary city on the surface with a madcap heart at its center; a place where people still have to commute to work by train and just hope a themed villain doesn’t fill the car with poison gas. Christopher Nolan‘s Gotham snapshotted through a Tim Burton filter, basically. (And, honestly, a splash of the best Joel Schumacher thrown in for good measure.) And it works so well because Yan and Dodson filled it with characters from Batman canon that feel lived-in from the moment we meet them. We don’t so much “meet” Ewan McGregor‘s Roman Sionis, or Jurnee Smollett-Bell‘s Dinah Lance, or anyone in this story as much as we do crash into them, Harley-style. They’re all just gears in the tangled engineering that make a city like Gotham tick, which itself is a unique piece of the larger DCEU puzzle.
That, really, is all I’ve wanted from WB’s shared franchise for a while now, unique stories with their own tone and style that highlight a corner of the DC universe without bending over backward for a larger sense of MCU-style connectivity. Shazam! and Aquaman were definitely both unique—I’m contractually obligated to remind you of that octopus playing drums—but also felt like they could mostly exist independent from the DCEU’s past, minus the odd Superman cameo or Mother Box mention. Birds of Prey, simply put, is the first clear spiritual continuation of the original Zack Snyder gameplan that also—miracle of miracles—just happens to be a good movie. I’m not sure we’ve realized yet how huge that is for the future of the DCEU, proof that Warner Bros. doesn’t need to completely throw out the past to create a brighter future.
Birds of Prey is now available to rent or own. For more on Birds of Prey, here’s our interview with Margot Robbie, Ella Jay Basco, and Chris Messina.
*NOTE: This is all, of course, even more complicated thanks to Joker (which doesn’t take place in the DCEU at all), James Gunn‘s forthcoming The Suicide Squad (which will be a soft reboot of its predecessor), and Matt Reeves‘ The Batman, which…remains to be seen.