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Joker who? Harley Quinn and ‘Birds of Prey’ might be DC’s best yet

Eric Webb
After stealing the show in the dismal “Suicide Squad,” Margot Robbie‘s Harley Quinn gets the chance to shine in a much better movie: “Birds of Prey," out this weekend. [Contributed by Claudette Barius / Warner Bros. Pictures]

This is the tale of a criminal clown who, tired of being pushed to the margins of Gotham City, decides to fight back against those who underestimate them. This is one of DC Comics’ most successful cinematic excursions ever.

Oh, no! Not “Joker.” You thought I meant “Joker”? Ha! Geez, no, sorry, I see how that was confusing. Can you imagine! Nah, I meant “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn),” a madcap crime caper, a live-action-but-cartoony catharsis, a movie where Margot Robbie hits a lot of misogynists with a giant mallet.

Four years after bringing the Joker’s gun moll Harley Quinn to life as a daffy dame with roller derby flair in the critically panned “Suicide Squad,” Robbie (with a producer credit here) owns the spotlight with “Birds of Prey.” Keeping with the DC comic book from which the movie takes its name, she’s joined by a few crimefighters and crime-creators who were long due for a big-screen incarnation. (If Marvel fans can go see a talking raccoon at the multiplex, then DC fans deserve to see Black Canary — a Justice Leaguer who’s been around since the 1940s — while they munch popcorn.)

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“Birds of Prey,” in theaters this weekend, finds Harley kicked to the curb by “Mistah J,” as she calls him. Feeling sorry for herself, she throws back liquor, liberally drops her ex’s name to stay out of trouble and buys a pet hyena as a rebound present to herself. When word gets out that Harley and Joker are kaput, finito, donezo, all the many, many people whom she’s wronged come hunting for blood, including sadistic, flamboyant crime boss Black Mask (Ewan McGregor, and more on him later, because you could eat his performance with whipped cream and a spoon).

Harley’s not alone in crossing Black Mask, though. There’s also downtrodden Gotham City police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), mob-affiliated siren Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), connoisseur of pointy sticks/vigilante the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a pickpocket who picked a pocket that happened to contain a diamond Black Mask wants. Why yes, all of our lethal ladies do end up joining forces to protect the kid and pound the mask off that twisted bastard’s face, thank you very much.

Helmed by director Cathy Yan in her first big-budget super-outing, the movie is just too much @#$% fun. It’s the kind of genuinely hilarious Hollywood punch-em-up that seems like a no-brainer, since those make a gatrillion dollars, that studios always try to pump full of hot air and CGI until they become boring doom-zeppelins.

Here, Robbie is allowed to build an entire world around her wisecracking, chaotic take on Ms. Quinn. Harley’s on-screen foils orbit her dip-dyed pigtails. You also genuinely want this deadly (and dead-smart) henchwoman to learn to stand on her own two roller skates, and if she becomes a better person in the process, hey, all the better.

There are plenty of slow-mo confetti clouds, technicolor smoke bombs, decaying carnival games and crunching bones — “Birds of Prey” deals every card in the Harley deck, coming to a mall near you.

(And a surreal “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” dream sequence? Yes, we’re doing that, too.)

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Snaps for Yan, who gives all the birds their due wings, even if it’s Robbie’s show. The inimitable Perez shines as Montoya; if it wasn’t the “Do the Right Thing” actress drunkenly tussling with Harley, you’d think “Blurgh, wish this was Rosie Perez.” (Yan fought for Perez to land the role, according to The Washington Post, and thank God.)

Winstead — an actress threatening to become wildly famous for about 15 years now — adds another superb genre role to a resume that already includes “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “10 Cloverfield Lane.” In so much as anyone feints at stealing the movie from Robbie, it’s Winstead. “Birds of Prey,” which barely winks at Batman, lets her dial up the grim-avenger-of-the-night bit to high-concept absurdity, without skimping on the heart of her tragic origin story. Her comedic chemistry with Robbie is like watching two roller derby teammates land hits in tandem.

And McGregor … to be candid, I struggle to find an apt pop culture comparison for his succulently deranged Black Mask, to the point where I’m convinced the portrayal is a stroke of whole-cloth genius. You’ve got to see it to appreciate it, so here’s a mood board instead: the theme song to “Succession,” Christian Bale dancing in “American Psycho,” silk shirts, Christoph Waltz’s “That’s a bingo!” line in “Inglourious Basterds,” doing all the steps in your skincare regimen each night like a lunatic, human faces where they aren’t supposed to be (which is, as you might know, on the human head).

The performers especially needed to stick the landings on these beloved (or lovingly loathed) characters, because Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson pull off a real coup. The expertly paced “Birds of Prey” is a movie about women, by women, reveling in the power of women — and it’s for everyone. Black Mask is everything toxic about the patriarchy — if anything, the character’s repulsive villainy and humiliation of women is a little overkill. “Birds of Prey” is content with nothing less than its wholesale destruction.

I saw the movie with my friend Francesca, who noted how refreshing it is to see a team of female action heroes fight semi-realistically, going for the legs, using leverage to their advantage. She also pointed out that seeing the women of the film circle in protection around a young girl has a power that shouldn’t be underestimated.

If you catch a man saying anything sideways about the prospect of buying a ticket to this female-led comic book flick — listen, I know real-life dudes who expressed trepidation about seeing the perfect “Little Women” — smack ’em into the 21st century with a mallet. We don’t have time for that. Tell them Harley sent ya.

Grade: A-

Starring: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Ewan McGregor

Director: Cathy Yan

Rated: R for some sexual and drug material, language throughout and strong violence

Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes

Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Mueller, Alamo Ritz, Alamo South Lamar, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix, Galaxy, Hill Country, iPic, Lake Creek, Lakeline, Moviehouse 620, Moviehouse Lantana, Pflugerville 20, Round Rock 14, Sky Dripping, Southpark, Stone Hill, Tech Ridge, Westgate. IMAX: Barton Creek, Bullock Museum