Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (15)****

Dir: Cathy Yan

With: Margot Robbie, Ewan McGregor

Runtime: 109 mins

It’s a funny old game that DC Films are playing right now, as the dark and unsettling Joker becomes an Oscar-worthy smash while marquee properties Batman and Superman flounder.

Then there’s the remarkable success of Suicide Squad, despite it being possibly the most narratively bankrupt film ever made. If one good thing came from it, it was proof that Margot Robbie is a bona fide superstar, and she’s cemented that with a brace of Oscar nominations since, affording her the clout to get this entertaining spin-off made.

She’s immense in every way as psychiatrist turned psychotic Harley Quinn, and as we meet her here she’s no longer involved with paramour Joker (not Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker from Joker, Jared Leto’s Joker from Suicide Squad - keep up). As she tells us in her witty and time-hopping narration, Harley wants to strike out for herself in Gotham, but with Joker not protecting her anymore, everyone in town has a grievance against her. This represents the strongest section of the movie, told with a mad pizzazz and a shifting, Tarantino-style structure and fun character introductions to crime-fighting gang the Birds of Prey, with Winstead’s deadpan assassin the highlight. Refreshingly, it fully commits to the violence and swearing, with fairly funny results that aren’t quite as wisecracking as something like Deadpool.

Spirited action does mostly consist of similar-looking fights, and the lack of a standout set piece is unfortunate. And there are lulls, so much of it does feel like an introduction instead of fully fleshed out, and it’s a while until we get to the meat of an actual story, wherein McGregor’s crime lord is intent on taking over the city. But his camp performance feels like a weak link, singularly unmenacing even as he’s having people’s faces sliced off.

He’s after a diamond that a kid has stolen, which sets everyone hurtling towards each other for the climax, with a tone halfway between realistic and Tim Burton’s freak show aesthetic - but though it takes place in the Batman universe, he’s wisely not used as the events here really don’t concern him. This is a film about women breaking away from toxic men, and with this and Wonder Woman, DC’s female characters are in good shape. Now they just need to fix the boys.

Paul Greenwood