Wait, maybe we should start with commonalities first: they both tend towards the melodramatic and make violence the principle solution to most issues that arise in the story. In fact, they both tend to romanticize or fetishize that violence to some degree or another.
The biggest difference is that the crime movie typically wants that violence to be believable, while a comic book (if done correctly) leans into the unbelievability of it. As a result, a person doing karate kicks off a trampoline while wearing rollerskates is less likely to evoke an eye-rolling "oh, come on now," and far more likely to provoke a"woo!"
Being only mostly okay with Harley Quinn's debut feature, Suicide Squad, I didn't have much interest in Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn until some of the later trailers came out, spotlighting a clear sense of irreverence and self-awareness.
I also made sure to see the movie with someone closer to the movie's core target demographic - my 17-year-old daughter. The short of it is, we had a great time at this film, and if you enjoyed, say, Deadpool 2, you should probably go and check this one out.
(But first, can we take a moment to appreciate the brilliant typography in the BOP logo, with a variety of weapons and such making up the negative space and counters of the letters?)
Director Cathy Yan has only one previous feature under her belt, the as-yet-unreleased Sundance prizewinner Dead Pigs, but she manages a multi-character action-comedy-crime piece with astonishing deftness. The character moments feel right to me, the laughs are plentiful, but there are horrific moments that prompt gut-clenching tension too.
Watching Harley shoot her way into a police station using a grenade launcher loaded with beanbags, paint and glitterbombs is tremendously fun to watch, and as far as I'm concerned, leaves the previous high-water mark in the Terminator far behind. (To be fair, Schwarzenegger's turn has been the standard for almost a half-century ago now (ugh).) It also is also one of the rare occasions where I wanted even more slo-mo in an action scene.
Margot Robbie continues to be a wonder, bringing a surprising degree of vulnerability to a character never designed to have a ton of depth (Harley Quinn actually originated in the Batman Animated Series television show and migrated to the comics (and video games, etc. etc.) much later on.)
It was also epically pleasing to see Scott Pilgrim's paramour Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) appearing as comics vigilante The Huntress, with only a hint of the comic (and cartoon) costume reflected in her wardrobe, but with origin story and signature crossbow intact. Watching her kick Mafia ass female-Punisher-style is gratifying, but watching her practice delivering her gravitas-laden nom de guerre is absolutely delightful.
To be sure, the female form is in fine display here, but less of a male-gaze-y sort of way, and more of a kinetically-charged, fiercely independent, and self-sufficient kind of manner, while spouting A-level profanity instead of nurturing compassionately, and draped in edgy street-couture instead of spandex. (Glory said she wants all Harley's jackets from the film.) I'm not going to call BOP a milestone for female empowerment, but an ensemble cast of women, led by a female director in a story by a woman screenwriter and produced by Robbie herself is certainly a step in the right direction.
I don't know why there seems to be such antipathy towards this film. Well, that's not true - it's the same rotten, bald-faced misogyny that tried to sabotage Captain Marvel before it was even released, the same perpetually aggrieved toxic fanboys who feel indignant every time a movie comes along that dares to do things even marginally progressive and non-retrograde. It's discouraging that these trolls came out to celebrate this movie failing because -why? It's not Batman? It's unapologetically female-centric and led? There's no "nice guys" in it? (Spoiler alert - there are no nice girls either.) (And hey, what is a film saying when the only likable male in a film is a hyena?)
If you are trying to find a sweet spot between a gritty crime movie and a comic-book film, you need to know that you are making your target significantly smaller than if you stuck to one or the other, even before you try to frame it in a woman's perspective. But that doesn't mean it isn't worthy to attempt it; you can have a great time and be successful even if you don't knock it out of the park.
For what it's worth, Birds of Prey gets a pretty good piece of it, for my money at least, and gave Glory and I a very decent time at the movies. It scratches a lot of the same itches that movies like Deadpool 2 do, and that sequel is a long ways off. As I write this, it is cheap movie night tomorrow, and if you want a good-looking action flick with a great soundtrack and cool new perspective, check out Harley Quinn and her crew.