In recent months, there has been a fairly steady stream of news about the forthcoming Birds of Prey movie. Most recently, Ewan MacGregor was announced as the villain of the film, Black Mask. And just previous to that, director Cathy Yan confirmed that the movie will be going for an R rating. Whether or not these are positives or negatives remain to be seen until the final product hits the screens, but there remains a lingering question – a Bat in the room, if you will – that is more important than any of these recent announcements. How can it be a Birds of Prey movie without the inclusion of Barbara Gordon?
The concept of the Birds of Prey was first introduced in a one shot, Black Canary/ Oracle: Birds of Prey #1 (June, 1996) by Chuck Dixon and Gary Frank. The concept featured wheelchair bound Barbara Gordon (formerly Batgirl and post- Batman: The Killing Joke) and Black Canary (Dinah Lance) as her operative. Known as Oracle, Barbara was an information broker to heroes as well as a free agent that found missions worthy of her attention. She utilized Black Canary in the field, maintaining a comm-link with Canary to not only check up on her, but to assist Canary in the missions, as well with data and strategies informed by her utilization of the internet.
As the two developed a working relationship and true friendship, they eventually expanded the team to include Helena Bertinelli, aka The Huntress. Eventually, the Birds would include other characters including, Power Girl, Hawk and Dove and even Catwoman as sometimes collaborators. However, Oracle, Black Canary and Huntress remained the nucleus of the team, no matter who else assisted throughout the years.
Despite some continuity tweaks, this nucleus made up the team featured in the single season of the television adaptation seen on the now defunct, WB network. Even though this show received mixed reception, the one thing it did do well was portraying the relationship between these three characters. While requiring some characterization juggling, the show got it right that the relationship between these characters was the heart of the concept.
The comic over the years has undergone different writers and different takes on the Birds of Prey. The most startling change was, of course, the series that debuted in 2011’s “The New 52” line-wide relaunch by DC Comics. In “The New 52,” Barbara Gordon had been healed of her paralysis and was once again Batgirl. However, this new continuity did not eliminate Barbara’s time as Oracle or her time in the wheel chair. This new take featured Barbara once again in costume and in the field with Black Canary. While the Huntress was not initially included, once she was reintroduced in continuity, she was brought into the fold in the “Rebirth” era relaunch of the team in Batgirl and the Birds of Prey. While it started a bit slowly, writers Julie Benson and Shawna Benson were able to rekindle the magic of the relationship between these three women. They were also able to get Barbara back behind the computer screen as Oracle for a few stories, fully utilizing both of Barbara’s heroic identities.
So far, the movie has cast actresses for both Black Canary and the Huntress, Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Mary Elizabeth Winstead respectively. Without commenting on the quality or propriety, the one thing about the casting so far that stands out is the inclusion of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. While Harley may be the darling of DC Comics and the 2016 film, Suicide Squad, her inclusion here as the main star is deeply puzzling. Harley has absolutely nothing to do with the Birds of Prey concept. While Harley may have appeared in a few issues and assisted on a mission, she is not a member of the team, nor is she even a semi-regular collaborator as Catwoman and Poison Ivy have been portrayed. Imagine the Fantastic Four without Mr. Fantastic. It all sort of breaks down.
While Harley may represent some anti-establishment feminism which fits in with the idea of woman power inherent in the Birds of Prey concept, this thematic alignment does not automatically make her part of the Birds of Prey. As the Fantastic Four is a family of heroes, they are a family of those specific individuals. Similarly, the Birds of Prey are Barbara Gordon, Dinah Lance and Helena Bertinelli. It’s not that they are a team of women, and it’s not the particular missions they carry out, it is the unique dynamic and camaraderie between these three specific individuals that comprise the Birds of Prey. No matter what ass kicking they may be doing, it is the women themselves and how they relate to each other that is the high concept of the series.
While is it understandable that DC and Warner Brothers may want to provide greater exposure to Harley Quinn, currently one of DC’s most popular characters, forcing her in and Barbara Gordon out of Birds of Prey makes no sense in terms of producing a movie. If Harley Quinn is so great, she shouldn’t need to misappropriate the Birds of Prey for herself. It is offensive to fans and disruptive to the central concept of the team.
Since the final frames of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series flittered out in a darkened theater, Warner Bros. and DC Comics have struggled to have a bona fide hit, save 2017’s Wonder Woman. There are always a lot of questions and debate about why these films don’t seem to do as well as expected. Each new one seems to anticipate a quick launching franchise on which to build a tent pole. While hopes ride high for upcoming films, Aquaman and Shazam!, they are not without detractors either. DC/Warner has certainly not garnered the trust of the audience that Marvel Studios has with their films.
Marvel Studios has managed to find a way to stay true to the core concept of their characters for their films. This has created a trust between comic book fan and studio. Just as importantly, this adherence to accuracy of character has translated into an honesty that the casual film-goer is able to relate to, allowing the natural appeal of the characters to come through and be appreciated.
With this in mind, it makes no sense to shoehorn Harley Quinn into a Birds of Prey movie as the lead character. If anything, she would be more at home as a villain as she was in the aforementioned television series. There has been one recent rumor of the film eventually getting a name change. This is a step in the right direction. If DC/ Warner want to make a Harley Quinn film, then fine, but don’t do it at the expense of the Birds of Prey. Barbara, Dinah and Helena deserve the opportunity to have their story told properly. Including Dinah and Helena in Harley’s film does nothing but limit the chances for the Birds of Prey to receive the proper treatment in film. It seems obvious, but apparently it’s not. You can’t have the Birds of Prey without Barbara Gordon.