DC Entertainment has achieved something that Marvel Studios hasn’t. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is officially the first comic book movie starring an all-female superteam. And assuming the CW picks up the Arrow spinoff and Birds of Prey-inspired Green Arrow and the Canaries series, DC will have the same on TV in the autumn as well. But what makes the Birds of Prey so special? And why has 2020 become their year?
As it turns out, there are a lot of reasons: some good, some complicated, some mercenary. Let’s start with the most important reason first, though: The Birds of Prey are pretty great.
In the comics, the team’s core trinity is made up of Batgirl, Black Canary, and the Huntress, although it’s worth noting that when the Birds of Prey first formed – and for most of their existence – Batgirl was not actually Batgirl at the time. Barbara Gordon had been paralysed by the Joker in 1988’s infamous Killing Joke, hung up her Batgirl cowl, and become the computer genius/brilliant strategist Oracle for years before she teamed up with Black Canary for a 1996 one-shot comic subtitled Birds of Prey. An official, monthly Birds of Prey comic debuted in 1999 and co-starred the two until acclaimed writer Gail Simone came on board and added the Huntress to the team. The comic lasted a very impressive 127 issues, ending in 2009. After another series was cut short by DC’s Flashpoint, Batgirl and the Birds of Prey – this time with Barbara as the eponymous Batgirl – was part of DC’s New 52 reboot.
I’m throwing these numbers at you solely to prove that this team has been around a long time and done quite well, despite the fact the Birds of Prey aren’t nearly as famous or as flashy as some other superteams. They don’t save the universes or travel through time or whatnot, and they’ve never really had heavy hitters like Wonder Woman or the Flash on board. What they do have are two of the most quietly but truly adored characters in the DC universe, and another fan-favourite who has been elevated by being in their presence.
The latter is the Huntress, real name Helena Bertinelli, who becomes a vigilante to wipe out the mob after they killed her parents (who were also in the mob). As an antihero in the antihero-loving ‘90s, the Huntress was quite popular among comic fans, especially as a major player in Batman’s supporting cast for large swaths of the decade. Many fans at the time enjoyed how she would cross the lines that Batman wouldn’t, and how she didn’t particularly care how Batman felt about it. (In full disclosure, the fact that Huntress wore what can only be described as a very ‘90s female superhero outfit probably didn’t hurt anything.)
Oracle, Black Canary, and Huntress, along with a few rotating Birds of Prey members. (Image: DC Comics)
Oracle, on the other hand, was—and is—straight-up beloved. Even though Barbara Gordon hadn’t been Batgirl for over a decade when the ongoing Birds of Prey comics started, she still had many, many fans who knew, correctly, that Babs herself was the hero, not a Bat-outfit. While she’d been helping the Bat-family as Oracle for years, it was immensely satisfying to see the character lead her own team, and her clashes with the Huntress over the latter’s methods gave the group that dramatic tension every great ensemble piece needs.
But who I really want to talk to you about is Dinah Lance, the Black Canary. She was made her first appearance in 1947, meaning she’s been around longer than around 99.8 per cent of Marvel heroes. Because of that, her continuity had enough time to turn into an M.C. Escher drawing; DC Comics tried to explain her longevity by splitting her into Dinah Drake Lance (mother) and Dinah Laurel Lance (daughter), which required suspended animation, mind transference, and likely a few awkward conversations with the Black Canaries’ love interest Green Arrow.
My first DC job was drawing Birds of Prey with @GailSimone
On Gail's last issue (#108, Swan Song) I got to draw everyone that had ever been on the team over 2 double page spreads. In my first year on the job!
I just saw it online again. pic.twitter.com/Hfe7qMFppG
— ⚡️Nicola Scott⚡️ (@NicolaScottArt) November 12, 2017
None of that matters, because whatever incarnation or origin story or universe she’s been part of, Black Canary has become a quiet but major part of the DC universe. She’s been a member – occasionally a founding member, depending on the continuity – of the Justice League, including the “of America,” “International” and “Original Recipe” varieties. She’s been an unbilled co-star in countless Green Arrow comics, where she’s saved his green arse at least as much as the other way around. And then there’s her long work in Birds of Prey, which is essentially named after her, since of the team’s three primary members she’s the only one with an avian-themed superhero moniker. Not bad!
Black Canary is emblematic of the Birds of Prey in that she’s not flashy – she doesn’t usually get the spotlight when a Crisis rolls around, but she’s a fundamental part of the Justice League in specific and the DC universe in general. Think of her as DC Comics’ version of Black Widow in the Marvel movies: there from the beginning, kicking arse, always playing a major role, yet somehow never getting all the attention she deserves.
I don’t want to imply that Black Canary is completely ignored because she’s just too important for that. She’s starred in both of the ‘90s Justice League cartoons and Young Justice, and had guest appearances on many more. And while she doesn’t get much of a chance to shine solo, Black Canary is such a fundamental part of the Arrowverse that three different actresses have played four different characters who have all taken the moniker on Arrow, the ur-superhero show that started this golden age of comic book TV.
One of them was left to lead the knuckleknobs of Legends of Tomorrow (that would be actor Caity Lotz’s Sarah Lance), while the other two – Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy, playing two different Laurels over the last few years) and Dinah Drake (Juliana Harkavy) – have travelled to the future to hang out with Oliver Queen’s adult daughter Mia (Katharine McNamara) as she becomes the Green Arrow in the potential spin-off Green Arrow and the Canaries. (I am completely confident that if there weren’t a movie coming out this week titled Birds of Prey, that’s what the show would be named.)
So it’s about damn time Black Canary gets some recognition on the big screen, and the same thing is true of the Birds of Prey in general. Frankly, they’re good enough, popular enough, and big enough that they deserve this chance to shine…but they’ve deserved it for a long time.
Okay, to be completely fair, they had a chance in 2002.
The Birds of Prey comic was so good that the WB commissioned a TV series starring Oracle (Dina Meyer), the Huntress (Ashley Scott, who recently guest-starred in Crisis), and Black Canary (Rachel Skarsten, currently starring in the CW’s Batwoman as Alice), the latter of whom inexplicably could see the future instead of having her now “canary cry” super-sonic powers. Harley Quinn was even one of the show’s antagonists! Alas, 2002 was a much, much harsher world for superhero TV shows, and I think even its most ardent fans will admit the show had some issues. The ratings tanked after its premiere, and it was cancelled after 13 episodes. (Honestly, I suspect if the show had come out in 2019, the CW would have renewed it at least through a third season).
But that’s fine, because the Birds of Prey will make their theatrical debut at the end of this week – with help from Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, the breakout star of the otherwise crappy Suicide Squad film. And then there’s (most likely) the Green Arrow and the Canaries show coming this autumn. The fact of the matter is that after the massive success of the Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel movies, it is abundantly clear that the world wants to see an all-female super-team on TV and in cinemas, and the best possible choice is the Birds of Prey. If there’s a (primarily) all-female superhero team that’s had more success or prominence in the world of comics, I don’t know it. (But feel free to enlighten me in the comments if need be; we both know you will.)
From left to right: Black Canary (Juliana Harkavy), Green Arrow (Katherine McNamara), and Black Canary (Katie Cassidy) in the Arrow spinoff pilot. (Image: The CW)
That’s the happy, positive way to look at it, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The dark side is, as always, is that if Hollywood executives thought they could sell movie tickets and get TV ads with Birds of Prey content five years ago – and they very probably could have – they would have done so. Their decisions are only and always based on the bottom line, but this should be no surprise. The question is what finally convinced them the world wanted the Birds of Prey now?
It’s not that hard to figure out and the TV show is the easiest to explain. The Green Arrow character gets a TV series in 2012 because comic book movies are getting hot, and arrows don’t require a huge special effects budget, unlike a show centred around 95 per cent of other superheroes. Black Canary is a huge, huge part of the character’s mythos and thus gets added; Black Canary is so fundamental that when cast member Katie Cassidy leaves, a new Canary is chosen, and when Cassidy comes back the show just decides to have two of them, because Black Canary rules. The Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel movies prove female superheroes are valid money makers, so when Arrow ends and a spinoff is proposed, it’s obvious that the show’s Black Canaries are worthy of headlining their own series. Keeping a Green Arrow in the mix helps serve as a throughline for OG Arrow fans to connect with and get interested in the new show. Easy peasy.
The movie timeline is a bit more complicated, so bear with me. Marvel superhero movies are hot as hell in the early 2010s and Warner Bros. is scrambling to catch up. The execs greenlight Suicide Squad as a movie that won’t interfere with their big potential tentpole franchises while they figure out what to do with them. While WB keeps announcing random films, very few of which will ever get made, Robbie’s Harley Quinn is obviously the Suicide Squad movie’s saving grace, and WB figures a solo film starring the character is as safe a bet as they’re going to get. Apparently, Robbie pushed very hard to make a movie where Harley could be part of an all-girl gang, and the Birds of Prey were the obvious choice – although the cynic in me finds it preposterously unlikely Birds of Prey would have been greenlit without the success of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel.
But that’s how that works, and however we got here, we’re about to get the Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) on the big screen. Batgirl, alas, is undoubtedly being held up until WB execs see how Robert Pattinson’s Batman movie does – although Birds of Prey screenwriter Christina Hodson is working on a script – so they can figure out how to proceed with all Bat-things from there. But besides Huntress and Black Canary, the movie birds do include Gotham City police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a character who was actually running around as Batgirl during those first Birds of Prey comics. The comics Cassandra was mute, assassin-trained, and a mega-martial artist, while based on the trailers, the movie Cassandra can talk but not fight, and is more of a pickpocket than she is an international assassin. The Birds and Harley come together to protect her after Cass steals something from the movie’s main villain, Black Mask (Ewan McGregor). But technically, it still stars a Batgirl! Kind of!
And honestly, there’s something still kind of heartening about Hollywood trying greedily to get our hard-earned money by giving us films with female super-teams, because at least it means it’s finally figured out that yes, we want this. It took some time and a strange, meandering path to get here, but here we are. And the Birds of Prey are finally ready to soar.
Featured image: Warner Bros