In the crowded slate of upcoming DC Comics movies, one title has kicked down the door in a tinsel-winged vest: Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), the first follow up vehicle for Margot Robbie’s manic pixie nightmare girl, first introduced in Suicide Squad.
But who are the Birds of Prey? What is the team’s place in the DC Comics Universe? And what do we know so far about their first turn on the big screen? Allow us to explain:
What is Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)?
The lengthily-named Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is a film adaptation of the all-female DC Comics superteam, the Birds of Prey. According to various reports and casting sheets, the movie will follow sort-of-villain Harley Quinn as she teams up with three other DC Comics heroes (Black Canary, the Huntress and Renee Montoya) to save a fourth (Cassandra Cain) from the ire of one of Gotham City’s most notorious crime bosses (Black Mask).
The film will hit theaters on Feb. 7, 2020.
Is it canon with previous DC movies?
Yes! Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) will pick up with Harley sometime after the events of 2016’s Suicide Squad, where Margot Robbie portrayed the iconic DC Comics character in her live action debut.
A Suicide Squad sequel is still on the way, written and reportedly directed by Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn. However, industry scuttlebut is that the sequel will involve a new set of characters — so we don’t know at the moment whether Harley will be in it.
How did it come to be?
In May 2016, Warner Bros. announced that it was developing a Birds of Prey movie, three months before Suicide Squad hit theaters and Robbie’s Harley Quinn became the critically acclaimed breakout character of an otherwise panned movie.
But Robbie had actually started lobbying Warner Bros. for Birds of Prey (ATFEoOHQ) during the filming of Suicide Squad in 2015.
“I pitched the idea of an R-rated girl gang film including Harley,” she told Collider in 2018, “because I was like, ‘Harley needs friends.’ Harley loves interacting with people, so don’t ever make her do a standalone film. She’s got to be with other people, it should be a girl gang.”
The actress has been attached to Birds of Prey (ATFEoOHQ) as a producer from the beginning, and also pushed for a female director. In April of 2018, Warner Bros. announced that Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) had taken the director’s chair, based on a script by Christina Hodson (Bumblebee).
“I could not put the script down,” Yan told an audience at the U.S.-China Entertainment Summit. “It had so much dark humor to it which a lot of my work does, and there are themes of female empowerment which are so strong and relatable.”
In November of 2018, Robbie shared a picture of the finalized script on her Instagram, revealing the movie’s full, official title. Principle production began in January of 2019; in the same month, the production shared its first footage, which seems to be from a costume and makeup test of the main characters.
What is Birds of Prey? A team? A comic series?
Both! The Birds of Prey have had many members over time — even a few male ones — but the core concept of it has always been about a group of women who have trouble fitting in with better known superheroes. They come together to fight for the little guy and become fast friends in the process.
In 1995, when DC first conceived and published a Birds of Prey book, there were few superhero comics that focused solely on heroines, much less ones that focused on something other than their physical features. From the start, Birds of Prey was intended to be a book about the same sort of thing that superhero books about male characters were usually about: Compelling characters and fighting crime.
The first four Birds of Prey miniseries and one-shots, written by Chuck Dixon, were popular enough for DC to start publishing an ongoing Birds of Prey series in 1999, which ran for 127 issues.
Dixon kept the cast small, focusing on the friendship between Black Canary and the mysterious hacker Oracle. It was a friendship that a lot of female and queer fans responded to, in an era when queer representation in superhero comics was even more difficult to find than it is now.
“With a narrative focused almost exclusively on women, [early] Birds of Prey can easily be read with a homosexual lens,” ScreenRant wrote in 2017, “Not that you’d really have to be very analytic to reach some subtext in Birds of Prey, because it’s thrown in the reader’s face pretty often.”
A 2002 Birds of Prey TV series, which ran for a single 13-episode season, only revved up the segment of the Birds of Prey fandom that saw queer subtext in the exploits of the characters. In modern comics, two characters in Birds of Prey (Or The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) are canonically queer; Harley Quinn, who is bisexual, and Renee Montoya, who is lesbian.
But the modern conception of the team owes a lot to writer Gail Simone, who added the Huntress as a permanent cast member when she took over the book in 2003. The trio of Huntress, Black Canary and Oracle — or one of Oracle’s other superhero aliases — have been the core of the team’s roster ever since. Other members have included Big Barda, Hawkgirl, Power Girl, Katana, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Hawk, Dove, and Batgirl.
So, why are they called the Birds of Prey?
You are perfectly within your rights to ask this question, as the only core member of the Birds of Prey who is bird themed is Black Canary — and canaries are not exactly predators. The answer is… the Birds of Prey don’t call themselves the Birds of Prey.
The name that fans use for the team was suggested by DC assistant editor Frank Pittarese as a subtitle for the first Birds of Prey story, a team-up one-shot called Black Canary/Oracle: Birds of Prey. Follow up stories with the same concept discarded the “Black Canary/Oracle” part and kept “Birds of Prey.”
It wasn’t until 2005 that the phrase was even mentioned within the text of the comic, in Birds of Prey #86.
Who is “Oracle?” I didn’t see her in that costume reel
Oracle is someone you’re probably familiar with: Barbara Gordon. Although she’s best known outside comics as Batgirl, Barbara Gordon spent 23 years in the persona of Oracle, the DC Universe’s greatest hacker and information broker. For comparison, the time she has spent in the persona of Batgirl totals about 34 years — to many comics fans, Oracle/Barbara Gordon is as much a part of the character as Batgirl/Barbara Gordon.
So, Barbara has always been a part of the Birds of Prey, but don’t hold your breath for her to show up in the Birds of Prey movie. It’s likely that Warner Bros. would reserve the option to introduce her in the solo Batgirl movie it currently has in development. On the other hand, Birds of Prey screenwriter Christina Hodson is also the current screenwriter on that very Batgirl production. It’s not totally out of the realm of possibility that there would be a reference to Barbara Gordon or Oracle in Hodson’s Birds of Prey. We’ll see!
Who is in the cast of Birds of Prey (Or The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)?
Margot Robbie will reprise her role as Harley. The rest of the heroes include Jurnee Smollett-Bell (True Blood) as Black Canary, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as the Huntress, Rosie Perez (White Men Can’t Jump) as Renee Montoya, and Ella Jay Basco (a newcomer, but also the niece and goddaughter of freakin’ Dante Basco) as Cassandra Cain.
The villains of the piece include Ewan McGregor (Christopher Robin) as Black Mask, and Chris Messina (The Mindy Project) as Victor Zsasz.
Steven Williams (It), Derek Wilson (Preacher), Dana Lee (Dr. Ken), François Chau (Lost), Matthew Willig (Agents of SHIELD), and Ali Wong (American Housewife) have also joined the cast, but their roles remain unannounced.
Who are all the characters in Birds of Prey?
Let’s take it one by one.
Fun fact: Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, PhD, was not created for a comic book. She was invented by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, as a one-off Joker henchman in the first season of Batman: The Animated Series. The B:TAS production was so tickled by the idea of the Joker having an old-time moll that they kept her on, and eventually established the entire core of the character we know today.
That is to say, that Dr. Quinzel was a respected psychologist at Arkham Asylum until the Joker manipulated her professional fascination with him into romantic obsession — a feeling that he has arguably never reciprocated (at least not in any healthy way). He is the Joker, after all.
For many years, Harley’s character was defined by her unreciprocated infatuation with the Joker and the attempts of her closest friends — most notably the villain Poison Ivy — to keep her from falling back into his predatory arms. Since DC Comics’ 2011 New 52 reboot, Harley has been more successful at emotionally distancing herself from her abusive ex.
This era saw her take a lead role in DC’s venerable Suicide Squad series for the first time, a place that put her in the running for her live action debut in the film adaptation. In her successful ongoing series, written by married-comics-creator duo Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, Harley has taken on a Deadpool-like role as a semi-reformed villain trying to do the right thing — while cracking jokes and stretching the fourth wall. Conner and Palmiotti’s series also canonically paired her up with Poison Ivy in a romantic relationship, making two decades of queer subtext into text.
Dinah Lance has a long history at DC Comics, dating all the way back to her debut in 1947’s Flash Comics #86, by Robert Kanigher and Carmine Infantino. That history involves two parallel universes and a permanent mother-daughter body swap — but thanks to 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot you don’t actually need to know about any of that.
Here’s what’s relevant: Dinah is one of the DC Universe’s greatest martial artists. She inherited her name and costume from her mother, the first Black Canary; the entire Justice Society is basically her uncles; and for decades she’s been in an off-again-on-again relationship with Green Arrow, which is why you might recognize her from the CW series Arrow.
Black Canary stories are largely street-level crime stories without big flashy powers — but she does have one iconic supernatural ability, which she reserves for emergencies. Dinah can produce a sonic scream strong enough to shatter metal, known as the “Canary Cry.”
We don’t know a lot about Dinah’s Birds of Prey (ATFEoOHQ) incarnation, but judging by how she’s depicted with a microphone, it likely owes inspiration to 2015’s Black Canary series. Creators Brendan Fletcher and Annie Wu followed Dinah on a soul searching quest for her identity — where she become the front woman and lead singer of a kickass touring punk band.
Huntress’ history is just as long, and only slightly less weird, as Black Canary’s. The DC Universe has been defined by a handful of parallel earths since 1961, and, like Dinah, the Huntress began as a citizen of its oldest alternate universe, Earth-2.
The original Huntress, created by a quartet of DC Comics writers and editors, was Helena Wayne, the vigilante daughter of Batman and Catwoman. That all changed when the 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted the entire DC Universe and erased Earth-2 from existence. Helena was brought back to the page in 1989 with a completely revamped origin story and a new last name.
Helena Bertinelli, created by Joey Cavalieri and Joe Staton, was a mafia princess whose family was executed in front of her when she was 19. From that day forward, she swore revenge on every level of organized crime — deadly vengeance at the point of her signature crossbow, if necessary. Though Helena Wayne has made a few appearances since, Helena Bertinelli is now the dominant incarnation of the character.
In addition to becoming a member of the Birds of Prey, she’s been an off-again-on-again love interest for Nightwing, a spymaster, and a fringe member of the Bat-family. But her willingness to kill means that she’s never quite gained Batman’s acceptance.
Renee Montoya has two things in common with Harley Quinn: She’s canonically queer, and she was created for Batman: The Animated Series.
Montoya’s initial role was as a foil for the slovenly but effective police detective Harvey Bullock in the cartoon show. Folks at DC Comics liked the concept so much they incorporated her into the books before her first B:TAS episode even aired.
From her humble beginnings as a Gotham City beat cop, Montoya has had some continuity ups and downs: She dated Batwoman before Batwoman became Batwoman; she was forced out of the closet by Two-Face in a misguided attempt to win her affections; she quit the force and became a hard-drinking private detective after her partner was killed by a crooked cop; at one point she even became a superhero, inheriting the identity of the vigilante known as the Question (but that was erased in a reboot).
But here’s what you need to know about the core of her character: The daughter of Dominican immigrants, Renee kept her romantic life a secret for many years out of fear of being disowned by her religious parents and harassed in her workplace. Like any good noir police detective, she struggles with anger and drinking issues, and with the frustrations of being a lesbian woman of color — and one of the only good cops — in a crooked police department.
Most of us who grew up on Batman: The Animated Series (or Batman Forever) in the ’90s have fond memories of Batgirl adventuring right alongside Batman and Robin. But in Batman comics of the time, Batgirl simply did not exist. The character had been taken off the table in 1988, and there were no plans to return Barbara Gordon, or a successor, to the costume.
That wouldn’t change until 1999, when Kelley Puckett and Damion Scott introduced Cassandra Cain. At first brush she was one of a handful of homeless teens who ran errands for Oracle, in a lawless Gotham City during the No Man’s Land maxi-series, but there were big plans for her.
The daughter of two of the DC Universe’s greatest assassins, Cassandra was her father’s experiment. Could he raise a child in such a way that her brain could read physical movement as if it was language? This is comics, so the answer was “Yes.” The first time he ordered her to kill a person — when she was, like, eight — Cassandra “read” her dying victim’s body language and resolved never to kill again.
In exchange for a childhood of trauma and never really learning how to speak, Cassandra is one of the best martial artists in the DC Universe — maybe the best. Barbara Gordon eventually chose her to become her successor as Batgirl, and Cassandra became the star of the first ongoing Batgirl series, which ran for over 70 issues between 2000 and 2006.
Like a lot of other characters on this list, Cassandra went through a post-reboot period of not existing in the canon, but was reintroduced three years ago as the vigilante known as Orphan, a superheroic identity she’ll likely don in Birds of Prey. For now, what we know is that she’s somehow earned the ire of the Batman villain Black Mask, and the rest of the Birds will be uniting to protect her.
Speaking of, Roman “Black Mask” Sionis began editorial life as a pretty typical Batman villain, complete with a vendetta against Bruce Wayne and a creepy gimmick. While organizing the activities of his criminal “False Face Society,” Sionis, created by Doug Moench and Tom Mandrake, wore an ebony skull mask made of a piece of his father’s (whom he had murdered) coffin. A couple stories later and an accident had burned the shape of the mask into his face, turning his actual countenance into a crisped obsidian skull.
But by the early ’00s, he’d become much less of a pulp villain and much more of a mafia don — although still with the burned-off face — an incarnation which has inspired his appearances in several adaptations, like the Rocksteady Arkham games and the television show Gotham. If he has another notable characteristic, it’s his affection for torturing his victims, a talent he’s turned on several Catwoman supporting characters and, infamously, the vigilante known as the Spoiler.
Most Batman villains aren’t murderers by goal. Instead, murder is usually a side effect of wanting to liberate plants, cure your frozen wife, or defeat Batman’s intelligence. Most Batman villains are outlandish but ultimately predictable. Victor Zsasz is not most Batman villains.
Created by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle, Mister Zsasz is the closest thing Batman’s Rogues Gallery has to a run-of-the-mill serial killer, Ironically, that makes him one of Gotham’s most terrifying villains. He has no powers, no pattern, no larger goal. It’s just that he only feels alive when he’s slitting people’s throats, arranging them in life-like poses before rigor mortis sets in, and then carving a tally mark into his body with each kill.
He doesn’t usually find himself teaming up with other supervillains either, except on the rare occasion that one of them figures out how to give a man who only desires to murder something that he desires. It’s unclear whether Zsasz will be working with Black Mask in Birds of Prey, or whether his presence will be unrelated, but there is some history to their relationship.
One time, Black Mask gave Zsasz a briefcase full of money as a retainer for his services as a hitman, and the killer used it to buy a disused slaughterhouse and turn it into a Thunderdome for homeless teens.
This Mystery Woman
Strap on your tinfoil hat and join me in a realm of pure conjecture.
The Birds of Prey makeup test begins with four-mid-length slow motion shots of the main cast, all identifiable later in the video. Then the video plays a fifth. The actress wears a yellow crop top over a black bra, a big flashy belt, and gold rings. She is shot from the neck down, and the outfit doesn’t match any of the later shots in the footage where she’d be identifiable.
The simplest explanation here is that the actress, given her hair and complexion, is Margot Robbie in an alternate costume — the actor is even holding Harley’s bat from Suicide Squad. But if that were true, the actress’ forearm is missing her red and black harlequin-pattern tattoo.
Ultimately, we have no way of knowing if this is an Easter egg or just a red herring. But here’s my extremely far-fetched theory…
Hawkgirl might be in Birds of Prey
Take this with a healthy grain of salt, because there’s no confirmation here. If the actress’ jewelry had contained any overt Egyptian motifs, I would take that as all but an official announcement. But there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence.
Hawkgirl’s overall look — her wings — would depend heavily on special effects work, and so wouldn’t be ready for display in a costume test. Her traditional costume features yellow prominently, especially above the waist. In many incarnations she depends on an Nth Metal belt to fly and wields a devastating bludgeoning weapon, an Nth metal mace. That mace might also be in the process of being designed by the props workshop at this point in production — and, so, have been swapped out for Harley’s bat.
To round out my pool of evidence, there isn’t another DC Films movie in development at the moment that would have a prior claim to Hawkgirl. And she has one more thing that no other announced character in the production can provide:
An in-universe reason for the team to be called the Birds of Prey.
Read more: Polygon