Monday morning saw a brief appearance from Harley Quinn in the form of actor Margot Robbie in a costume test video similar to the one released when Joaquin Phoenix first assumed the Arthur Fleck identity for his upcoming Joker film. The use of the costume test video may not be a coincidence as Harley and Robbie’s next film, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), will presumably see the cinematic Harley shed her Mistah J for keeps.
But the video also offered a few quick looks at some of the other castmembers – this is a Birds of Prey film after all – so let’s take a look at what we know about the production so far and glean what we can from their introductions to the world via the video.
Based on a concept originally created by DC Comics editor Jordan B. Gorfinkel and Batman comics writer Chuck Dixon – and later expanded upon by writer Gail Simone – the Birds of Prey consisted of three people: former Batgirl Barbara Gordon, a Gotham City vigilante known as the Huntress, and long-time Justice Leaguer Black Canary. In the guise of Oracle, Barbara sent Huntress and Black Canary on missions while coordinating from her watchtower in Gotham. The concept proved popular. It also defined Barbara’s role in the DC Universe for decades to come.
The film will follow the same basic idea with one notable change in the dynamic: the apparent absence of Barbra Gordon. Which leaves one to wonder if Harley will join the team or create it herself?
As plans solidified, Birds of Prey quickly evolved into a Harley Quinn feature. The character was a break-out star in Warner Bros.’ Suicide Squad and the studio wasted no time securing Robbie for more adventures as Harley, leading to a production deal. Initially, the plan was to spin her off into a film based on the Gotham City Sirens concept — Harley teaming up with Poison Ivy and Catwoman — with Suicide Squad director David Ayer slated to direct. This soon changed into a feature for Harley and Jared Leto’s Joker and a Birds of Prey film. In April of 2018, Cathy Han agreed to direct the picture after Robbie championed her to the studio.
On November 20, 2018, Robbie released a photo to her Instagram declaring the full title as Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), confirming the film would focus on the one-time criminal. Warner Bros. quickly confirmed the new subtitle was no joke.
But shortly before the title reveal, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Jurnee Smollett-Bell joined the cast as Huntress and Black Canary. As mentioned above, the characters are key elements of the Birds of Prey concept. Based on an alternate-Earth daughter of Batman and Catwoman, the modern Huntress debuted in 1985 as Helena Bertinelli, the daughter of a mobster who sought revenge on Gotham’s organized crime apparatus. Armed with crossbows, she did plenty of damage and eventually came to Batman’s attention. She eventually steered away from vigilantism, joining the Birds of Prey and, eventually, the Justice League.
In the clear shots of Winstead in the teaser, we see her working with crossbows; but the rest of Helena’s nun-inspired costume appears to be left behind in the comics. It suggests a continuation of Suicide Squad‘s aesthetic with a further grounding of the characters’ looks.
Backing Helena up is Smollett-Bell as Black Canary. As the character dates back to the Golden Age of Comics – August 1947’s Flash Comics #86 to be exact – her history is a little more complicated thanks to various revisions and reboots. But the most stable elements remain across her various versions: Dinah Lance is an accomplished second generation hero with an impressive metahuman sonic cry. Granted, she has been known to lose her power at the whim of editors and writers. Nonetheless, she eventually led the Justice League for a time; putting her in the top tier of DC superheroes.
In the teaser, we see Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary with a microphone, suggesting the script will take its cues from the 2015 Black Canary series, in which Dinah traded in her work at a secretive government agency to front a struggling rock band. Considering the stylish look of artist Annie Wu’s work on that title, it makes for a great starting place with film’s first live action take on Black Canary.
While the team was typically made of Oracle, Black Canary, and the Huntress, other heroes joined the group for specific missions and occasional long-term stints. It seems the film will honor this by adding Rosie Perez as Detective Renee Montoya and Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain.
Montoya first appeared as a beat cop in the 1990s Batman: The Animated Series, but soon made the leap to comics, eventually making detective and joining Gotham City’s Major Crimes squad in the pages of the marvelous Gotham Central series. She also eventually adopted the identity of The Question when its originator, Vic Sage, died halfway up a snowy mountain. Of course, that was a universe or two ago, but ideas like that never permanently disappear.
In the video, Perez brandishes a baton, backing up earlier descriptions of the character as working for the Gotham City Police Department. We’ll assume she is on an active hunt for Harley, but eventually allies with her and the rest of the team.
Finally, Basco will play Cassandra Cain, proving Batgirl is represented in the film — just not the one you’d expect. The character debuted in the 1999 Batman storyline “No Man’s Land.” She adopted the Batgirl identity after Helena was forced to abandon it for reasons too complicated to get into here. But both used the same costume – an all black suit with a full mask and a yellow bat-shaped outline emblazoned on the uniform’s chest. The full mask truly set Cassandra apart as she was initially mute, but since her father was an infamous assassin who trained Batman in his younger days, Cassandra was a born fighter and swiftly welcomed into the Bat family. She eventually found a voice and traded in the Batgirl identity for Black Bat. Nowadays, she is known as “Orphan.”
In the teaser, we see a younger Cassandra brandishing a cast, but nonetheless poised for a fight. It seems she is a long way from adopting the Batgirl identity – or any costumed look for that matter – but will be able to take care of herself when the inevitable fighting occurs. According to reports, she will discover an item which sets the plot into motion.
The item Cassandra reportedly finds is a diamond belonging to Roman Sionis, a Gotham crimelord also known as Black Mask. As seen in the teaser, Ewan McGregor will lend his looks and talents to the part. Considering his alter ego’s cryptic mask, you might expect some sort of terrible disfigurement to befall Sionis at some point. It could happen, but in the comics, most of his scars are internal.
Now better known thanks to his time on Fox’s Gotham series, Victor Zsasz has been one of the more interesting second-tier villains to come to prominence since his 1992 debut. He is a nihilistic serial killer who cuts tally marks in his skin to keep his kill count fresh in his mind. It is unclear if Zsasz (played in the teaser and Birds of Prey film by Chris Messina) will work with Sionis the way his Gotham counterpart (played by Anthony Carrigan) worked with the various members of that series’ organized crime world, but it would not be a shock.
Meanwhile, there is still the possibility the Joker will show up to spoil the party. For one thing, if the film really is the “Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,” that separation from an overriding presence in her life cannot happen off screen. And even if she claims it did, Joker isn’t the sort to just let her disappear. Then again, there is a haunting story in the pages of the Injustice comic book in which Harley reveals to Black Canary that she left Joker for a year to have their daughter. When she returned, he never noticed she was gone…
But Black Mask’s presence also suggests a surprise return of Mistah J. In the 2013 video game Batman: Arkham Origins, Sionis is presented as the main antagonist until Joker reveals it was all just a ruse to draw Batman out into a direct confrontation. It is always possible Joker could be using this tactic on Harley.
Granted, that’s just speculation. It is just as likely that Harley’s emancipation is from a life of crime by joining (or forming) the Birds of Prey and stopping Sionis’ plan.
Meanwhile, the tease leaves us with one new mystery: the woman holding the bat. It’s far too early to speculate on that shot in any meaningful way, but it is worth noting Birds of Prey (and the Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and the current Batgirl script were written by the same person: Bumblebee’s Christina Hodson.
Birds of Prey (and the Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is currently scheduled to open on February 7, 2020.