Fans have been waiting a long time for the character to hit the big screen, but is this the right fit?
The case for fidelity in adaptations will always exist on a pendulum, as far as I’m concerned. Having watched and adored several onscreen translations that take massive liberties with their source material, a lack of total faithfulness to a story isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. And particularly, when superheroes and sprawling comic universes are involved, artistic license is not just a given; sometimes, huge changes in characterization or presentation will have to be made for the sake of the filmic medium.
The Birds of Prey film is a fascinating example of this. In its early stages, the idea of pitching the movie as a Harley Quinn team-up vehicle was already a curious decision. Margot Robbie is surely a scene stealer in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad and totally deserving of her own girl gang. Harley has also recurred in “Birds of Prey” comic book stories in the past. However, the villainess was not actually part of the group itself.
Barbara Gordon’s fate in Birds of Prey continues to remain up in the air too, despite the fact that the character has had such an integral role in bringing the group to life. Now, Warner Bros. is even going for a big Batman villain who doesn’t exactly have roots in the “Birds of Prey” mythology either.
Clearly, the studio is really keeping us on our toes and tempering our expectations. The Wrap has revealed that Black Mask will be making his big screen debut going up against Harley, Black Canary, Huntress, Cassandra Cain, and Renee Montoya.
The publication had previously teased the notion of a popular Batman foe being introduced in Birds of Prey. I personally was of the opinion that Lady Shiva and David Cain would have made ideal adversaries in the film, given the main player status of their daughter, Cassandra. The heightened potential for emotional investment combined with some badass world-class assassin action seemed like a good fit.
However, Warner Bros. has chosen to go for a renowned kingpin from the franchise, which in itself has merit. This certainly ensures that the film will be as gritty a crime thriller as they come, set among the seediest of Gotham’s underbelly.
DC Comics lore dictates that Black Mask — real name: Roman Sionis — has his own messed-up past to contend with, one that is intimately linked to Batman and the Wayne family as a whole. Roman was raised by superficial and selfish parents who were more interested in being social climbers than available, caring parents. They constantly put on airs in all aspects of their lives. Their preference for donning “masks” in public caused Roman to resent them and their hypocrisy.
Despite this, Roman accepted the mantle of vice president of his father’s company once he became of age. Yet, his existing personal qualms with his parents, coupled with a distinct lack of professional control afforded him in the company, had dire consequences. Roman ended up murdering his parents to gain control of the family business. He had no knack for enterprise, though, and soon ruined the company he inherited.
After being forced to accept a bailout from Bruce Wayne and losing his empire, Roman unraveled, blaming Wayne for all of his misfortunes. He plunged into the criminal underworld, recruiting bad guys for the False Face Society in order to exact his revenge. In an act of twisted poeticism, Roman’s first mask was even carved from the wood of his father’s ebony casket.
Black Mask has become such a memorable villain in the Batman universe that many a fan has championed his appearance in the DC cinematic universe over the years. His onscreen appearances have thus far remained in the realm of animation, and for the most part, various iterations have pegged him as a typical gangster. He has made repeated appearances in various DC video games too, most notably in the Batman: Arkham series.
DCTV’s Gotham provides the only live-action depiction of Black Mask. However, this interpretation is a very loose adaptation at best. Played on the show by Todd Stashwick, Gotham renames the character Richard Sionis. He is portrayed as the sadistic owner of a successful investment firm whose hiring practices are archaic, to say the least. Applicants interested in joining the Sionis Investments staff list have to engage in brutal hand-to-hand combat that may or may not result in death.
Hence, it’s safe to say that a cinematic depiction of Black Mask has been so long overdue that there is logically a bigger impetus to stay true to his key origins in the comics. Whether Birds of Prey is the right film for the job is another story entirely. Black Mask’s most salient ties link to Batman (and eventually Robin). The members of the Birds of Prey don’t have that same tangible connection to the villain.
An argument could be made that a more direct emotional connection to any of the protagonists of Birds of Prey could have helped create a richer story; it served as the basis of my suggestion for Lady Shiva and David Cain’s inclusion in the film.
Yet, the separation of heroes and villains down ideological lines regardless of familial connection has obviously worked in other superhero movies in the past. Anything in Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy highlights this fact. Across the comic book adaptation aisle in the Marvel camp, their narratively disruptive fare like Captain America: The Winter Soldier does, as well.
Hence, the inclusion of an established Black Mask and his barbarous tendencies could act as the dogmatic counterpoint to the Birds of Prey. He would certainly give Renee Montoya, who has roots in the Gotham City Police Department, a run for her money.
Considering Black Mask’s story in these terms makes it evident that he could still make for a worthy adversary in Birds of Prey. He’s ruthless enough to get the job done. And although this might be a premature statement, killing off the character after a single movie appearance would be such poor form, given the richness and symbolism attached to his background. With this in mind, the avenue to explore Black Mask’s personal baggage in other films — perhaps The Batman? — remains open.
Besides, no one should go into a women-led romp expecting to learn about some guy’s tragic past anyway. It’s not the right arena for it, and a good villain would hold up regardless of who they’re terrorizing. For now, we can all celebrate that a deeply-appreciated and exceptionally cool-looking character in the Batman canon will finally find his way to the big screen.