Fall '02: Preys Be
The premise of Birds of Prey goes something like this. Years ago, Batman and Selena Kyle (aka Catwoman) consummated their love-hate-and-leather relationship, producing a daughter (Helena) who Catwoman kept secret from Batman. Fast-forward a decade-plus: Batman and Batgirl are fighting a climactic battle with the Joker in the tunnels underneath the Gotham waterfront. Naturally, the Bat-duo foil the Joker's evil scheme, but Batman fails to let the Joker be killed in the conflagration. The Joker escapes and immediately seeks revenge by sending a henchman to kill Batman's (former?) paramour Selena Kyle and going himself to the home of Barbara Gordon, aka Batgirl, to shoot her as she showers off the muck from a evening of righteous butt-kicking. Selena Kyle is knifed down in front of her now-teenage daughter Helena; Barbara Gordon survives the shooting but is paralyzed. Batman vanishes, apparently devastated, leaving Gotham defenseless against bad guys in silly costumes.
Fast forward a few more years. (We're getting to the starting point of the series -- bear with me!) Batman is still MIA. Barbara Gordon is confined to a wheelchair, works as a teacher, and is the legal guardian to the hotheaded troubled youth Helena Kyle (who has learned her father was Bruce Wayne/Batman). Even in a wheelchair, Barbara Gordon does not give up her crime-fighting do-gooder ways: instead of being Batgirl, she's now Oracle, who taps into the world using computer technology and spy gadgets from her secret hideout at the top of the Gotham City Clock Tower. Unable to go do righteous butt-kicking herself, she has a field agent: the fast-talking, corset-leather-and-lace-wearing, building-hopping heroine called The Huntress, who is (of course) the alter-ego of Helena Kyle. Together, the former Batgirl and the scion of the Bat and the Cat set out to Do Good in New Gotham. By the end of the pilot, they're joined by Dinah, a young runaway who sees visions and can "sometimes" telepathically project herself into other people's thoughts when she touches them. Helena and Dinah are meta-humans -- people with some sort of super power -- while Babs remains an ordinary person in a wheelchair with all sorts of cool toys who just happens to have been Batman's protégé. Look for meta-humans to serve as villians-of-the-week.
Got all that? Good.
Now for an actual tangent. Understanding where Birds of Prey comes from requires a little background on the last decade or so of the Batman franchise on television, plus characters which spun out of myriad DC comics. When Warner Brothers had success with the Tim Burton-directed Batman feature films, they greenlighted an animated series largely helmed by Alan Burnett, Paul Dini, and Bruce Timm. Batman: The Animated Series ran from 1992 to 1995, spun off a couple animated features, another animated series in the late '90s (The New Batman Adventures), and, in 1999, Batman Beyond, another animated series set in the mid-21st century featuring an octogenarian Bruce Wayne remotely directing the actions of a new, teenage Batman. The history of these (and related) shows is worthy of a TeeVee article in itself, but for now, just know they were well-written, introduced new characters to the Batman universe, and gave Mark Hamill (best known for his role in the film "Corvette Summer" and a handful of silly sci-fi flicks) a new lease on life with his surprising voicing of Batman's nemesis, the Joker.
Now, I'm not particularly familiar with the Batman comics -- obviously, there's more than enough useless information in my brain already, and there's just not enough room for Elseworlds and Crises -- but back in 1988, DC Comics did something which will now sound familiar: in the graphic novel The Killing Joke, Batgirl is shot by the Joker and paralyzed from the waist down. Remarkably, DC never renounced this plot development, and Barbara Gordon evolved into Oracle, a character who appeared in many DC comics in the next decade. Later, in 1998, DC rolled out a new comic series called (you guessed it!) Birds of Prey, featuring Oracle and Black Canary, a martial-arts-savvy heroine not coincidentally named Dinah Lance. Birds of Prey has been one of DC's more popular titles, and along came the Frog Network. DC Comics also has a character called the Huntress -- someone who's associated with Oracle and Black Canary, but is the headstrong butt-kicking scion of an organized crime family, rather than Batman's love child.
Tomato, tomahto. The Batman universe is not known for its continuity -- particularly where Barbara Gordon is concerned -- so it suffices to say the producers of the Birds of Prey series and writer Laeta Kalogridis rolled a bunch of these elements together and came up with something they thought might work on TV. A cup of Killing Joke, a slice of the Batman animated series (in the forms of probable first-season nemesis Harlene Quinzell -- aka Joker pal Harley Quinn -- and Mark Hamill offscreen briefly voicing the Joker), a bit of Dark Knight Returns (Batman in self-imposed exile), and a large helping of the Birds of Prey comic... and you have a TV show. Right?
Well, no. At least if the pilot is any indication.
And, oddly, the problem isn't the actors. Dina Meyer (nee 90210, but also "Starship Troopers," "Dragonheart," and the forthcoming "Star Trek: Nemesis") does fine as Barbara Gordon, with the exception that she doesn't look old enough for the part, particularly when trading quips with the supposedly much-younger Huntress. (And for whose benefit is she wearing those skin-tight civilian outfits?) Ashley Scott (nee Dark Angel) is appropriately flippant as Helena Kyle/The Huntress, and no doubt screens well with the coveted 18-35 male demographic when she's out doing her righteous butt-kicking scenes in heavy make-up, leather, and a low-cut bustier. The standout of the cast may be newcomer Rachel Skarsten as Dinah, whose naiveté may provide some real-world grounding for the audience as the plots and characters get more byzantine. For now, Mia Sara's Harley Quinn is an unknown. Oh, and the wordless Batman seen in flashback was played by the same guy who was in those OnStar commercials -- hopefully, we won't see him or his anatomically correct costume again.
Some of Birds of Prey's problem is the writing. Alfred the butler provides a lugubrious voice-over at the beginning of the pilot, and the show's plot abounds with forced coincidences, cliché dialog, and predictable scenes. To an extent, this is understandable: it's unfair to judge almost any show by the writing in its pilot, and Birds of Prey sprouts from some very complicated ground. Kalogridis manages to fashion a relatively coherent, lightweight story around enough exposition and introduction to put the show's universe in front of an audience: no small feat. Some details don't stand up to close scrutiny, but, gosh folks, it's TV. Hardly any of it stands up to close scrutiny. (For instance, we might believe Oracle's secret VR-equipped hideout is behind a clock in one of Gotham's tallest, most visible buildings... after all, that's how it is in the comics. But it might make more sense if Our Heroines didn't spend their downtime hanging out in front of said giant clock -- you know, where people are always looking to maybe figure out what time it is? And, you've got to wonder, with all that visible gearwork, can that clock be read from more than 40 feet away?)
No: Birds of Prey's biggest problem is that it takes itself seriously, and that means its production values make it seem cheesy and, worse, tacky. Any live-action superhero show faces a tremendous hurdle in that it has to make human actors look and behave as if they were illustrations off a comic book page. It's almost impossible to do, even in high-budget feature films. For instance, none of the actors wearing a batsuit (anatomically correct or not) can turn his head from side to side. Shows like Xena: Warrior Princess and (to an extent) Buffy can get away with corny production values because they don't take themselves very seriously: most of the time, the audience is in on the joke, and realizes it's just watching TV. "Okay -- we're off to fight the monster of the week!" Wink-wink, nudge nudge. Monster, get it?
Birds of Prey doesn't look to the camera and say "wink wink, nudge nudge:" the characters are firmly rooted within their universe. Yet, when the Huntress runs across a rooftop, the producers have seen fit to treat the audience to the roar of a big cat as a sound effect. Ugh. When Batgirl is zapped through the air and slammed against a wall by the Joker in flashback, we're painfully aware we're watching an actor being swung around on wires. The Joker himself looked like a spray-painted escapee from a Play-Doh convention, and Mighty Batman was plainly struggling to get his seventy pounds of anatomically-correct batsuit into the air for his heroic slow-motion dive. That's not Batman, that's some guy trying to get through his sixth take. Help, OnStar!
The Huntress dives off a balcony, and, look, there she is being lowered in harness, then blended in to a computer-assisted set piece. In the Climactic Battle, the Huntress plows through patently foam-form masonry to get to the bad guy, making the whole building façade vibrate like a cheap sheet of plywood... but, OK, since that battle took place in her mind, maybe it was symbolic foam masonry. The show wants its audience to take it seriously and accept its premise, but when some of the fundamental scenes which support that premise come off so laughably, nothing works.
We'll probably see the look of Birds of Prey change in subsequent episodes, and, hopefully, the scripts will rely less upon super-hero theatrics and action shots reminiscent of feature films. If Birds of Prey plans to stay on the air, it needs to learn a few lessons from the Angels and Smallvilles of the world and make sure its events are character-driven, so even if a scene comes off tacky, fans will shrug it off because of its significance to the characters. If we're lucky, Birds of Prey will also try to be its own animal, rather than delve deeply into the Batman universe to provide stories. If you think the show's explanation of the Huntress is a little complicated, just wait until they try to bring Dick Grayson on board. You know, Robin? Is he still Robin? Or his he Nightwing now?
See, now I've confused myself.
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