Hoping to replicate the runaway success of Smallville, WB returns to comic books with Birds of Prey. As opposed to the four-color splashiness of traditional Superman comics fare aped by Smallville, Birds of Prey emulates the neo-noir darkness of Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Tim Burton’s two Batman films, which borrowed heavily from Miller. While both shows try to stay relatively true to original source materials, Birds of Prey has little chance at the success Smallville has enjoyed.
One of the things that has made Smallville such a hit is its tongue in cheek campiness set against issues of real importance in teen lives. Birds of Prey, however, offers no such camp and no such reality driven issues. It’s as if the show doesn’t exactly know what it wants to be; it tries to be witty and caustic and then to be serious, and fails at both.
Based on the DC Comics series of the same name (created in 1998 by Chuck Dixon, Greg Land and Drew Geraci), Birds of Prey tells the story of a new generation of superheroes with a pretty impressive pedigree. Barbara Gordon (Dina Meyer), who was at one time Batgirl, is now Oracle, computer sciences teacher by day, guardian of Gotham City by night. Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott) is The Huntress, the muscle, who’s also the daughter of Batman/Bruce Wayne and Catwoman/Selena Kyle. The third member is Dinah Lance (in the comic, she’s Black Canary, although the show hasn’t identified her by this name yet), a teenage meta-human girl with immense psychic powers.
That these women comprise a family somehow fated to be together is established immediately in the pilot episode. As we see in flashback, seven years earlier, Batman (Bruce Thomas) and Batgirl/Barbara faced down the Joker (Roger Stoneburner) one last time. Before the Joker could be locked away forever in Arkham Asylum, he escaped long enough to enact his revenge. He shot Barbara, leaving her paralyzed, and killed Selena Kyle, leaving Helena orphaned and abandoned after Batman flees Gotham never to be heard from again. Meanwhile, in her 10-year-old’s bed, somewhere outside of Gotham, Dinah witnessed these events in her dreams, and vowed to find these two women as soon as she can escape to the city. In the ensuing years, Barbara became the legal guardian of Helena, and Dinah grew up and mades her way to Gotham, which pretty much brings us up to date.
There are a couple of things to like about Birds of Prey (acting and writing are not among them). The first is that in Oracle, Huntress, and Dinah/Black Canary, the show gives us a same-sex family of ass-kicking superheroes. Whether you care to read this as some vaguely queer familial arrangement or a generational progression of women’s independence and autonomy, it’s a nice antidote to the more traditional patriarchal, elitist conservatism of the Batman-Robin arrangement. And of course, the pervasive queerness of that relationship should help to expose the queer undercurrents circulating on Birds of Prey.
The second thing is its representation of disability. Left paraplegic by the Joker, Barbara Gordon must drive a wheelchair for mobility. Her physical disability is very visible in the show, and nothing is made of it. Here, physical difference is neither reflective of inner turmoil/defect, nor some impediment to be overcome. Birds of Prey follows neither the super-crip model of disability perception, where an individual’s “triumph” over disability is celebrated through public tokenism, nor the common perception of disability merely as an object of pity. Barbara Gordon’s disability and her wheelchair are simply a part of who she is and not the most important or fascinating part either. It’s her intelligence and ingenuity, after all, which run the entire crime fighting operation.
Unfortunately, these potentially progressive representations are undercut by the show’s own internal logic. In the final showdown with this episode’s villain, Larry Ketterly (Chris Ellis), the trio must retreat into the fantasy world of Helena’s psyche in order to battle their foe. In this realm, Barbara imagines herself as, once again, Batgirl unbound, and launches high-kicks at Ketterly until he reminds her, “This isn’t real. You have no legs.” At this point, she falls helpless to the ground. It’s as if Barbara’s disability is the one great tragedy of her life, and which she can never recover from in the “real world.”
Worse is the implicit suggestion that all of these women have come to be in a position of power only by default. Were Batman still around, none of their efforts would be necessary, or at the very least he would be leading the fray. Batman has also left his trusty butler Alfred Pennyworth (Ian Abercrombie) to keep an eye on the girls; they’re never out of the sight of patriarchal authority. Even the show’s real arch-villain, Dr. Harleen Quinzel (Mia Sara) — a rewrite of DC Comics character Harley Quinn — was the Joker’s sidekick, and can only come into her own with her man out of the way. I have to wonder what will happen if writers try to bring Batman or Joker back. What will become of all our birds then?