Birds of Prey is available now on DVD and digital. The series can be streaming on DC Universe in North America.
Batman has vanished from New Gotham, but the next generation of the criminals he fought still prowls the city. Now confined to a wheelchair after being attacked by Batman’s archenemy, The Joker, Batgirl redefines herself with a complicated double life.
Back in 2002 Smallville was riding high in the ratings for The WB network. Long before words like Arrowverse or The CW were even in existence Warner Bros. was setting up a fleet of DC related TV series to accompany young Clark Kent’s successes.
Smallville’s own Green Arrow – Justin Hartley – famous played Arthur Curry/Aquaman in a pilot which didn’t see the light of day outside YouTube until finding a home on the DC Universe platform.
A show which fared marginally better was Laeta Kalogridis’ Birds of Prey which arrived on screens in October 2002 and ran for a total of thirteen episodes.
With Birds of Prey (and the Emancipation of one Harley Quinn) coming up next year and this series’ own Ashley Scott appearing in Crisis on Infinite Earths now felt like the right time to dive back in to the series for a review.
Birds of Prey is very much of its time. In the 00’s superhero movies were more about Mutants than Avengers, Batman and Superman were nowhere to be seen on the silver screen and things were a lot more simple in regards to storytelling.
Birds of Prey takes a lot of its cues from huge genre series’ of its time like The X-Files, Smallville and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Injecting huge amounts of teen drama in to a darker underbelly of good vs. evil storytelling. There’s elements of a crime procedural which a lined up against monster-of-the-week villains and arguably some huge influence on the fight choreography and cinematography from films like The Matrix which were huge at the time.
Whilst its VFX may not have aged very well, certain factors of Birds of Prey keep fans coming back over the years. The pilot episode in particular pays homage to the source material via a killer opening monologue/flashback sequence.
The show was produced during a time when leadership at Warner Bros. was very unsure of its own ability to portray DC properties both on the big and small screens. This lead to huge restrictions on which characters the show could and couldn’t use.
Batman, for instance, was only able to appear in a mere handful of scenes in the pilot and from there could only be referenced. Catwoman was used to a similar extend as were other top level villains such as Joker.
But all of them get to appear in this episodes opening scenes as we flashback to a night which ruined Batman and Gotham for decades to come. The sequence itself is one of the highlights of Birds of Prey as a series. We get some interesting, Elseworlds, context to the series Batman and Catwoman have a daughter, Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott) who is killed by a henchman of Joker (voiced here by Mark Hamill) after he is taken down by Batman and Batgirl (Dina Meyer).
A certain scene from The Killing Joke is also recreated as Joker seeks out Barbara Gordon, shooting her and leaving her paralysed.
The whole sequence is narrated by Alfred Pennyworth (Ian Abercrombie) who is a stalwart character in the series and our only tie to Bruce Wayne and Helena’s parentage. The scene is also witnessed by a young girl with psychic powers who we come to know as Dinah Redmond (Rachel Skarsten).
From here Birds of Prey does transition from a heavily rooted DC Comics show to become something much more original. We learn that Dinah has runaway from home and is on her way to the city, now called New Gotham, to find Helena and Barbara for some reason.
Once there we run through all of the typical pilot cliches and tropes as the trio come together to form a loose team of sorts. Barbara accepting Dinah in to her home at the New Gotham clocktower becomes the series’ jumping off point for the remaining twelve episodes.
The series strongest points are its leads. Ashley Scott as Huntress is evocative of plenty of other female leads of the era. Jessica Alba in Dark Angel springs to mind instantly, also a show which Ashley Scott spent some time recurring on. Helena is often emotionally cold and focussed on the mission but with enough heart buried underneath to make her an amiable front woman for the show.
Most importantly she absolutely kicks butt in every single episode of the series and she looks good doing it. We have to remember this was an era of style over substance in many cases but Birds of Prey attempted to bring both and it did so with plenty of strong women behind the camera as well as in front of it.
Dina Meyer makes for an incredibly compelling co-lead as Barbara Gordon/Oracle. Meyer brought a maternal instinct to the character which feels completely in line with who she is in the comics, if a little older. It makes absolute sense in the context of the series to have her as the mother figure to both Helena and Dinah given their backstories.
Though the series as a whole would awkwardly deal with her disability on a couple of occasions it was never misrepresented. Here Birds of Prey was able to present a strong, disabled female lead. A subplot featuring a failed romance with a fellow teacher at New Gotham High serves as a reminder of the cliched foundations of the show but never derails her overall progressive character.
Plenty of arguments can be made for the representation of Dinah in the series. Yes she’s not the Black Canary – we’ll pick that one up in a later episode. No she didn’t even have the same power set but what she represented was the target audience the show was pitched too. Teenagers.
With Smallville such a huge success Warner Bros. clearly felt that Birds of Prey needed a young cast member to achieve a broader appeal. She’s very much the keen, super powered teen that we would come to expect from a show of its era. If this were written in the present day she would easily be a much more nuanced character but it’s 2002. She just wants to skip school, date boys and save the world.
Supporting cast members Shemar Moore and Ian Abercrombie fill their roles excellently though they are very much at the beginning of their journeys in this episode. It’s Mia Sara’s Dr Harleen Quinzel who steals the limelight with her wonderful, scenery chewing duality.
Of course as fans we all understand exactly who she is when we first learn her name. She’s the a-typical 00’s villain masquerading as an ally of our heroine as Helena’s psychiatrist. But we learn pretty quickly there’s much more to her than we would expect.
This Harley is much further down the line than any other version we had seen in any medium at the time. It also feels right for a show with so much female empowerment to featuring a female big bad.
Once again she is only at the beginning of her journey in this episode. There’s plenty more to learn about her as the weeks go by.
Birds of Prey is by no means a perfectly pilot. What is though, is a perfect storm of ingredients at a time when superhero storytelling was much more about spectacle than heart. It stands as a prime example of early millennial TV which remains fondly in the memory of many fans.
Birds of Prey stars Ashley Scott as Helena Kyle/Huntress, Dina Meyer are Barbara Gordon/Oracle, Rachel Skarsten as Dinah Redmond, Shemar Moore as Detective Jessie Reese, Mia Sara as Dr Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn and Ian Abercombie as Alfred Pennyworth.