The WB's Birds of Prey
By Ray Tate
Ever since Emma Peel, the kick-ass female crime fighter has been accepted by both men and women of the viewing public. The return of the Huntress adds another heroic deadly female among the ranks of such dangerous characters as the aforementioned Mrs. Peel, Yvonne Craig's Batgirl, Doctor Who's Leela, Xena and Gabrielle and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Huntress however predated at least three of those characters.
Some viewers will balk at the changes made to the mythos, but in truth, these changes are a shift to the better beginning. Huntress truly was the daughter of Batman and Catwoman when there was an earth-2 in comic books. What her resurrection proves is that you cannot kill a good idea. The writer's love for this character comes through in the series. As portrayed by Ashley Scott, she is as tough and skilful as her father and mother combined which is exactly how the original hero was. The idea that the Ashley Scott Huntress possesses the reflexes and agility of a cat due to a metagene actually makes her stunts on the show more believable, and kudos to the stunt people. There's also a delicious irony in the inheritance. Since the metagene is according to the show recessive, Batman the hero who works best without powers must have carried the gene.
Black Canary has been transformed into a telepathic and precognitive teen, but this metamorphosis has been a Black Canary tradition. Originally, Black Canary a forties femme fatale was merely a costumed street fighter who teamed up with Johnny Thunder, the Justice Society of America's comedy relief and master of the magical Thunderbolt. In the late forties she became skilled in judo. In the late sixties, early seventies she became the mistress of karate. The earth-one Black Canary gained super powers because of a magical curse placed upon her by an enemy of her mother the earth-two Black Canary. When Longbow Hunters came along her powers were stupidly removed. Did anybody in their right mind believe that a pudgy man with a knife could possibly beat the Black Canary? It would have taken a small army to overpower her once she unleashed her sonic scream. Only recently, did Chuck Dixon return her powers to her. Newcomer Rachel Skarsten brings charm and dignity to her role, and the mindscapes created in black and white with color highlights show a taste and understanding for cinema. The direction during these scenes, in letterbox thank you very much, in fact in the whole pilot episode is simply breathtaking. I like also that we don't only get the ground shot of Huntress' leap over the rooftops. This kind of camera work has become cliché. We also see her pounce from a window and drop to the rooftops. The camera stays for this scene in a bird's eye view focus.
I'm sure anybody who glanced at the Pick of the Brown Bag or my reviews for In the Line of Fire at this very site knows of my rage over Babs Gordon's crippling by the Joker. I still don't like it, but bad things happen in a world without super-heroes, and The WB's Birds of Prey world is a world without super-heroes: apart of course for Oracle, Canary and Huntress. This is not the world where Dr. Fate teleports across continents to thwart evil mummies. This is not the world where Superman maintains a Fortress of Solitude loaded with alien technology. In short, no, Babs Gordon's spine could not be healed in this world. So, immediately, The WB's Birds of Prey is smarter than the source material. No surprise there.
The crippling from a character point of view makes more sense on the television series. There's good evidence to suggest the Babs Gordon in Killing Joke never was Batgirl. Indeed, Batgirl is never shown in costume whereas, and what should have put Killing Joke outside even DC's screwed up post-Crisis continuity, Batman glances at a picture of a younger Dick Sprang version of himself, Robin, Bathound, Bat-Mite, Batwoman and the Betty Kane Bat-Girl. The second Batgirl is never mentioned in Killing Joke.
The plot of The WB's Birds of Prey while taking the core idea of Babs' crippling makes it more plausible. Told in exciting flashback, with new Batgirl Dina Meyer's stunning narration which is far more moving than the opening recap by Alfred, the crippling occurs after Batman and Batgirl have put an end to the Joker's latest madness. The Joker intends to cripple Batgirl. He has learned her secret identity. Babs doesn't just open the door like a trusting ninny. Before this life-changing turn of the knob, Babs was shown to be exhausted from a fight which involved the Joker using his electrified tricks against her to slam her against the wall. She makes a mistake, but it's an understandable mistake. Furthermore, the idea of the Joker immediately striking against Batman at the ones he loves is something that would be overlooked by even the most skilled detective. The Joker's escape from the police was quick. Batman could not have stopped him. Batgirl did not hear he was on the loose, and Catwoman could not have foreseen dying at his hand. Strike the Joker does, and here again we see a sharpness in the plotting. The crippling of Babs Gordon, the murder of Catwoman, Dinah's telepathic powers are all connected.
The tragedies of the first two make for a sad but logical explanation for Batman's absence and show his mortality as well as his humanity. He is affected by the Joker's actions. He doesn't just brush it off and find somebody new to train like he does in the inferior comic books. Although the Batman is only briefly seen in The WB's Birds of Prey he is more Batman than the shallow continuity character. I wouldn't be surprised if the Joker did not succeed in turning Batman slightly mad as Batgirl fears. I wouldn't be surprised if Batman left Gotham to search the world for a way to heal Barbara's spine.
The Joker is not the villain for this episode. Indeed, the villain of the story is a pudgy man with a knife. However, as they have done with Smallville, the creators of The WB's Birds of Prey have re-imagined the DC villains. The pudgy man with a knife is none other than the Scarecrow since he deals with a toxin that induces one's greatest fear. Harley Quinn does make an intriguing appearance, but anybody looking for the Batman Animated Series’ version of the character will be disappointed. She's far smarter and more homicidal. She is clearly not a victim here, nor can you sympathize with her. She is a deadly arch-foe whose potential we shall see being reached in further episodes.
While I didn't care for Ian Ambercrombie's Alfred narration in the opening minutes of the show, the actor does make a suitable and classy replacement for Michael Gough as well as Ephram Zimbalist Jr. The new character of Detective Reese played by Shemar Moore while being a guy on a show where women are more numerous still maintains machismo and intelligence even when being shown up by the Birds.
The sets in the show--especially the Clocktower--are quite impressive. The effects like those used in Smallville are well executed and judiciously employed. Never do they usurp the characterization or the plot. The entire show is a triumph.
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