The Birds of Prey have had a long and turbulent history in live-action adaptations. It seems as if every version brought to the screen is ill-fated. However, that doesn’t mean the newly formed DC Studios led by James Gunn and Peter Safran should abandon these characters entirely. While the fate of Zack Snyder’s Justice League — Henry Cavill’s Superman, Ben Affleck’s Batman, Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Ezra Miller’s Flash, and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg — seem to be at their end under the new leadership, the Birds of Prey as we know them still have a questionable future. Even if they are brought back without the cast of the 2020 film, characters such as Huntress, Black Canary, Oracle/Batgirl, and other female superheroes have great cinematic potential if put in the right creative hands. A Birds of Prey movie in this new era of DC Studios would provide Gunn and Safran an opportunity to explore lesser-known characters that have yet to gain popularity with general audiences. There’s no better time to reinvent the female-led superhero team, especially after numerous live-action attempts that have led to abrupt endings to the Birds of Prey.
The Birds of Prey’s Rocky Live-Action TV Origins
For instance, in 2002, the Birds of Prey television series first brought the team together in live-action. The show came out in the early 2000s, in between DC’s hiatus from live-action theatrical releases (Joel Schumacher’s infamous Batman & Robin was released in the same year as Steel starring Shaquille O’Neal in 1997, while Catwoman starring Halle Berry was released in 2004). While Marvel filled the power vacuum left behind by DC with superhero franchises such as X-Men, Spider-Man, Daredevil, and Hulk, DC was in a bit of a transitional phase. The last prominent DC property, Batman & Robin, was known for its campy take on the caped crusader — a clear homage to the Silver Age. It would be years until Christopher Nolan would bring the Dark Knight back to his “dark and gritty” origins in Batman Begins (2005).
In order to sidestep any association with the Schumacher films, the trailers for Birds of Prey explicitly tied the show to Tim Burton’s more successful and popular take on Batman and Gotham City. Using footage from Batman Returns, the promos explicitly teased how Helena Kyle aka Huntress (Ashley Scott) was the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, portrayed by Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeiffer in Tim Burton’s films, respectively. However, capitalizing on the Burton films didn’t bring in enough of an audience. Before its thirteen-episode season finished, The WB canceled Birds of Prey due to a lack of viewership. It would be a while before Huntress, Batgirl/Oracle (Dina Meyer), Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Rachel Skarsten), and Harley Quinn (Mia Sara) would be adapted into live-action again. Meanwhile, The WB’s Superman show Smallville continued for ten seasons with popular success.
The next attempt at a live-action Birds of Prey was also on television. After UPN and The WB channels merged officially into The CW, and after the conclusion of Smallville, Greg Berlanti and other writer-producers who were also fans of DC created the “Arrowverse,” which began with 2012’s Arrow starring Stephen Amell as Oliver Queen. Although a range of DC superhero shows would spin off from Arrow — The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, and Batwoman — it was primarily through Arrow that the closest to a live-action Birds of Prey team would take shape. More accurately adapted from the comics (instead of forcing a loose connection to Tim Burton’s Batman films), Helena Bertinelli (Jessica De Gouw) appeared in the first season of Arrow as the daughter of a crime boss in Starling City, as one of Oliver Queen’s love interests, and more importantly, as the vigilante known as Huntress. Throughout the series, Huntress would face Green Arrow and two different versions of Black Canary, Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) and Sara Lance (Caity Lotz). The last time we see Huntress, she is left in prison, leaving us without a proper team-up of the Birds of Prey.
Still, the Arrowverse did pay homage to the superhero team in one way or another. In late 2019 and early 2020, the epic crossover event Crisis On Infinite Earths brought back Ashley Scott’s version of Huntress from the 2002 series Birds of Prey. On Earth-203, Huntress calls over to an off-screen Oracle as she tries to escape the destruction of her universe, which she ultimately doesn’t escape. It was a great cameo from Ashley Scott and a fitting conclusion to the little-known show from the early 2000s. Furthermore, the final season of Arrow also seemed to tease a version of the Birds of Prey in a spin-off that focused on a female-led team of the Green Arrow’s daughter Mia Queen (Katherine McNamara) along with two Canaries, Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) and Dinah Drake (Juliana Harkavy). However, the spin-off, Green Arrow & The Canaries, would ultimately not make it to full series order at The CW. So ends the Birds of Prey in live-action, at least on television.
DC’s ‘Birds of Prey’ Film was a Box Office Bomb
If the Birds of Prey had no luck on television after two attempts, then perhaps they might have found an audience in theaters. That was the hope with the 2020 film Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), or as it’s more commonly called, Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. Directed by Cathy Yan with a script written by Bumblebee writer Christina Hodson, the theatrical Birds of Prey seemed primed for success. Although it was a direct spin-off of the critically slammed Suicide Squad (2016), the film took the best part of that movie, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, and paired her with a cast of dynamic and charismatic characters. Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Huntress brought a tongue-in-cheek levity to the concept of superhero nicknames. Jurnee Smollett gave a layered and empathetic portrayal of Black Canary trapped in Roman Sionis aka Black Mask’s (Ewan McGregor) criminal organization. And Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya added a mature gravitas to an overall stellar cast who seemed to have as much fun on-screen as behind the scenes. Birds of Prey even included a much younger Batgirl in Cassandra Cain, played by Ella Jay Basco. Finally, DC brought to life a definitive live-action portrayal of the Birds of Prey.
However, a range of circumstances led to the film’s upsetting box-office performance. The R-rating meant that families couldn’t take their children to screenings, unlike the more successful Marvel movies. Though, movies like Deadpool and Logan proved R-rated superhero films could still be successful. Yet, Birds of Prey also had a lot of baggage attached to it, whether it was the poor reception of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad or even its loose association with Zack Snyder’s universe. Most significantly, however, Birds of Prey came out in February 2020, just a few weeks before the world would go into lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, which made it impossible for the film to make money at the box office during the rest of its theatrical run. It’s a shame that Birds of Prey didn’t find a substantial audience, especially since it is one of the former DCEU’s better-reviewed films.
It seems that every live-action attempt at the Birds of Prey shares a common problem: a lack of audience and viewership. This was the case with the 2002 series as well as the failed back-door pilot to Green Arrow & The Canaries. The first attempt tried to sell the show as having loose connections to Tim Burton’s Gotham City, but those connections ultimately had no payoff, and people who did tune in eventually caught on. The second attempt tried to capitalize on the success of Arrow and the rest of its connected universe. However, with The CW ultimately ending the Arrowverse by canceling Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, Batwoman, and even The Flash, another spinoff focused on a pseudo-Birds of Prey wasn’t exactly in the cards. However, the 2020 Birds of Prey film was under unprecedented circumstances of being released during a pandemic. Its lack of audience at the theaters was certainly underserved. In all these circumstances, the Birds of Prey deserve to have a more proper adaptation, whether as a theatrical film or even a series on streaming.
An Uncertain Future for the Birds of Prey
With James Gunn at the head of DC Studios, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn might still be safe, considering her inclusion in Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. And with Harley Quinn, the Birds of Prey portrayed by Winstead, Smollett, and Perez might also have a future in the new DCU. Furthermore, Smollett’s solo movie as Black Canary is still in development at HBO Max with a story written by Misha Green who also worked with Smollett on Lovecraft Country.
But even if these characters return to screens without these actors, the Birds of Prey deserve their time in the spotlight. Gunn has already confirmed a new Superman movie is in development, and it’s easy to assume that the rest of the Justice League is also being set up with new stories and versions. While Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the rest are already well-known household names, the Birds of Prey are still relatively unfamiliar to mainstream audiences — even after numerous live-action adaptations. Rather than being viewed as a disadvantage, this can actually be a benefit to Gunn and other creators at DC Studios. This means that there is less pressure to live up to the previous iterations. If Gunn and Safran are looking for a blank slate with the DCU, the Birds of Prey is essentially a freebie to put together an all-female cast of superheroes in a team-up movie or show. Furthermore, with the financial backing of DC Studios, this new version of Birds of Prey won’t necessarily have the limitations of the 2002 Birds of Prey and Arrowverse in terms of special effects and acquiring the best writers, directors, and actors for the job. Under Gunn and Safran’s leadership, the Birds of Prey might finally find popularity and success among critics, fans, and general audiences alike — if only given the chance.