Thursday, 8 September 2016

Heroine Fix: DC's Birds of Prey

Back in 2002, DC put out a fantastic but short-lived series based on the comic book Birds of Prey.  Sadly, Netflix is taking its time adding it to the repetoire but it was an amazing series, full of powerful heroines.

Set in the not-so-distant future (which now looks more than a little retro), Birds of Prey focuses on Helena Kyle, daughter of Catwoman and Batman, as she fights crime in Gotham under the name Huntress.  She's helped by Barbara Gordon, daughter of Police Commissioner James Gordon and former Batgirl, now Oracle, technology master and super hacker.  Together, they are training Dinah, who is the daughter of the Black Canary and has psychic visions.

When I first saw it, I loved it because it was a comic book series, had great writing with snarky dialogue, and lots of kick-ass action sequences.  It's only later that I realized how significant it was.

Birds of Prey flipped the traditional comic gender dynamic on its head.  The heroes were all women, along with the main villain, Harley Quin, back in disguise as Dr. Harlee Quinzel, psychologist.  Men appeared in secondary roles, like Shemar Moore's Detective Reece and various minor villains.  But at its core, Birds was about the women.

Huntress is a metahuman (DC's answer to Marvel's copyright of the word "mutants").  She's stronger and faster than humans, able to scale buildings and drop multiple stories without injuries.  She's also incredibly angry and prone to impulsive decisions.  She's basically a hit-first, ask-questions later superhero and she's very good at her job.  But the writers didn't just make her an oddly-shaped male hero, Huntress is inherently female.  She refuses to wear a mask because it impairs her vision and makes her mascara run.  She complains about having to scrounge for food at the Clocktower hero lair: "You try fighting the forces of evil when your blood sugar is low."  I liked her strength and wittiness, and her determination to take on the world alone.  She was damaged and brooding and didn't take any crap from anyone, so she was everything I wanted to be.

Huntress's counterpart was Oracle, one of the first heroes I ever saw with a disability.  Her legs were paralyzed after she was shot by the Joker during Batman and the Joker's final confrontation.  She didn't let being stuck in a wheelchair stop her from fighting crime.  She put her technical skills to good use, inventing more cool gadgets than the NSA and Bond's Q combined and hacking her way through police databases without any apparent effort.  I admired her scary smarts and thought she was the perfect counterpart for the Huntress's impulsiveness.

Dinah is a teen runaway and the protege of Huntress and Oracle.  They're training her to be a superhero while also making sure she goes through all the hassles of ordinary teenage life, like navigating high school and feeling like a complete dork.  She forms the heart of the show (and the exposition excuse), giving Huntress and Oracle a chance to show their caring, nurturing side.  I didn't bond particularly with her when I first watched the show, but coming back to it, I see signs of real potential for the character.  Unlike a lot of television teenagers, she's not a mini-adult.  She's confused and scared and desperate to figure it all out while looking cool.  I would have liked to have seen how she developed had the series been granted more seasons.

The real jewel of the series was Harley Quinn, though.  Long before Margot Robbie donned the multi-coloured pigtails, Mia Sara showed us a delightful blend of whimsy and psychopath.  Devastated that her beloved Mr. J is behind bars, she is determined to take revenge on Gotham.  Returning to her original credentials as a psychologist, she plays with people like a child with dolls.  She's smart, ruthless and shows a real talent for masterminding supervillainy.  She's probably one of the most effective villains I've ever seen portrayed on television.  

All of the ladies in Birds of Prey have their own strengths and fully fledged characters.  Their storylines were interesting and well-written, exciting adventures.  They filled a need that I hadn't even recognized in myself, to see strong female superheroes who weren't weak or second-hand copies of their male counterparts.  I wish it could have lasted longer and gained more of a following.  Maybe there wouldn't be such foot-dragging over female-led superhero movies and stories.

Anyone who says that there isn't an audience for superheroines is kidding themselves.  What we want are well-written stories reflecting the amazing and diverse world out there.  And if they aren't already out there, then we'll write them ourselves.

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