Drenched in neon technicolour and carried by a fantastic cast, Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (released in February 2020) delivers stylish high-energy action and empowering messages through a simple story. It’s a refreshing film and a rarity in the comic book movie world: a film with a predominantly female ensemble cast and more than one character who is canonically queer and established as such in the film. Directed by Cathy Yan and with a script written penned by Christina Hodson, the film is a balanced combination of typical lighthearted blockbuster fun and social commentary.
The women in Birds of Prey are complete, round characters with their complexities and their flaws. It’s not about strong women. Women are already strong. It’s about showing the world, the audience through these characters their strengths. The film is fast-paced. It kicks ass. It’s entertaining (and R-Rated). But it’s also intelligent feminism with, beyond the adrenaline and funny moments, a realistic depiction of what women go through, from ordinary everyday sexism to misogyny and violence. To convey this and match the tone of the film, it was thus important to have an effective villain whose actions and motivation lend to the verisimilitude of the story and the film’s tone.
Portrayed by Scottish actor and lightsaber-wielding fan favourite Ewan McGregor, Black Mask a.k.a Roman Beauvais Sionis made his cinematic debut with Birds of Prey. Let’s dwell upon his background and characterisation a bit. Much like his comic book counterpart, Roman Sionis was born to wealthy, self-absorbed and possibly neglecting parents. His father, CEO of Janus Corp (called Janus Cosmetics in the comics) kicked him out of the company ‒ a betrayal in Roman’s eyes ‒ which fuelled his trust issues, anger and narcissism. After being removed from the family business, he turns to the lucrative enterprise of running a nightclub and in parallel, a life of crime.
He has great disdain for family values or the concept of family altogether, as clearly shown by his angered response to Mr.Keo’s refusal to associate his organisation The Golden Lions and his men to Roman’s, arguing that it’s a “family business” (attachment to ethnicity or family ties in the world of organised crime and by extension, the rules that result from such attachment, date back to criminal organisations in the USA such as the Cosa Nostra for instance and are to this day, still in practice and a key element in crime fiction). His introduction in the film establishes him as an already wealthy club owner and a crime boss whose grip on Gotham City’s underworld grows every day, notably through a carefully constructed image and the use of one powerful human emotion: fear. On that note, composer Daniel Pemberton did a great job with the character’s theme, giving him a very menacing musical presence. Roman Sionis is a silver-spooned narcissist with a number of issues. Sionis is a very mercurial individual with whom you never know where to stand.
He is incredibly unstable, narcissistic, charming and flamboyant in his businessman person yet sadistic and terrifyingly temperamental when he slips into his (pre-) Black Mask persona. This makes him an unpredictable and dangerous villain to mess with for the protagonists of course, but it’s also genuinely threatening to the audience. We never know quite what to expect. He’s capable to switch from charming and jolly businessman to maddened crime lords withing seconds on screen, much to McGregor’s merit. We go from laughing along with his character to having the rug pulled from our feet (and this was palpable in the audience’s reaction at the different screenings I attended). A different, less suited actor would have had a hard time making it all believable and at times, genuinely frightening. Sionis is such a compelling villain, the kind you love to hate precisely because of the campy nuance there is to him and how he’s the major vehicle for feminist commentary in the film. Ewan McGregor gave layers to his bastardy.
“I think villains are the most interesting when they are appealing when you can’t help but like them in a way, or you laugh along at their jokes or you find them very charming or compelling. And of course, Ewan [McGregor] has that in spades. So it was also about Roman, and Roman’s desire or need to be seen to have control, to have power, to be able to manipulate others.” – Cathy Yan (February 7, 2020 – polygon.com)
“The key is not to come out and try to play the bad guy. Because I don’t know exactly what that would mean. So you try and understand why or try and understand why your character is the way he is. And in this case, he comes from a very rich family. He’s been sort of ousted from that family. He’s got very thin skin. He doesn’t like being criticized.” – Ewan McGregor (February 6, 2020 ‒ Late Night With Seth Meyers)
Before delving deep into the character’s motivation and treatment of women, there’s something to be said about the novelty brought by this cinematic version to the character. Early into production, rumors suggested that the film’s main villain would be gay, arousing both excitement and speculation on the matter from fans to media outlets. Now that the film has been released, it’s clear that even with the formal acknowledgment on-screen of the canon, on-page, queerness of characters such as Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya, the film is a big step towards representation in the genre of comic book movies. Romans Sionis and Victor Zsasz, his platinum-haired henchman, alternately second-in-command and torturer-executioner have a relationship that goes beyond what is traditionally seen (and expected) between a mob boss and his right-hand or underboss. Sionis and Zsasz are what we can call queer-coded characters, meaning they were given traits or behaviors to suggest their queerness, that they aren’t heterosexual and/or cisgender without any outright confirmation (different from queerbaiting). This in itself is neither positive nor negative, but the way it is used determines its positive or negative effects.
At the Harleywood Event that took place in Los Angeles on January 24 to promote the film, McGregor described the relationship between the two characters as “Very complicated. Their relationship is very much based in… there’s a ‘want’ and a ‘need’ in there, for sure.” after what his co-star Chris Messina who plays Zsasz timidly added “Like a real love of anarchy” before the two shared a look, a laugh and McGregor gave a definitive confirmation “Most likely, yes!” (‒ Variety). In a film with characters established as queer, it’s an interesting choice to have the villains be queer but not explicitly affirmed as such which one could argue, I suppose, gives also more space to the protagonists and their respective journey. The film tiptoes around harmful stereotypes and clichés both in the way it presents the pair and in the way (more about this later on) aligns them with the issue of misogyny. Beyond the tangible tension between the two men, there’s something intimately codependent in their connection and the way they affect each other.
They bond over violence, feeding off each other in the process. Roman gives Victor’s equally sadistic tendencies free rein and lets him do the dirty work while Victor enables Roman’s anger or, when it’s not to his advantage, soothes him, calms him down, be it through words or warm physical contact. They rely excessively on each other. Sionis, be it in comic books or this film, is a quite solitary character. His world revolves around crime, ambition, the few people who have his full trust (in this case, two: Zsasz and Dinah Lance) and his material possessions.
There’s an imbalance of power and interest but the attraction is mutually there nonetheless. Zsasz is arguably more enamored of his boss than the other way around, as demonstrated by his jealous attitude towards Dinah Lance a.k.a Black Canary (the singer at the Black Mask club turned reluctant-personal-driver for whom Sionis has developed a strange fascination) or his speech in the third act about his boss needed him and his protection. Roman assumes the role of the taker while Victor that of the giver. However, it would be a misguided conclusion to say that Sionis’ sexuality is the cause of his ill-treatment of women. No. While the film does not depict Sionis and Zsasz as stereotypical macho types and while it is important to acknowledge that gay men can be sexist and misogynistic too, the film does not, rightfully and thankfully, make a causal link between the two. The villain’s behavior has much more to do with privilege and power.
“He has to be in absolute control. He’s insane when he’s not in control. We only see him in his club, in his car, in his apartment–or at the end when he’s running around. But really I feel like we only ever see him in places he controls. And then Harley comes into this world and she’s uncontrollable. It drives him mad. He hates it.” – Ewan McGregor (February 5, 2020 – gamestop.com)
As explained by the actor in the quote above, Sionis is a spoiled control freak, which of course intersects with the story taking place in the world of organized which is traditionally, to play with references, depicted in fiction as a “A man’s man’s world” where the powerful are ruthless and prey on the less powerful, the vulnerable. And this is the main topic of Cathy Yan’s film. It’s about feminine solidarity, realism, and liberation. Take how Sionis, a white, wealthy, privileged club owner and criminal in a position of power in Gotham City considers and treats Harley Quinn. Until he hears about Quinn’s break-up with the Joker, famous and powerful fellow gangster, he pays her no head – or at the very least, turns a blind eye to the long list of offenses she reveals during the interrogation scene.
It’s only after being brought the news of the split by Zsasz that he authorizes himself to go after Quinn (“She doesn’t belong to him, he belongs to me. Have the boys go find her” – Roman to Victor) with the initial intention of killing her. Because she’s no longer “Joker’s girl”. It’s the trope of the gangster’s girl, untouchable and who cannot be converted by no-ones or rival mob bosses. Harley’s emancipation is emancipation her relationship with the Joker, in its practical reality and its effects “It plays into the exploration of misogyny in the film. He’s only ever put up with Harley because she was Joker’s girlfriend. So that was the only reason he ever put up with her, because [Joker] was all-powerful. But as soon as [Roman] realizes that Harley’s man is out of the picture, she becomes a problem. That makes him a true misogynist. Harley is trying to find her freedom–the emancipation of Harley Quinn, right? She’s trying to find her voice. She’s not getting her power from her partner anymore.” – Ewan McGregor (February 5, 2020 – gamestop.com). Sionis’ casual sexism and misogyny is about words too. As he interrogates a caught Harley Quinn, he gives a clear example of how he underestimates and belittles women: “For all your noise and bluster, you’re just a silly little girl with no one around to protect her”.
There’s also something uncomfortable with his obsession with songbird Dinah Lance. After witnessing from the vantage of his window Dinah beating a group of men who tried to take advantage of a drunk Harley right in the alley where the club is located, he decides to promote her to the rank of personal driver, a position she is forced to take under Zsasz’s veiled threats rather than accept of her free-will. Here again, he draws a simplified picture of a woman, only not with degrading intentions this time “All these years I thought she was just a pretty face with a fine set of lungs”.
These questions of power and devaluation bring us to a crucial, highly unsettling scene that further establishes Roman Sionis as a bastard in the film: the “Erika table scene” as I shall call it. As said earlier, Roman derives his power from his privilege, wealth, being at the top of a criminal organization’s structure but from the fear, he inspires too. The following scene is a terrifying example of that, far more even than putting on his signature mask after having a nervous breakdown and going on a rampage as he does at the end of the film (even if it’s a delightful moment for any DC comics fan). Upon learning that Harley disappeared with Cassandra Cain and thus the Bertinelli diamond, “his” diamond, as he’s seated at a table at his club, Sionis loses his temper and displaces his rage on a woman who had the misfortune of laughing at an unrelated joker or humorous story, some two tables away from Roman’s. He asks if she’s laughing at him and Victor Zsasz answers “She is”, knowing it’s untrue and enabling his boss. So he walks to the woman, asking her what she was laughing at. He addresses her by her first name, “Erika”, suggesting she is a regular client at the club or someone he’s acquainted with to some degree in a different context. Unaware of his intentions, she tries to share the joke with him and him just… snaps.
The music stops and tension fills the room on the screen (as well as the theatre, nobody’s laughing at his anger anymore). With a violent sweep of his arm, he gets rid of what was on the table and asks her to get on it. He asks her to dance, to perform for him, yelling to prompt her to do as she’s commanded: “This is my club”. Everyone around shudders and the scene takes a dark, twisted turn. He then commands one of her friends to cut her dress, saying it’s hideous. He does as he’s told too. It’s a bone-chilling scene, one about power dynamics. Nobody can stop him. Nobody tries. Not her friends, not the guy who almost tearfully complies, not even Dinah whose Canary Cry could destroy everyone in the room. She does nothing because she’s under Sionis’ control as well, under the control of he who – as she told detective Renee Montoya earlier in the film – put her off the streets and gave her a job. To whom she probably feels indebted to this day. Standing up to him would probably mean losing her job. Standing up to him would mean putting herself in danger in this very moment and potentially, endangering other people in the room.
It doesn’t even feel like he does it for sexual kicks or something of that nature. It’s purely for humiliation, control and to be feared. In our world, men often have that power and utilize it to abusive ends. This scene cements the themes of the film in a loud but realistic manner. It’s very effective in its message and execution. How many of us have, after a day at school, university, work witnessed on public transportation a fellow teenage girl or woman being bothered or harassed by a man? How many of us have even been a victim of that sort of behavior? Dinah walks away, teary-eyed, her voice stuck in her throat, shaken and feeling helpless.
For all these reasons, Roman Sionis made a perfect but short-lived villain in Birds of Prey. It’s a bit of a shame that we won’t see more of him because given his rich comic book history and polyvalence as a villain, having him roam in Gotham City’s criminal underbelly would have been interesting, especially considering how well he was portrayed with Ewan McGregor’s energetic and nuanced performance. But his death is also a quite satisfying pay-off and understandable choice. Torn I am, I tell you.