Birds of Prey
directed by Brian Robbins
(Warner Brothers, 2002)

Some adjustments are inevitable when translating a story from the printed page to the movie or TV screen. But why would someone take the name of a perfectly good story if they didn't plan to retain some semblance of the original tale?

Birds of Prey, the latest TV adaptation of a comic book, provides a mixed bag of characters from Batman's Gotham City, now dubbed New Gotham. Batman, alas, has fled the city -- an uncharacteristic reaction, to say the least, following a double hit of personal tragedies: the murder of his lover, Selina Kyle (a.k.a. Catwoman), and the crippling attack on his partner, Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl).

But the series pilot, loosely based on the comic book series Birds of Prey mixed with elements of DC Comics' discontinued Earth-2 storyline of decades past, doesn't really give us the characters we expect.

Dina Meyer hits closest to the mark as Gordon. The criminal fiend Joker left her wheelchair-bound in a scene lifted from Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, and she has redefined herself as the computer genius and information guru Oracle. No longer able to do the superheroing on her own, she deploys operatives to do the dirty work in her stead. Meyer gives us a strong, believable Gordon, including several flashback scenes to her Batgirl days, although the character is a trifle more cranky than I'd have imagined.

Gordon's primary partner in the comic is Dinah Lance, the globetrotting vigilante Black Canary. On TV, it's Helena Kyle, the illegitimate daughter of Bruce "Batman" Wayne and Selina "Catwoman" Kyle, who plies the superhero trade as the Huntress. She never knew her father, and he didn't know he had a daughter. (Some detective!) She also has developed superpowers, exhibiting exceptional strength, agility and vision, plus a wildcat growl that follows her every move.

(In the comics, Huntress is the nonpowered daughter of a mobster and takes to crimefighting to atone for his crimes. In the past, prior to DC's earthshaking Crisis on Infinite Earths, she was Helena Wayne, daughter of Bruce and Selina, who followed in her loving father's footsteps as a next-generation hero.)

Ashley Scott gives us a sensual, cleavage-revealing Huntress who disdains the use of masks and costumes to conceal her identity. She's more hot-tempered than Gordon, who became her legal guardian after Selina's murder. She has a cavalier attitude towards the hero biz and isn't opposed to the idea of killing her enemies. However, besides her name and irascible disposition, she doesn't resemble the comic-book Huntress much at all.

And then there's Lance, who joins the crew as a drab junior sidekick in training. In the comics, she's a mature crimefighter with incredible martial arts skills and a sonic "canary cry" that can take out her foes. As played by Rachel Skarsten, she's a teen-age runaway with no physical abilities, but with psychic abilities such as precognitive dreams and telepathy. She also can transport herself and others to mental dreamscapes, where battles can be fought on a subconscious plane.

Producer Laeta Kalogridis, who wrote the pilot, has said in interviews that the Black Canary and Huntress characters were too similar for her purposes, so she rewrote them to suit her vision. However, one wonders why she wouldn't instead drop Huntress (who isn't part of Oracle's team in the comics), retain Black Canary in her true form and employ instead any of DC's many available psychic characters.

The TV series also provides Ian Abercrombie as Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne's loyal butler; Shemar Moore as Jake Reese, a Gotham detective who wants to prove the existence of vigilantes in his city; and Sherilyn Fenn as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, an Arkham Asylum psychologist drawn from the Batman animated series who becomes the Joker-inspired criminal Harley Quinn. (Since the release of this preview version, the part of Quinn was reshot with Mia Sara in the role.)

I can overlook a lot of flaws if the story is good. Birds of Prey delivers a punch in several flashback sequences involving Batman, Batgirl and the Joker, but it gives us little in the present to hang a series on.

Meyer is excellent, but neither Scott nor Skarsten gets me to care much about their characters. The plot, which revolves around a series of unexplained suicides, isn't much of a hook, either. The pilot is talky, with characters who are inclined to discuss their feelings more than is typical in an action series.


Well, let's face it, this is Gotham. Batman's city. And it's hard not to be intrigued by a story set there -- even if Batman, for whatever reason, has flown the coop. Fly-over shots of the city set a dark mood for this metropolis, a grim urban environment that looks more realistic than the Gotham of the Batman franchise of films. And the flashback scenes are enough to tell me this team can tell a good story.

This TV series is not Birds of Prey, title notwithstanding. But it still might prove interesting enough if scriptwriters can pull together a more action-oriented storyline, a plot worth following from week to week, some meaningful dialogue and characterization that makes me want to give a damn.

review by
Tom Knapp

7 June 2002

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