Mask Off

Birds of Prey ditches Joker for the best Batman villain you've never heard of, Black Mask

A mostly B-rate DC villain is finally getting his due on the big screen.

The best villains in Batman's rogues gallery are all metaphors for life in Gotham City. Poison Ivy is the Earth's revenge against human pollution. Two-Face is the hypocrisy of bureaucracy. The Penguin is capitalism given animalistic form. The Joker is any one person having a really bad day. And Black Mask (the latest comic book import into DC's cinematic universe) is the incarnation of an image- and status-obsessed culture, one that resonates more today in a world of social media influencers than it did when he was first invented in 1985.

In Birds of Prey, DC's movie universe finally move on from familiar villains like the Joker, Penguin, and Bane in favor of a character more deserving of a place in the popular consciousness. Ewan McGregor's Black Mask, a crime lord who keeps his face behind a black skull mask, is one of the most underrated creations from one of Batman's most underrated comic book writers, and he's finally getting his due.

Friday marks the release of Birds of Prey, a Margot Robbie project that sees Harley Quinn break free from her ex, the Joker, and into a sisterhood of badass DC heroines. Standing in their way is Roman Sionis, a crime lord also known as Black Mask.

Ewan McGregor as Black Mask in 'Birds of Prey'Warner Bros. Pictures

Black Mask isn't a cult character like Bane, and for good reason. Outside of his own origin in Batman #386 and #387 (published in summer 1985), Black Mask simply hasn't been a major fixture in many iconic Batman stories. You won't find him in The Dark Knight Returns or The Long Halloween, and in stories where he does appear like War Games and Under the Hood, you get the impression the writers used him as a different face just so they wouldn't have to write yet another storyline with Penguin and Riddler.

That's a shame, because Black Mask is a legacy from one of Batman's criminally under-celebrated writers. Doug Moench's stint on Batman occurred in the last leg of the Bronze Age, a transformative period not just for the Dark Knight but for comics in general. Beginning in 1970, comic writers eschewed the science-fiction camp of the Silver Age for darker stories grounded in realism. In this era, Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy is murdered, the Green Arrow's sidekick Speedy gets addicted to heroin, and Iron Man becomes an alcoholic.

Batman also underwent a radical shift during this time. Just a few years prior, the hit 1966 TV series Batman left a permanent impression of Batman upon the masses. It didn't matter what Batman did in the comics (which were also kooky as anything), all anyone remembered was Adam West boogying.

Enter: Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams. This dynamic duo of writer and artist took Batman into a grittier realm that allowed the superhero to inhabit the über-grim image deserving of the title, "The Dark Knight." It was in this time that O'Neil and Adams created a flawed Batman rooted in vengeance. Familiar enemies like the Joker were similarly changed from criminal pranksters to psychological killers.

In 1995, Les Daniels wrote highly of O'Neil's Batman, in his book DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes, as a "vengeful obsessive-compulsive" that "was actually an act of creative imagination that has influenced every subsequent version of the Dark Knight.”

Black Mask, in his first appearance in 'Batman' #386.DC Comics

O'Neil and Adams laid a path for Moench to take over Batman between 1983 until 1986 (and again in the '90s). Because Moench's stint is sandwiched by revolutionaries — O'Neil and Adams in the '70s, Frank Miller in the late '80s — his Batman is often overlooked, leaving his merits as an expert noir storyteller undervalued.

Prior to his work for DC Comics, Moench established himself as a force at Marvel, creating cult characters like Moon Knight (soon to star in his own Disney+ series) and serving as the most prolific writer on the long-running Shang-Chi series Master of Kung Fu (soon to become a major movie in 2021). Characters like Moon Knight and Shang-Chi gave Moench a template for Batman: A crusading vigilante in noir-infused fantastical crime and horror.

In Moench's stories, the probable met the impossible. Batman consulted Swamp Thing and Deadman on murder cases, while the likes of Man-Bat looked otherworldly.

In Batman #386, Moench teamed with illustrator Tom Mandrake to introduce readers to Black Mask, the most grounded Batman villain yet. A wealthy Gotham City elite, Black Mask's failing businesses in cosmetics compel him to take up a life of crime. Born to wealthy social climbers obsessed with status, Roman was traumatized as a boy after a rabid raccoon bit him.

What Moench begins as a typical (if slightly weird) superhero origin becomes a feverish nightmare. Writes Moench in his narration of Roman's story, "The nightmare continued forever, an endless movie of his own making, played out somewhere deep behind his face."

Black Mask, as he appeared in the 2013 video game 'Batman: Arkham Origins.'Warner Bros. Games

As an adult, Roman excelled at his father's cosmetics company, until his parents disapproved of his relationship to one of their "common" models, deeming her unfit for the family. The dead-eyed, emotionless Roman killed his parents in retaliation, taking control of the family business.

Obsessed with masks, Roman made risky investments with the company that ended poorly, including a face-paint make-up product that disfigured hundreds of women. After Bruce Wayne offered to bail him out and take over the family business, a rage-fueled Roman destroys his parents' graves and fashions a mask out of their ebony coffins.

At that moment, he becomes Black Mask, and he goes on to gather a small army of criminals with masks glued to their faces. Masks, Roman says, "destroy one identity while creating another."

It's a pretty dark story, one that cleverly subverts superhero tropes to create a complex foe that Batman hadn't yet faced. Even by Moench's standards, the story of Roman and his metamorphosis into Black Mask is unusually grounded. If it weren't for the grown man in a bat costume, it could almost be a Netflix true-crime documentary.

Ewan McGregor, with Chris Messina, in 'Birds of Prey.'Warner Bros. Pictures

Cool as his origins may be, it's unfortunate that Black Mask's best story is his three-decades-old origin. Since then, the character has only maintained relevance via supporting roles, like the 2010 film Batman: Under the Red Hood and the 2013 video game Batman: Arkham Origins. Unlike the Joker, there aren't really any major stories where the Black Mask stars, but that's about to change thanks to Birds of Prey.

Thanks to a striking performance from Ewan McGregor, who perfectly inhabits a fresh take on Roman (think a more flamboyant version of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman), there's hope that Black Mask might finally have a seat at the big villains' table.

Birds of Prey opens in theaters on Friday, February 7.

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