Have you all seen Birds of Prey yet? How many of you have already seen it twice? I have so many thoughts about so many characters and moments, including the psychotic Black Mask. Of course, depending on how familiar you are with the character, one of your thoughts may be, “I wonder how close Black Mask was to the comics?”
Well, dear readers, it was pretty darn close! Certain liberties are usually taken when it comes to adapting villains in comic book movies, and while there were certainly some taken here, Ewan McGregor does a pretty good job bringing the classic Gotham City crime boss to life.
During the movie, it’s stated that Roman Sionis (Black Mask’s real name) has been kicked out of his family’s company, Janus Corp. How badly do you have to screw up to get kicked out of your own family’s business? Especially when that business is cosmetics.
Yep, cosmetics! Roman first appeared in Batman #386, where Roman sunk the family empire by pushing two revolutionary cosmetic products that ultimately wound up being horrible ideas. First, he conceived a face-paint style of makeup, putting all of Janus’s resources behind the product. The problem was that it looked like something a preschooler might’ve come up with in art class and nobody was buying it. Everybody makes mistakes, of course, so Roman moved on to the next idea—waterproof makeup. Wouldn’t it be great to visit Aquaman’s home in Atlantis without worrying about smearing your makeup?
I’m a DC fanboy, not a manufacturing guru, but even I know that you’re supposed to test a product before putting it on the market. Apparently not Roman, though. He rushed the launch of his waterproof makeup without testing and the results were disastrous. Technically, it was waterproof, but it also had this inconvenient tendency to cause the wearer’s skin to become burned and disfigured. Janus Corp had 437 lawsuits within a week, and the company was forced to accept a bailout from Bruce Wayne.
So, if you head to the theaters to see Birds of Prey again, keep this little backstory in mind when people talk about Roman’s failure at his family business. Are we really going to take cosmetic advice from a man who calls himself Black Mask?
Speaking of his choice of headgear, Roman’s daddy issues are also straight from the comics. Roman, level-headed epitome of maturity that he is, threw a fit one night when his parents refused to let him date a model, so he burned down their family mansion. A little bit of an overreaction, but this type of drama queen behavior is perfectly in line with Ewan McGregor’s onscreen behavior.
Roman’s parents died in the fire, but he continued to be haunted by their memories. After the cosmetic business went belly up, Roman visited their mausoleum when he was struck with an epiphany—he’ll become a crime boss. And to make sure he was properly respected in a city as hardened as Gotham, he crafted his signature black mask OUT OF PIECES OF HIS FATHER’S COFFIN! You’ll remember in the film that Harley told Roman he had daddy issues. Well, it turns out it’s worse than all of us thought. He’s literally wearing pieces of his father’s coffin on his face! I will never make fun of Batman’s devotion to his parents again.
Speaking of Batman #386, I want to call attention to a blurb on the cover. “Crazier than the Joker! Deadlier than Ra’s al Ghul!” the cover states. Some of you might be rolling your eyes and writing this off as hyperbole, but Black Mask is one messed up dude. Don’t forget the scene in the movie where he kills that family by cutting off their faces. Or the where he humiliates that woman at his nightclub because she laughed. Trust me, Roman’s depraved and yes, misogynistic mind is capable of far worse.
Let this be a warning for anyone choosing to read further—what I’m about to describe is gruesome. In Ed Brubaker’s iconic Catwoman run, Roman and Selina were fighting for control of Gotham’s East End neighborhood. Roman wanted to rule it, and Selina wanted to liberate it. Black Mask doesn’t fight fair though, so he kidnapped Selina’s sister Maggie and her husband Brian. In 2003’s Catwoman #15, Roman sadistically tortured them and enjoyed every minute of it. It wasn’t enough to make Maggie suffer physically—Black Mask wanted to break her mind. After killing her husband, Roman removed his eyeballs and forced them down Maggie’s throat.
That’s horrific, but Roman’s most notoriously evil act happened the following year. That scene in Birds of Prey where Roman has Harley tied up? If you noticed anyone in the theater who seemed particularly uneasy, it might be because they know Black Mask’s comic book history. During a Batman crossover event called “War Games,” Black Mask fought, defeated and chained up Stephanie Brown, after which he proceeded to torture her horrifically for what felt like ages before releasing her to die in Leslie Thomkins’ clinic. It was a shocking, totally unexpected moment, and while we learned later that Stephanie actually faked her death, Ronan is still known as the villain who murdered Spoiler.
You see, it’s not just that Black Mask kills people. Lots of villains do that. He very frequently tortures them before he does. He’s as sadistic as he is flamboyant, making him one of the most unnerving and unpredictable villains in Gotham.
If you’ve made it this far, I want to apologize for ruining your appetite. Harley Quinn might be a bit looney, but she’s a regular Girl Scout compared to Black Mask. In many ways McGregor’s Black Mask was a spot-on adaptation of the rich spoiled brat from the comics, right down to the chilling mask. If you head back to the theater to see Birds of Prey again, keep that in mind. And maybe double check who manufactures your makeup.
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com and DCUniverse.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.