Spoilers ahead for the Suicide Squad movie.
Following the box office success of 2016’s Suicide Squad, which ended with Jared Leto’s Joker busting his lover Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) out of prison, some may have expected the Clown Prince of Crime to return for another film opposite his former shrink-turned-moll. Indeed, there were reports that a Joker-Harley movie was under consideration at Warner Bros. as well as a Harley Quinn solo movie or a Gotham City Sirens film. But as Margot Robbie, who is also a producer on Birds of Prey, tells it, she made “a conscious choice” to remove Joker from the upcoming DC film and widen the circle of characters Harley would interact with in her next screen appearance.
During a press event in Hollywood this week to promote Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), Robbie said she made the pitch for a Harley “girl gang” movie early on while still shooting Suicide Squad.
Given how “so completely consumed in Joker” Harley was at that stage, Robbie said Harley’s next film appearance was “either going to be all or nothing” when it comes to Joker’s involvement. “It was either going to be a complete Harley/Joker story or Joker has got to be out of the picture,” Robbie explained. “I really wanted to see Harley in a girl gang and I felt there was a huge gap in the market for a girl gang ensemble action film. I felt like no one was doing that and I couldn’t understand why, especially a comic book movie.”
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Robbie continued on about why Jared Leto’s Joker isn’t in Birds of Prey: “From the very beginning it was a conscious choice of they have to be broken up at this stage, so I have a whole backstory in my head [of] what’s happened between what you saw at the end of Suicide Squad and what you see at the beginning of Birds of Prey. But ultimately that’s a rocky road and where (this) movie starts off? They break up.”
With Joker out of the picture for Harley’s second screen appearance, Birds of Prey needed an antagonist that would speak to the specific demands of this “girl gang” action movie which sees Harley team-up with Black Canary, Huntress, Renee Montoya, and Cassandra Cain. And that villain ended up being Gotham City gangster Roman Sionis, aka Black Mask.
Birds of Prey screenwriter Christina Hodson called Sionis “a narcissist” who is “against each of these women.” These more personal vendettas between Sionis — who Hodson claimed was “so fun to write” — and the Birds of Prey allowed for a story that was more down to earth and for a villain whose agenda didn’t involve the usual comic book-y schemes for world domination.
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“Each of them has such a personal reason why they don’t like him and why he doesn’t like them,” Hodson explained. “That natural kind of antagonism with each of them feels personal and grounded rather than feeling like, ‘I’m going to blow up the world,’ big Machiavellian-like mustache-twirling. And that felt so right in this world.”
Hodson hailed actor Ewan McGregor for doing “so much great, fun, cool, weird stuff” with the bad guy she had written. Cast member Chris Messina, who plays Sionis’ sadistic henchman Victor Zsasz, echoed Hodson’s praise for McGregor’s performance: “He’s terrifying in the film and he’s so charming, beautiful, captivating, and funny as hell but when he turns, he turns on a dime and he’s ferocious.”
Part of that turn to ferocity seems to involve Roman Sionis donning the titular skull-faced, ebony mask that is a signature element of his DC Comics counterpart. It had long been uncertain whether McGregor’s Sionis would even don the black mask in the film until a recent promotional music video — which you can watch below — revealed Sionis wearing it.
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McGregor found the experience of acting behind a mask “quite cool” and “interesting.” The actor was reticent to say much about his masked scenes for fear of spoiling the film but admitted “it was quite cool wearing the mask. It was interesting with the mask and quite helpful in this case for that.”
For more on Black Mask, read our explainer on the villain’s DC Comics backstory as well as our breakdown of the Birds of Prey’s comic book history. And for more on Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), learn about the film’s surprising video game connection as well as how the film differs from 2019’s Joker.