Superheroes have taken over both the big screen and the boob tube, and DC has been particularly successful on the small screen with its hits Arrow, The Flash, and the upcoming Legends of Tomorrow but that wasn’t always the case. A major forerunner for the plethora of comic book television we enjoy today was Smallville, a prequel series on The WB (now The CW) that examined Clark Kent’s teenage years and his eventually rise into becoming Superman. Smallville was an immense success, so the folks at Warner Bros figured that their other flagship character, Batman, could do with a television show. Instead of taking the same route that Smallville did — we’d get a Batman prequel show years later with Gotham — showrunner Laeta Kalogridis (screenwriter of Oliver Stone’s Alexander and the more recent Terminator Genisys) envisioned something much more daring but ultimately ill-fated.
Basing the show’s title and premise off the comic series Birds of Prey (a team-up book featuring multiple superheroines and often starring Barbara Gordon and Black Canary), Kalogridis went with a story that focused on the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, Helena Kyle. In the show’s somewhat trailblazing continuity, Batman has disappeared from Gotham (renamed New Gotham City) for several years and his daughter has no inkling as to who her father is. Something else that is unique in the Birds of Prey television show is that their version of Selina Kyle/Catwoman is imbued with superpowers (possibly a test run for the then upcoming Catwoman starring Halle Berry), making her what’s known in the DC universe as a “metahuman.”
Helena has inherited Selina’s cat-inspired abilities (enhanced strength, healing, and agility as well as periodic night-vision) and is raised by her mother until one fateful night when Catwoman is gunned down in front of Helena’s eyes. This puts her into the purview of Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl. Taking a page from Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, Barbara is shot and paralyzed by The Joker (voiced by the inimitable Mark Hamill) in the opening episode, leaving her bound to a wheelchair and taking on the mantle of Oracle. Barbara takes Helena (who is eventually given the superhero name Huntress) under her wing and along with the mysterious runaway Dinah Redmond (later revealed to be the daughter of Black Canary), they form a crime-fighting team that’s dedicated to protecting New Gotham City.
Though the premise of Birds of Prey certainly contained lots of promise, there were too many factors in its execution that seemed to doom its risky nature. A Batman show that didn’t feature Batman immediately turned off a lot of viewers (the Birds of Prey premiere scored the largest ratings in the 18-34 demographic in The WB’s history at the time, but ratings took a disastrously steep plunge after the initial episode), and comic book fans were dissatisfied for a number of reasons, chiefly the show’s loose adherence to established lore. It didn’t help that the show rarely dipped into Batman’s immense gallery of well-known rogues, preferring to go with mostly original villains that left little to no lasting impression (excluding a brief and weakly utilized appearance from Clayface). The only recognizable and recurring villain was Dr. Harleen Quinzel a.k.a. Harley Quinn, but she was hardly the version of the character fans knew and loved.
That’s not to say there weren’t positive elements in Birds of Prey. The casting was actually quite good all around, including a pitch perfect turn from stalwart actor Ian Abercrombie as faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth, and unlike Smallville’s original desire to stay away from the more flamboyant comic book elements of its source material, Birds of Prey embraced its visual inspirations and gave us the best Batgirl suit we’ve seen on film so far. The CW’s The Flash owes a lot of its fealty to comic book costumes to Birds of Prey.
If it had made it past its introductory season of thirteen episodes, Birds of Prey might have found its footing. There was obviously a desire to dive into more familiar territory as the show continued thanks to a final stinger featuring Alfred talking to “Master Bruce” on the phone, but such a future was not meant to be. Seeing as how Birds of Prey was the first live-action Batman-themed endeavor after the dreadful Batman & Robin, it just didn’t rekindle the audience’s love for the character’s universe like its creators had hoped it would. As it stands, Birds of Prey is a flawed but intriguing piece of apocrypha in the history of the Dark Knight.