Behind the Black Mask: Who Is the 'Birds of Prey' Bad Guy?

Black Mask cover - Publicity - P 2018
Matt Wagner/DC Entertainment
New DC movie villain Roman Sionis has a suitably melodramatic comic book past.

Well, now we know who DC Entertainment’s Birds of Prey will be facing in the 2020 movie of the same name: Ewan McGregor as crime boss Black Mask. While the face of the one-time Obi-Wan Kenobi might be familiar to moviegoers, the character he’s playing might not.

Black Mask was created in 1985 by Doug Moench and Tom Mandrake for Batman No. 386, and has made appearances across the Batman line in the decades since, including Detective Comics, Nightwing and Catwoman; with his black skull-like mask and tendency towards cruel and unusual torture for his foes, he’s a distinctive and memorable threat primed for big-screen stardom — as long as he survives his first run-in with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, of course.

In many ways, Black Mask is the Batman story inverted. Roman Sionis was, like Bruce Wayne, born into a wealthy Gotham City family and inherited the family business — except, in Sionis’ case, that inheritance didn’t come after a murderous back-alley mugging as in Bruce Wayne’s experience, but was the result of Roman killing his parents because they didn’t approve of his girlfriend at the time. Let’s just say that his criminal career got off to a strong start, shall we?

That criminal career proved to be a welcome fallback when he accidentally destroyed the family business — a cosmetics company — thanks to going all in on a new form of makeup that ended up disfiguring hundreds of women. Broke, ashamed and surviving a near-death experience when he was struck by a bolt of lightning while visiting the family crypt, Sionis became a man obsessed with disguises, forming an organization of criminals in various forms of disguise called the False Face Society, all the while carrying out a number of assassinations under the guise of Black Mask — a name derived from the mask he’d made out of pieces of his father’s own burial casket. (There is a lot of Grand Guignol to Black Mask’s origin; just go with it.)

As Black Mask, Sionis ran afoul of Batman a number of times — he was a long-term recurring villain during co-creator Moench’s two runs as writer of the Batman comic book in the 1980s and '90s — and was part of the fan favorite “No Man’s Land,” “War Games” and “Under the Hood” story arcs. He was also a significant thorn in the side of Catwoman during writer Ed Brubaker’s critically acclaimed early 2000s run; indeed, as a result of the gruesome torture Black Mask inflicted on Catwoman’s sister during Brubaker’s story — spoilers: It involves her eating her husband’s corpse — Selina Kyle later tracked him down and killed him. (He would be restored to life when DC’s continuity rebooted in 2011.)

Since his resurrection, he has once again returned to power as one of the crime lords of Gotham City, sharing the city’s underworld with the Penguin. He’s also been shown to be a member of both a reborn False Face Society and the Secret Society of Super-Villains, suggesting that he’s more interested in maintaining power politically — and less likely to declare gang war in the face of both overwhelming odds and common sense — than had previously been apparent.

Black Mask has made a number of appearances outside DC’s comic book line; he’s shown up in animated series The Batman and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, the animated movies Batman: Under the Hood and Batman: Bad Blood as well as the Batman: Arkham and Batman: Dark Tomorrow video games.

Although Birds of Prey will mark his feature debut, it won’t be his first appearance in live action, as a version of the character showed up in the first season of Fox’s Gotham. Given his comic book success, don’t be surprised if Birds of Prey is just the start of the character’s big-screen career. Just don’t take his advice when it comes to makeup tips.