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[This story contains spoilers for Birds of Prey]
Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) includes quite the lineup of comic book heroes. But one important member of Birds of Prey is missing from the crew: the team’s founder, Barbara Gordon, aka Oracle. The character’s absence is understandable given that she’s yet to appear in DC cinematic universe film, and because the state of Batman in this world (Ben Affleck or Robert Pattinson?) is a bit of a mystery. While the cast has expressed enthusiasm for Barbara Gordon showing up in future installments, the origins of her role as Oracle are a bit more complicated and controversial. With a Batgirl film in the works from Birds of Prey screenwriter Christina Hodson, Barbara Gordon’s presence in the DC film universe seems like something that will happen sooner rather than later, but what will be her role in the Birds of Prey?
It’s impossible to talk about Oracle in the comics without talking about The Killing Joke. The 1988 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland is perhaps best remembered for giving a possible origin story for the Joker. But it’s also the comic that saw Barbara Gordon, recently retired from the role of Batgirl due to an editorial mandate, shot through the stomach and paralyzed by the Joker. The villain then proceeded to take pictures of her nude and bleeding body and use them in an attempt to drive Commissioner James Gordon insane. The violence and the sexual assault by the Joker hasn’t aged well, despite the surrounding story of the Joker and his relationship with Batman being an iconic, and frequently cited reference. Alan Moore has reacted unfavorably to his work in hindsight. But it wasn’t just contemporary evaluations that saw an issue with Barbara Gordon’s treatment, and the idea that the character couldn’t be a hero then she was only good to serve as a tool for male pain. Editor Kim Yale and her comic writer husband John Ostrander refused to let the character fade away and instead gave her new purpose as Oracle, a computer expert and information broker living with a disability, in the pages of Suicide Squad.
For those of who were first introduced to DC comics in the ’90s, Barbara Gordon’s paralysis in The Killing Joke always had the context of her living on as a hero as Oracle, an important asset to Batman and the Justice League. It was only later, upon the realization, that Gordon’s transformation into this new hero wasn’t planned by editorial back when The Killing Joke was published, that her treatment within that story became, for me, a distasteful element in an otherwise fantastic Joker story. While the incident that led to Barbara Gordon becoming Oracle feels like something best left out of the DC films, there’s also no denying that Barbara Gordon, as a hero living with a disability, is meaningful to many fans. After Yale and Ostrander, writer Chuck Dixon, and later Gail Simone, further added to her characterization, exploring her friendship with Black Canary, and later Huntress, her on-again, off-again relationship with Nightwing, and her bond with her father James Gordon. And while it’s typical to think of Oracle as the Birds of Prey asset handler, and a voice in an earpiece, she was also capable of fighter, who learned how to utilize marital arts skills with her upper body from martial arts master, Richard Dragon. Oracle was the glue that held the team together, and her moral decisions concerning hacking, blackmail and information, drove many of the character’s storylines, and became even more topical following 9/11 and wiretapping controversies.
When DC’s relaunch, The New 52, came along in 2011, Barbara Gordon was no longer paralyzed, though The Killing Joke still happened. Through an experimental surgery, and the emphasis that her spine had not been fully severed, she regained the use of her legs and resumed the mantle of Batgirl, which had since been passed on to Cassandra Cain and then Stephanie Brown. The decision was controversial among longtime fans, who cited a decrease in diversity within DC’s publishing line because of the decision.
Gail Simone who wrote Batgirl at the time, saw Barbara’s newfound mobility as a means to addresses the affects of trauma and PTSD. Nine years later, and passed through the hands of numerous writers, and shifts in continuity, Barbara Gordon is still Batgirl. Oracle has also been through several new iterations, as virtual tech support, and the alias of a new hacker, Gus Yale, who had an obsession with Batgirl but ultimately aided her and a modern iteration of the Birds of Prey in their fight against crime, but who hasn’t been utilized in years. There’s no easy answer when it comes to Barbara’s Gordon’s ableness, and the desire to see her as a wheelchair-bound hero and a fully mobile, costumed crime fighter both have their merits. But when it comes to her role in a future film, is there a scenario that would allow for both Oracle and Batgirl?
It seems entirely possible for Barbara Gordon’s adventures as Batgirl to be set in the past, and her role as Oracle to be in the present where Birds of Prey takes place, offering audiences a chance to see both iterations of the character simultaneously. No ongoing iteration of the team has had the staying power of Gail Simone’s run. Part of that is because all of her characters felt varied, and compelled by distinct purposes, rather than six costumed heroes with similar skill sets.
Ultimately, my feelings on Barbara Gordon’s role in the DC film universe come down to the fact that there have been several Batgirls, a mantle we could potentially see Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) claim in the future, but there’s really only one Oracle. Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey set a wonderful precedent for inclusion in comic book movies, one that refused to let race or age hinder casting. And it seems that the disabled or differently abled Barbara Gordon, without The Killing Joke element, could add something to that inclusivity, the variety of action and characterizations, and give viewers a chance to experience a hero whose live-action portrayal could be meaningful for many audience members.
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