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Monday, February 27, 2017

Black Mask set as Villain for Gotham Sirens

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One of the more interesting films coming out of the quagmire that is the DCEU is Gotham Sirens, a spin-off to 2016’s Suicide Squad.  I never actually reviewed Suicide Squad so I’ll just say very quickly that it was a garbage movie and I didn’t like it.  I know some people enjoyed it, but honestly, I thought Batman v. Superman was the better film.  I know those are fighting words on a lot of the Internet so I’ll temper that critique by saying I, along with the rest of geek culture, really liked Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. 

Harley Quinn’s always been a complicated character to get right, mainly because she walks along that thin problematic line between manic pixie villain and domestic abuse victim, but in more recent years she’s backed off from that point.  A lot of that has come from her newly out and proud romance with Poison Ivy, which will be the core focus of the Harley-centric spin-off Gotham Sirens.  Catwoman will also be on hand because we needed a third lead but now we’ve finally gotten an idea of who our villain is- Black Mask. 

If ever there was a villain that defined C-list it’d be Black Mask.  He’s kind of a quintessential background Bat-villain in that most fans know him, and he’s had the good fortune to appear in a stupefying number of adaptations, but there’s no such thing as a genuinely good Black Mask comic. 

I think a lot of that is that Black Mask has always wanted for a real gimmick, which makes him especially weak amid Batman’s rogues.  Batman villains basically invented the themed bad guy, the whole conception of a central gimmick or motif working through a character’s hideout, weapons, henchmen, and plans goes right back to the Adam West show and informs all of the big names in Batman’s rogues gallery. 

However, a lot of the second-tier bad guys tend to persist because they work as essentially horror movie villains that just happen to fight a superhero.  Folks like Killer Croc or Clayface fall into this particular category, and it’s pretty much where Black Mask lives.  Seriously, the sole reason this guy sticks around is that he looks cool. 

However, looks are pretty much where Black Mask’s coolness factor comes to an abrupt end.  His origin is very weird and was later cannibalized for the briefly more popular but ultimately faded bad guy Hush.  Real name Roman Sionis, he was born into a wealthy Gotham family and spent most of his formative years as a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne.  

However, and this is amazing, he was attacked by a raccoon while visiting Wayne Manor once and his parents made him keep quiet- and it was at that moment he knew he had to destroy the Wayne family name.  I am dead serious- raccoon attack is what fueled Black Mask’s initial turn to villainy.  

Later on, he murdered his parents for their money and then proceeded to run his family cosmetics company into the ground.  After losing everything and getting bought out by Bruce Wayne, he basically went “crazy” in that comic book sense.  He ended up carving a mask out of his father’s ebony coffin and, combined with a dopey, gangster pin stripe suit and hat, became Black Mask. 

They’ve tried to assign this very goofy identity more of a gimmick with Black Mask usually forming a gang under the title of the ‘False Face society’ but that rarely sticks.  The name has stuck around, but it’s usually just an excuse to dress his henchmen up in dopey masks with no connective tissue.  He stayed in the background of several bat books as an occasional bad guy but never amounted to much. 

Where things got interesting was in one of my favorite Batman stories of all time- No Man’s Land.  This was when Gotham City suffered a massive earthquake and was declared no longer part of the US.  Various villains took over the city in a Mad Max/Escape from New York style set-up, one of them being Black Mask.  However, rather than his standard shtick of being boring, here he re-invented himself as a freaky cult leader obsessed with ritual scarification. 

He burned his old costume and cut up his own face, removing his nose, ears, and lips, giving himself a freaky human skull look.  It’s easily one of his most interesting iterations, even if it only lasted for one part of the overall No Man’s Land story.  However, the change in his visual design has become a significant part of Black Mask’s definitive iteration. 

In the 2004 comic War Games, Black Mask returned amid a massive gang war that consumed every criminal group in Gotham City.  He managed to seize control of the Gotham underworld in the chaos and emerged as the new boss of bosses.  He only stayed in that position for a year or so, but it left its stamp on the character and has become pretty much THE defining moment of Black Mask. 

Everything else about him like his cosmetic business, history with Bruce Wayne, his cult leader status, even the scarification stuff that explains why his face is a skull- all that’s been swept away and replaced with a generic “mob boss with a mask” type status for Black Mask. 

This is probably the version of the character we’ll see in Gotham Sirens.  It’s a reliable set-up for more interesting villains to work off of.  Black Mask’s scope of operations and power in Gotham makes him a formidable antagonist but his identity as just a greedy criminal means you don’t really need to develop or worry about him and can just let the actors do the dramatic heavy lifting.  He’s a good, bad guy to have hunting our heroes while they get up to more exciting activities. 

There was a brief second version of the character where Jeremiah Arkham, head of Arkham Asylum, developed multiple personalities and implanted explosive nanites in a bunch of Arkham inmates to use them as his own personal army.  This was during the Battle for the Cowl event and came to an end pretty quickly as well, though it was a cool and compelling idea in its time.  

I’d love to see the Jeremiah Arkham Black Mask in Gotham Sirens but I wouldn’t hold you breath- this is still a David Ayer movie after all and based on his vision of the Suicide Squad I doubt we’re getting anything that cool or out there. 

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