'Birds of Prey': Ewan McGregor as the Black Mask is the best inconsequential villain ever
The actor's natural charisma and the character's shameless villainy proves you don't always need complex characterization for a good bad guy in the movies
Spoiler alert for 'Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)'
Superhero movies tend to put as much pressure on their villains as they do on their superheroes to be interesting, complex characters. It's generally felt that heroes are defined by their villains and that opposing forces need to be an iconic dark mirror to the film's protagonist. In 'Birds of Prey', the uncomplicated, joyful villainy of Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) proves that that's a bald-faced lie.
Roman isn't complicated. As far as this film's concerned, he doesn't even have a very complicated, traumatic backstory. He wants money, he wants power and he wants to hurt anyone who gets in the way of him having either. We've talked before about how petty a villain Black Mask is and that's something the movie's leaned into. Black Mask doesn't hurt people because of childhood trauma or because he wants to right societal ills. He hurts people because he really, really enjoys doing so and Ewan McGregor lets us know just how much fun he's having doing so.
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) pisses Roman off a lot in this film, but when the movie's done, what you're going to remember most about the movie is Roman's smile. By his own admission, he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and though he was incompetent enough to be fired from the family company, it wasn't long before he rose to the top of Gotham's criminal empire once again. Harley calls him out on just how much of a cliche he is, but that doesn't stop him from lighting up the screen whenever he appears - no mean feat, considering how bright the movie's characters are already.
On paper, the Black Mask is a boring villain. Roman's love for masks is more of a style gimmick in this movie, as opposed to other Gotham villains and their obsessions with their themes - take the masks away and Roman could be any generic crime boss. Even his grand scheme is basic - find the diamond that unlocks all the money. Pay people who will bring him the diamond. Hurt people who get in the way. There are no themes at play here, no metaphors for his inner pain.
It allows the movie to skip past the need to establish who Roman Sionis is and why he's doing what he's doing and instead it just skips straight ahead to the fun bits. 'Birds of Prey' is in some ways a refreshingly straightforward film that wants to have as much fun as it can have before the credits roll and Roman is a perfect example of how to make that happen.
With films like 'Joker' leaving everyone wondering what the next iconic villain's story will be, it's good to know that not all movies need to hold up to that nuanced standard. McGregor's Black Mask is a charismatic, ultra-stylish gun pointed at the heads of the 'Birds of Prey' and the film is all the better for it.
'Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)' is now playing in cinemas, worldwide.