Hype for the Margot Robbie produced Birds of Prey movie have been gaining momentum recently with the report that the film has found its big bad in the one and only Black Mask. Granted, that name is probably a lot less immediately recognizable to you than, say, the Joker or Mister Freeze. Never fear, though. That’s what we’re here for: to tell you everything you need to know about the villain Black Mask.
Introduced back in 1985, Black Mask is the criminal alter ego of one Roman Sionis, the son of two wealthy Gotham socialites and heir to the Janus Cosmetic company fortune. In his first incarnation, Roman had your fairly standard comic book villain schtick–shady parents, high society drama, a helping of childhood trauma–but it was spiced up with a fun thematic twist: Roman was obsessed with masks, both literal and metaphorical.
His obsession stemmed from the combination of his parents’ glitzy public personas juxtaposed against their abusive home life (the masks they wore in public versus their private faces) and the extremely on-the-nose family business of cosmetics. He grew to resent everything about the lack of authenticity represented by these different types of masks and became increasingly unstable in the face of what he came to understand as hypocrisy. Things really came to a head when his parents tried to force him to break off a relationship he’d sparked with a young model named Circe, which caused him to fly into a manic rage. Naturally, he set his family’s home on fire with both his parents trapped inside.
With dear old mom and dad out of the picture, Roman inherited Janus Cosmetics and promptly drove it into the ground with a series of rookie mistakes and rash decisions. Desperate and humiliated by his failures, Roman spiraled even deeper into madness until he finally broke for good. He was struck by lighting (because why not, right?) while visiting his family’s crypt and the moment (and, you know, everything else) inspired him to carve a skull-like mask out of his father’s ebony coffin. From that moment on, Roman called himself the Black Mask and decided to turn his full attention to making a name for himself in Gotham’s underground.
Roman wasted no time in forming a gang to help him out. He called them the “False Face Society” and their gimmick was–you guessed it–wearing masks. Together they began cutting a bloody swath through Gotham until Batman intervened, an encounter which ultimately left the ebony skull mask “burned onto” Roman’s face permanently. From that point on, Roman and his gang became yet another eccentric fixture of the city’s costumed criminal underworld, moving in and out of Arkham Asylum.
At least, for the most part. Over the years, Roman was given some pretty major overhauls. For a while during the mid-90s, the “False Face Society” became cult-like in their devotion to exposing their victims’ “true faces” by ritually scarring them. But then most of his obvious thematic elements were dropped. During the early 2000s, Roman kept his trademark skull mask and code name, but became almost exclusively your run-of-the-mill gangster. He featured prominently in stories like War Games and Under the Red Hood, where he was in the business of making power plays for control over Gotham’s underworld, less for his eccentric fixations and more for an obvious love of money and power.
As the pre-New 52 era wound down, Roman was temporarily killed and a new Black Mask stepped up to fill the role. Jeremiah Arkham–yes, of the Arkham Asylum Arkhams–experienced a mental break (who could blame him in his line of work?) and donned the mask and the persona, returning it to its more cult-like origins. Arkham’s version of Black Mask treated the mask itself like a supernatural entity, sort of like Gollum with the One Ring; while wearing the mask, Arkham was invaded by the Black Mask personality and “forced” to commit horrible crimes. Though whether or not this was a legit ability the mask had acquired over the years or Arkham just projecting remained pretty ambiguous.
The idea of the mask having power over its wearer persisted through the New 52, though Roman was mostly kept out of the spotlight. He was returned to his considerably less supernatural incarnation for the Rebirth era, which cast him yet again as your standard money-hungry ruler of the underworld. His anatomical skull look has since been traded in for a stylized black leather gimp mask, which he wears more to maintain an aesthetic and less because it’s fused to his skin or due to any sort of mind control.
Given what we know about the upcoming Birds of Prey film so far, it’s likely that we’re going to see Roman the eccentric gangster on the big screen in Birds of Prey, rather than Black Mask the supernatural cult leader–but, really, who can say for sure?