Being an orphan has long been a classic character trope in fiction, particularly within the young adult genre and comic book origins. Superhero films have never shied away from this, with Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell) being adopted by Bruce Wayne (Val Kilmer) in Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever being one of many examples. But while the adoption of a seemingly mid-twenties Grayson was met with hilarious skepticism, it paved the way for one of DC’s latest efforts — Birds of Prey — to illustrate the reality of being a foster child.
In DC comics, Cassandra Cain is introduced as the child of elite assassins Lady Shiva and David Cain. She was raised by her father to be a perfect killing-machine and communicates solely through body language. Director Cathy Yan and screenwriter Christina Hodson, however, have taken a much more grounded approach to the character: reimagining young Cassandra (Ella Jay Basco) as a pickpocket and foster child in a neglectful system.
In many regards, Cassandra is positioned as a sort of antithesis to Billy Baston (Asher Angel), another foster child, and the protagonist in Shazam! While both characters are shown to act out due to the frustration of their situations, Billy seeks out his biological mother by any means necessary while Cassandra resorts to pickpocketing as a means of independence.
Though we first see Cassandra in the film’s opening montage at Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) roller rally, it’s not until a scene that takes place in a police station that we are formally introduced. Cassandra’s arrest is particularly revealing when detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) greets her with unenthused familiarity. Montoya’s frustrations with patriarchal control within the police system seep through here, with Cain’s constant arrests being another reminder of the inability to do more for kids like her within an unforgiving system.
Birds of Prey shatters fictional orphan clichés through Cassandra’s journey: Cain is given an open passport to the notoriously dangerous Gotham City, her pickpocketing spree is accompanied by Saweetie and GALXARA’s cover of ‘Sway with Me’, breezily connoting her freedom. But it all comes crashing down upon her arrest. After Cassandra’s questioning, Harley finds her locked in a cell block with violent convicts; dark blues and greys in the frame overwhelm the soft daylight that came before — Cain’s freedom is exchanged for captivity.
Although Cassandra is the only heavily featured child in the movie, Harley and the Birds of Prey themselves are rooted in deprived childhoods. It’s implied that Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett) experienced a similar childhood to Cassandra when she assures the girl: “it won’t always be like this” as Cassandra waits outside her apartment listening to the yells escaping its door. It’s later explained that Canary’s mother died helping the GCPD, and the absence of support left young Dinah on the street until Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) offered her a position in The Black Mask club. Dinah’s childhood embodies abandonment; not from her mother, but from a world content with forgetting what it can’t always see.
Meanwhile, Helena Bertinelli’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) childhood with the Italian mob is carried into adulthood through her inept social skills. Huntress’ social awkwardness and anger management issues act as a running gag in the film, but they also underline developmental issues caused by irregular social stimuli. Bertinelli’s traumatic experience during the massacre of her family begat a vengeful obsession that was nourished by her guardians in Sicily. The obsession isn’t blinding but bestows a tunnel vision content on violence.
This all comes to a head in the film’s action-heavy climax: entrapped and pursued by Black Mask’s men in the Boobytrap funhouse, the Birds of Prey band together to protect Cassandra. The fight is chaotic; Cassandra moves hastily about the funhouse, avoiding one threat after another, while the team acts tirelessly to protect her. The Birds of Prey have already grown up, already endured a childhood of neglect and violence, but they work relentlessly to spare Cassandra from the same experience. The long-abandoned and dilapidated funhouse emulates a childhood wrought with trauma — its dim, off-set lighting and labyrinth of illusions and playthings masquerading the violence inside.
Helena meets Cassandra for the first time during this showdown but quickly sees herself in her, lending her the toy car that had been given to her during the Bertinelli massacre. The toy symbolizes the loss of Helena’s childhood innocence, but by handing it to Cassandra, she hopes to preserve her innocence and spare her from the type of obsession that presided over her own childhood. Whether or not the attempt was successful, the comfort that is given is undeniable; Cassandra won’t always have apt security, but she will never truly be alone.
Eventually, the goons surround the titular team on a revolving, circular platform. Just like the systems that continuously fail her, Cassandra has been entrapped in a cycle, being passed from one adult to the other. When the Birds of Prey eliminate their foes, it presents a moment of great relief, allowing Cassandra to escape and regain a sense of freedom over her life — but this may be a fleeting state.
Harley’s eventual “adoption” of Cassandra in the film’s denouement raises questions about her future. Bright and optimistic, the feel-good climax is but another moment in the foster cycle with Harley’s reintroduction to The Suicide Squad on the horizon. With Harley’s presumed eventual arrest, one has to assume that Cassandra will be re-entered into the system. Birds of Prey isn’t a damnation of the foster system, but rather balances the genre’s rose-colored vision on the matter with a harsh reality that plagues so many orphaned children globally. The film’s underperformance at the box office may mean that Cassandra’s fate will be persistently unaddressed, once again leaving her the silent victim.