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Are Black Mask and Mister Zsasz gay?

What is queer coding, in a movie with multiple confirmed queer characters?

CHRIS MESSINA as Victor Zsasz leans on a table to talk to a seated EWAN McGREGOR as Roman Sionis, with JURNEE SMOLLETT-BELL as Black Canary in the background, in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN). Photo: Claudette Barius/Warner Bros. Pictures
Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

Birds of Prey is a big rarity in the comic book movie world: A film where more than one character is clearly established to be queer. And one of them is even the main character!

Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya are queer in the pages of their comics, and now they’re queer on the big screen. But there are a couple other characters in Birds of Prey that have made people wonder: Ewan McGregor’s Roman “Black Mask” Sionis and Chris Messina’s Mister Zsasz, a supervillain and henchman locked in a destructive relationship. Zsasz enables and magnifies Sionis’ sadistic anxiety, and Sionis unleashes Zsasz on the unsuspecting.

On the red carpet of one premiere event, a Variety reporter asked McGregor and Messina outright: Are the two villains gay?

McGregor and Messina mused for a bit on the “complicated” connection between their characters. “There’s a want and a need in there, for sure,” McGregor said. A few moments later the actors laughed off the awkwardness, saying “More than likely, yes.”

This implication set off a wave of dismay on social media. If the makers of Birds of Prey had queer coded Black Mask and Mister Zsasz, that wouldn’t be the best look.

Queer coding is the practice, intentional or otherwise, of crafting a character with a stereotypically queer appearance or mannerisms without otherwise commenting on their sexuality. It’s often associated with villains, as a relic of the era in Hollywood film in which the only way censors would allow a queer character to be depicted was if they were shown in a villainous light. By the time those rules were loosened, queer mannerisms had simply become a part of our cinematic language for hinting that a character was a bad guy.

Photo: Claudette Barius/Warner Bros. Pictures

But in a movie where more than one character is emphatically established as queer, it seems unusual that two more would have a relationship intentionally left up to the audience’s interpretation. So we asked director Cathy Yan about exactly how she saw Black Mask and Zsasz.

“I think that [their relationship is] much more about power than it is about anything that can be labeled either way,” she answered. “I think for us, we just wanted to make sure that the relationship felt interesting and real. I think in a lot of movies you just see the henchman do his boss’ bidding for for no real reason besides that it’s what the script called for [...] That was really more of conversation. What is appealing about Roman to Zsasz? Why does Zsasz stick around? Why does Zsasz do his bidding, kill these people, and have such loyalty to Roman when he could have looked to anyone? Or, I mean, [Zsasz is] a pretty bad guy in his own right. What is he doing there?”

Yan said that their complicated codependency also came from wanting to make Roman Sionis more interesting to the audience.

“I think villains are the most interesting when they are appealing, when you can’t help but like them in a way, or you laugh along at their jokes or you find them very charming or compelling. And of course Ewan [McGregor] has that in spades. So it was also about Roman, and Roman’s desire or need to be seen to have control, to have power, to be able to manipulate others.”

So, were Black Mask and Mister Zsasz intentionally queer coded in Birds of Prey? Seems like the answer is no. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t headcanon your own It’s Complicated romance if you want to, you crazy Ao3 kids, you.

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