- "Beware The Court of Owls, that watches all the time, ruling Gotham from a shadow perch, behind granite and lime. They watch you at your hearth, they watch you in your bed, speak not a whispered word of them or they'll send The Talon for your head"
- ―The Court of Owls' poem[src]
The Court of Owls is an aristocratic secret society which is centuries old with immense power and influence embedded into the very architecture and history of Gotham City. The Court of Owls was created by writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo and made its first appearance in Batman (Volume 2) #1.
The Myth of The Court of Owls is as old or possibly even older than Gotham City itself. The court splintered off from the Tribe of Judas, a cult worshipping a cosmic bat deity known as Barbatos. Certain members of the Court believed that they could call forth Barbatos by chemically altering a member of House Wayne chosen by Barbatos with five metals originating from beyond their world.
The Court ruled Gotham City from the shadows, harvesting a rare metal called Electrum from Gotham which was made from the regenerative chemical Dionesium. The Court used this chemical to engineer the Talons, a legion of superhuman assassins used to eliminate their enemies and typically groomed from a young age at facility's such as Haly's Circus. A favoured way of killing their enemies was for Talons to drag victims under the sewers of Gotham to an underground marble labyrinth which the Court had access to. Here, victims would be left the wander, be given drugged water, photographed frequently, then mercy killed by a Talon, often in extremely brutal manners suggested by members in a process similar to gladiatorial combat.
The court members dressed in white owl masks and would often hide owls in their clothing, architecture, and live owls around allies and enemies to reference their operation. The existence of the Court and their Talons has been passed down from generations in the form of an old Gotham City nursery rhyme: "Beware The Court of Owls, that watches all the time, ruling Gotham from a shadow perch, behind granite and lime. They watch you at your hearth, they watch you in your bed, speak not a whispered word of them or they'll send The Talon for your head.".
During the 19th century, the Court of Owls had some arrangement with Alan Wayne of Wayne Enterprises. Alan and his business rebuilt much of Gotham's architecture with the court having secret hideouts built across the city, often on thirteenth floors which would be unoccupied out of superstition. The Court made enemies of Alan when he learned of their greater plans and their mass influence drove him insane. In the December of 1922, Alan went running through the streets of Gotham raving like a madman before being dragged through a manhole cover, tortured in the labyrinth, and murdered by several stab wounds. The court later faked the death as having been from the fall to the sewer.
The Threat of Bruce Wayne
Sometime after Bruce Wayne's creation of Batman Incorporated, he feels its time to return to his home, Gotham City. Back home Bruce was feeling confident in his return to Gotham and decided to use his wealth and influence to revitalize the city, announcing his plans to Gotham City's elite residents. However, his big announcement party was soon interrupted when he overhears Commissioner Gordon receiving call about a police report of a mysterious murder. Interested in the case, Bruce donned the Batsuit and arrived on the scene. There he met with Harvey Bullock, where they found the body of a true "John Doe" with no identity at all, the body is crucified with multiple antique throwing knives, all of them marked with the image of an owl. Bullock wondered if the symbol on the knives had anything to do with the old nursery rhyme about The Court of Owls. Batman, on the other hand, was preoccupied with searching for clues, eventually finding skin under the victim's fingernails. Batman quickly sent the skin cells to Alfred Pennyworth, who is back at the Batcave, for DNA recognition. While waiting for the results, Batman finds a secret message on the wall near the body proclaiming "Bruce Wayne will Die Tomorrow." Shortly after finding the message, Batman received word from Alfred that he had found the DNA test results to be startling, as the DNA of the potential killer was a perfect match with one of Batman's closest allies, Dick Grayson.
Attack of The Talon
Bruce dismissed the possibility that the fabled Court of Owls exists, not thinking them much of the threat. He refused to entertain the notion that there was some ancient organization pulling the strings of Gotham, as he believed no one knows the city better than he does. However, during a meeting with Gotham mayoral candidate Lincoln March, he was warned by Lincoln that an ancient evil has come back to Gotham, awakened by the ambitious new plans for the city that Bruce had been promoting. Almost immediately, Talon burst from an elevator, leaving two deceased security guards in his wake. After plunging a knife in Lincoln's chest, the Talon attacked Bruce. The Talon managed to stab Bruce multiple times, and despite eventually getting his arm around Talon's neck, Bruce was unable to choke the assassin out, despite applying more than enough force. Bruce was stunned from the thought that the Talon would not go down, even after he applied more than ten times the force required to crush a human windpipe. Talon threw Bruce out the window of Old Wayne Tower, and jumped after him, claiming that he "loves killing Waynes". Bruce managed to catch a gargoyle on his way down, shaking off the Talon who hit the street below. EMT's picked up the seemingly dead body, but a short time later, the Talon's body came back to life, killing the people disposing of him into a morgue and further reinforcing the notion that the Talon is immortal.
Later, as Batman, Bruce sought answers as to how the Talon found his way into Old Wayne Tower. Accosting a group of Ukrainian criminals called the "Whisper Gang" in the subway, he beat them all up and demanded to know how the Talon entered the Tower, as the section of the rail lines that they controlled was the only possible secret route into the building. After an altercation with half a dozen other members, The Whisper Gang member remaining in Batman's presence could not give Bruce any answer as to how anyone could have entered the tower. After narrowly escaping from a trap in one of the Court's ancient bases, Bruce exhumed the body of his ancestor Alan Wayne. Alan was deathly afraid of owls in the last years of his life, many people considered him paranoid. He was suspected to have been killed by the Court of Owls as he had ranted about owls hunting him in the days leading up to his death. However, no one believed him at the time, dismissing his fears as the effects of senility. As Batman, he enters the sewer system to investigate the spot where Alan's body was found, and while his back was turned the Talon suddenly appeared and pounced.
Enter The Labyrinth
The Talon held Bruce captive in a giant maze constructed by the Court for over a week, during which time Bruce had no food but only a constant supply of drugged water from a fountain, which caused him to have vivid, disturbing hallucinations. He desperately tried to find a way out of the maze while the Talon watched him from the shadows. Upon finding a weak tile on the floor, he ripped it out and entered a room filled with pictures of Batman. He screams "I'm not listening! I'm not listening to you!" while the Talon slowly walked up to him and impaled him from behind with a sword. While the battered and bleeding Bruce crawled across the floor of the labyrinth, the Talon looked up to the Court and asks them how they wished to see Batman die. The youngest member tells Talon "Hurt him......more", so the assassin proceeded to thrash Bruce, finally kicking him through a wall and leaving him for the Court to tear apart.
Weakened and close to succumbing, Bruce contemplated surrendering to his fate and meeting his end at the hands of the Court. Then he spotted a broken portrait of his ancestor Alan Wayne. The terror in Alan's expression fills Bruce with a potent burst of rage and anger, and he leaped back on his feet. The Talon was amused by his defiance and walked up to end him, but Bruce charged at him and violently beat him around the labyrinth. After beating him unconscious, Bruce used the potassium chlorate in a nearby camera to trigger an explosion that dropped him into the river as an escape route. The members of the Court walk up to the Talon's unconscious form and one of their leaders (an elderly woman) decided to have him disposed of since it's unlikely he would recover psychologically from the beating he received at Batman's hands. She then turned to the room filled with caskets, all filled with Talons, and gives the order to wake them all up for the war against Batman.
Night of the Owls
During the Joker's attempt to break-up his relationship with Batman, he released a Dionesium based virus on Gotham and planted a series of photographs which implied him to be an immortal figure throughout Gotham City's history. After of Dionesium and Joker's alleged ties to Gotham History from the virus' engineer Dr. Paul Dekker, Batman snuck into the court's labyrinth to seek information from them.
During this time, the Court was planning a larger project and explained they used to mine Dionesium but that the Joker's was purer. When Batman inferred that they should fight Joker, the court explained that Gotham was bigger than any of them and that Joker destroying the city would not truly hurt them as it only killed the general public and not the court. Batman then dismissed the court leaders and sought after their Talon, Uriah Boone, to interrogate over Joker's origins.
- The Judge of the Owls:
- Joseph Powers: The owner of the Powers Hotel. He presumably had ties to Powers Tech before dying on the Night of the Owls.
- Maria Powers: The wife of Joseph Powers.
- John Wycliffe: A Grandmaster of the Court of Owls.
- Lincoln March (formerly): An orphan from the Willowood Orphanage who was manipulated by the Court from a young-age into becoming a political pawn for the court. Fuelled by his belief that he was the long-lost son of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Lincoln went rogue to become Owl-Man. Following him manipulating Cluemaster to try and ruin Batman, the Court had Lincoln cryogenically frozen.
- Sebastian Clark (formerly): Former grandmaster of the Court of Owls who was succeeded by John Wycliffe.
In Other Media
- Batman vs. Robin: In the animated film, the Court is a major antagonist and lead by Bruce Wayne's lover Samantha Vanaver. In the film they attempt to manipulate Damian Wayne into becoming a Talon before ultimately being defeated by the Bat-Family.
- Gotham: The Court of Owls appear as the great scope villains of Gotham; appearing as an unseen force alluded to in the first season, before making their debut near the end of the second season in which they are revealed to be the benefactors of Hugo Strange's monstrous experiments under Arkham Asylum, as he is looking for a way to create immortality. They return as one of the main antagonists in the third season in which they are led by Sensei and plot to destroy Gotham City with a weaponized virus so they can rebuild it back up once again. The Sensei is in fact working for Ra's al Ghul and his group known as the League of Assassins, and once the Court of Owls' use has been fulfilled Sensei has all members killed by his loyal assassins The Talons. The Court of Owls, along with Hugo Strange, were the masterminds behind the assassination of Bruce Wayne's parents Thomas and Martha, as Thomas attempted to stop Hugo Strange from carrying out his experiments on people.
- Harley Quinn: The Court is briefly referenced in the episode "So you need a crew", a headline stating "Court of Owls: Secret Society or Underground Sex Club?". This is also a reference to the film Eyes Wide Shut, which features a similar cult to the Court.
- Batman: Arkham Origins: The Court makes two cameos in the video game Arkham Origins. One is in an opened book where their poem is written out for the player to see. The other cameo comes in the form of statues resembling Talons being seen atop a Gotham building.
- Gotham Knights: See: Court of Owls (Gotham Knights).
- Even though The Court of Owls made their first appearance in Batman (Volume 2), creator and writer Scott Snyder actually planted hints and easter eggs of their existence in his Detective Comics run during his story arc "The Black Mirror" and his mini-series Batman: Gates of Gotham.
- A notable incident of J.J. Gordon's childhood which moulded him towards becoming a serial-killer was his killing and mutilating of a family of owls, possibly implying the court to be connected towards the boy's madness.
- 19th century Kane family member Cameron Kane had a cane with an owl shaped handle, implying him as a potential member of the Court.
- In an interview, Scott Snyder stated that one of his inspirations for the "owl" motif is the Silver Age character, Owlman, an alternate evil version of Batman who comes from Earth-3.
- When Batman was in the Court's labyrinth, he saw various members who had horrific owl-like features leading some to believe that the Court has superhuman members. While possible, it is more likely that these members were hallucinated by Bruce as he saw them while losing his grip on reality from his imprisonment in the labyrinth.