Harley Quinn image
Image: © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment, LLC. Sky Editorial Asset Centre.

Harley Quinn in film: the fall and rise

I was 12 when Miss Harleen Quinzel backflipped into my life. I was sat in English class next to a friend who was surreptitiously swiping through Pinterest on her iPad. She was scrolling through endless photos and fan art pieces of what looked like a medieval Jester. When I questioned her about it, she whispered, ‘Its the Joker’s girlfriend. But she’s like. Way better.’ Fast forward nine years, and to date I’ve done six cosplay iterations, decked my room out in as much Harley-based merch as possible (without looking like a shrine), and bored to death anyone who would stand still long enough, waxing lyrical about just how much of an incredible character she is.

Harley first appeared on screen, not in print, in Season One, Episode Twenty Two of Batman: The Animated Series, in 1992. Initially, she was just to be a walk-on role, a distraction in the course of yet another of the Joker’s dastardly plans, but ended up as a pivotal character throughout the episode. Harley was an instant hit with fans – quirky, cute and bubbly, choc-a-block with stunts and gags galore, with a thick Brooklyn accent.

This overwhelmingly positive fan reaction resulted in Harley quickly finding her way into the extended DC universe, continuing to feature in Batman: The Animated Series alongside Mark Hamill’s Joker. She later went on to become an iconic figure in many of DC’S videogames and innumerable comic books too – her New 52 solo series is well worth a read. You’ll even find some of her most iconic voice lines as trending Tiktok audios.

In the world of DC Comics, Dr Harleen Quinzel, PhD, a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, was assigned to the Joker after his capture by the Batman. Her desperation to cure him lead to a full out infatuation. Eventually, she falls madly (quite literally) in love with the Joker, as a result of his manipulation and mind-games. In an attempt to prove her love to him, Harleen breaks him out of the asylum and throws herself in a vat of acid, thus becoming Harley Quinn, his doe eye sidekick and punching bag.

Her own mental health struggles – elements very similar to BPD and Histrionic Personality Syndrome – become critical factors in her character development, with or without the abuse and possible Stockholm syndrome as a result of her ties to Mr J. In some iterations of the story The Joker really does seem to fall for Harley too, in other cases, she’s nothing but a convenience. In all iterations, however, things end up badly for Harley.

If you’ve seen Ayer’s 2016 Suicide Squad, you’ll be familiar with this origin tale. Having arranged a whole day of my surprise trip to Paris around being able to see Suicide Squad, I cannot deny that, while overall I adored the movie, there was without a doubt a few elements I couldn’t let go of. I was able to let a lot of these misgivings slide, it wasn’t until the DVD release that I began once more to notice the incredibly uncomfortable choices Ayer had made in his characterisation of Harley.

Before the DVD release, however, it was the copious amount of couples who seemingly made 31 October 2016 the day of Mr J and Harley Quinn. But from the ‘Property of The Joker’ tattoos and embellishments, to the literal dog collar with ‘Puddin” in massive golden letters around Harley’s neck, huge blaring signals towards the toxicity of Harley and Joker’s relationship were literally plastered all over her character design.

Why was it that it was that the deleted scenes of Suicide Squad were the ones which really covered the vilest parts of the Joker’s treatment of Harley?

Ayer just seemed to have managed to take every single toxic element of Joker and Harley’s ‘partnership’ (if one may call it that) and ever so slightly twisted it to become almost too comfortable to be seen on screen. Without a doubt, this glamorising of their dysfunction made ‘Jarley’ a profitable hit, not just in the shops, but all over social media too.

So why was it that this pivotal element skimmed over? Why was it that it was that the deleted scenes of Suicide Squad were the ones which really covered the vilest parts of the Joker’s treatment of Harley – torture, threats, encouraging her to take her own life among them?

Well, from one perspective, Harley literally cannot exist without the Joker. In order, therefore, for Harley to be present in the DC universe; accordingly, there needs to be an establishment of their relationship. But does this excuse the glamorisation? No. Not only is it insulting to the survivors of abuse all over the world, but the character of Harley entirely.

Robbie went out of her way on press tours to emphasise how much she hated the relationship

Even Margot Robbie went out of her way on press tours to emphasise how much she hated the relationship between the two of them, and she really didn’t mince her words – admitting that at times she felt scared onset due to Leto’s method acting techniques, and that she flat out hated Harley’s dependence on the Joker throughout Suicide Squad.

Taking matters into her own hands, she took her beloved Harley all guns blazing into Birds of Prey: or The Fabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, which she produced and partially funded. As she promised in the press tour to Goodbye Christopher Robin, “Their love story has to end in flames! It has to, it just wouldn’t be right”: Harley says goodbye to Mr J in one great big middle finger of a fireball.

Most touching of all though is the emphasis Robbie and director Cathy Yan place on her need to be loved and accepted

Hyper-sexualisation be gone, this new, free, Harley means business. She was a powerful figure in Suicide Squad, now she’s a powerhouse. Yet Margot doesn’t let her loose that childish charm we came to know and love, rather creating a figure who, while completely and utterly bonkers, is still very human. Birds of Prey Quinn is real in the ways in which she is messy. She is crass, but clever, witty, impulsive, hungry and really done with being controlled and defined by men.

Most touching of all though is the emphasis Robbie and director Cathy Yan place on her need to be loved and accepted, for who she is. A psychopathic crazy intelligent ostracised figure in a world of manipulation and masked vigilantes, accidentally building a fearless team of companions to help them in her own way. It’s impossible not to feel even a little sympathy as we watch Harley believe that Bruce, her beloved pet Hyena, has been blown to smithereens after the one person she trusted in Gotham sold her out.

With DC Fandome blessing us all with a cacophony of promising new releases, what does the future hold for Harley Quinn? Headlining the roster for James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad set for release in 2021, it doesn’t look like DC is set to be saying goodbye to her any time soon. Bedecked in her characteristic red and black, this new look for Harley reminisces her design from Injustice 2, and Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner’s New 52 solo series. Not a hint of Mr J in sight, this soft reboot has so much potential to be a real saviour for the DC Cinematic Universe, succeeding where Suicide Squad stumbled, but it all comes down to how much continuity Gunn will allow from Birds of Prey. Only time will tell if Gunn makes the right choices.

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