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An Ode to Harley Quinn

 

Harley Quinn by Bruce Timm

“There’s one thing I gotta know: why’d you stay with me all day, risking your butt for someone who’s never given ya anything but trouble?”

“I know what it’s like to try and rebuild a life. I had a bad day too, once.”

-Harley Quinn and Batman, “Harley’s Holiday” Batman: the Animated Series

Disappointment is a part of life. It’s an ugly part, but a part nonetheless. In that respect, I suppose I should just accept the fact that Dr. Harleen Quinzel finally premiered on the silver screen in Suicide Squad and unfortunately wasn’t what I always dreamt she would be. I’m sure there are arguments that they were adapting the more recent comic book version of her rather than where she came from originally in the animated series, but you have to understand that Harley’s been in my Top 10 Favorite Female Characters list since I was a kid, and for her to be anything less than her zany, colorful, tragic self is like getting emotionally knee-capped.

In my full review of Suicide Squad, I broke down why I consider that version of Harley to be a failure, but that’s also the hyper-angry fangirl who just came out of a premiere. I’ve had some time (and coffee) to think about why I’m so disheartened by DC’s choice to portray her that way. I think it’s because it continues with the pessimistic misunderstanding of the comic book characters by the directors/writers/producers DC has chosen to start off the DC Expanded Universe as we progress towards the Justice League movie and then branch out to solo films.

Harley Quinn made her debut in episode 22 “Joker’s Favor.” She became quite a character in and of herself playing off of the Joker, who was pretty damn hilarious in his own right, but the fact of the matter is that he’s a serial killer and it can plunge the show into some truly dark material when he’s the main focus of an episode, and Harley manages to lift the veil somewhat with comic relief. As the show progressed, the writers realized that she had a ton of potential to be more than a quippy sidekick–much like how Shego from Kim Possible gained tons of attention when Nicole Sullivan made her such an enjoyable Deadpan Snarker that they expanded her role. The fact that the Joker is so evil and so crazy that he could turn a smart, young, ambitious psychiatrist just as crazy as him enhanced not only his character, but it allowed the show the opportunity to explore a truly damaged woman in the quintessential toxic relationship. The show makes it quite clear that Joker is only faking his attachment to her, playing her like a fiddle whenever he gets the chance. To be fair, he knows she’s actually quite useful and she can hold her own against some nasty adversaries (my personal favorite being her fight with Lex Luthor’s bodyguard Mercy in “The World’s Finest”), but most of the time he just enjoys stringing her along for his own sick amusement. Poor Harley seems to always come back from more even after he rejects her or lets her get caught while he escapes.

The fullest extent that her character has been explored in the show was definitely when we learn her origin story in “Mad Love.” After a flashback that shows how it all started–with her trying to treat him in Arkham Asylum and he manipulates her into falling in love with him–Harley decides that in order to get her happily ever after, she has to take care of Batman for her Puddin’ instead of waiting around for it to happen. She takes one of his schemes and applies it with a little twist, and the most interesting part of all is that it actually works. Batman ends up captured and facing certain death, and the only way he manages to save himself is to convince Harley to call the Joker to prove she caught Batman. The Joker goes apeshit when he learns she tried to kill Batman herself, and he thinks she did it the “wrong” way, and poor Harley gets tossed out of a window for her trouble. She almost sees the light, but unfortunately, the Joker butters her up and she falls for him all over again.

What really struck me about “Mad Love” is the complexity we see in the scene between Batman and Harley after she’s caught him. She is a surprisingly capable little actress, which is why Batman fell for the trap, and I think that’s why he tries to talk to her. The conversation they have about the Joker using her is actually kind of heartbreaking, especially when you consider very few of Batman’s villains will hold a full conversation with him. Batman genuinely cares that the Joker is using her and that she’s thrown away her life chasing after him, as he reveals the fake backstory the Joker used to seduce Harley into thinking he was just a victim of an abusive home life who just wants the world to laugh at his antics. ┬áBatman didn’t have to do that. He could have tried another way to get himself out of the trap, but he really did try to get through to her, and that says a lot about her potential. He even rubs it in the Joker’s face later, saying she came closer to killing him than the Joker ever did, and I think that also says a lot about what he thinks of her.

Another truly fantastic episode is my personal favorite, “Harley’s Holiday.” In this episode, Harley finishes her rehabilitation at Arkham Asylum and is declared sane and gets released. She goes to buy a dress, but doesn’t notice the security tag is still on it, so when she tries to leave, the alarm goes off and a security guard tries to get the dress back to remove the tag. Poor Harley gets spooked since it’s her first day out and overreacts, running away and inadvertently kidnapping Veronica Vreeland and leading Batman and the cops and a mobster on a crazy chase. In the end, Batman catches up with her and they have another conversation where he tries to convince her to turn herself in before the misunderstanding gets overblown. The whole thing is sealed with a truly sweet moment where after he brings her back to Arkham, Batman gives her back the dress she bought, and that’s the quote that you see at the top of this blog post.

Plus, she rewards him with a kiss and it’s possibly one of the funniest moments in the show’s entire run.

My point is that Harley’s entire character arc and intention is based around the fact that she’s both light and dark. She’s insane, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t capable of still being a person, of still being human, and honestly one thing I’ve always wondered is if you can consider her to be evil or not. Are her actions solely dictated because she’s got a screw loose? Is she still in control of what she does in relation to the Joker after he broke her mind? Is she a victim, or did we cross over into free will after a certain point down the line? Where does the real Harley end and the Harley that the Joker made begin?

The reason I dislike the Suicide Squad Harley so much is that they took away the most vital part of her by making the Jared Leto Joker in love with her, going through great lengths to get her back, and his entire character shows no signs of interest in anything else aside from just having his girl by his side. That robs her of so much weight. If the Joker really did love her, then there’s no longer a struggle for her to be put through like there is in the original cartoon. She actually spends time away from him, like in the above episode, or in “Harley and Ivy” when she becomes best friends with Poison Ivy and they go on a Thelma and Louise style crime spree without him. Ivy even encourages her to forget the creep, and unfortunately she still can’t resist him and he screws her over like always. Harley is dangerously codependent, and she’s supposed to be this way as an example for a lot of unfortunate women who stay attached to a total abusive creep. It’s something that kids would have needed to learn about back then, and that’s always something the animated series excelled at: teaching kids life lessons and exposing them to issues that would become important when they got older. Hell, the reason I’ve got the Bat-symbol tattooed on my shoulder is because of this show. It never talked down to me. It took my mind seriously and gave me a phenomenal show with memorable characters like Harley and it broke it down into terms I could understand when discussing big issues.

Suicide Squad Harley doesn’t have that. They stripped her of that weight and importance the same way they stripped her out of the outfit we loved so much and replaced it with booty shorts and stilettos. Placing the emphasis on her being in love with Jared-Joker and him appearing to love her back is just a complete misunderstanding of their entire dynamic and why it’s stuck with fans of the original iterations. It’s also poisonous to those who are easily led, because in my opinion, the film actually doesn’t even make it seem like their “love affair” is all that bad. He tortured her and made her throw herself into the vat of chemicals that turned him into what he was, and yet the film places so much attention on their union that it doesn’t even seem to understand how unhealthy it is. Sure, the average person has enough sense to know that they’re both crazy criminals who should not ever be seen in a positive light, but it still doesn’t sit right with me. Especially when you consider how hard the film focuses on Harley’s sexuality instead of anything else that she can do aside from hit people with a baseball bat.

(Keep in mind, I’m not saying Harley’s not sexy in her original form. I mean, come on. Remember the pie scene?

(Of course you do. Everyone remembers the pie scene.)

But Harley is more than that, and it bothers me to know that millions of people who aren’t hardcore comic book fans will think this is all she has to offer as a character when the original has so much more to her than that. My hope is that the Average Joe will go home and Google her and find out that she IS more than that, and they’ll appreciate it even if they enjoyed the Suicide Squad version of her too. I’m of course not saying there’s anything wrong with people enjoying that version of the character. To each his own. But I do think they took the easy way out and as someone who’s really enjoyed Harley’s romps over the years, I think she deserves better.

Here’s to you, Harl.