This week I’m taking a break from my usual discussion of fanged beasties to talk about one of my first loves: the delectable Harley Quinn.
Yes, this weekend I saw Suicide Squad, and I loved it.
Let me clarify this statement before the fan guys and gals jump on me: I felt as a piece of cinema it was sorely lacking. The plot was thin, and often nonsensical, there were far too many characters crowded into a single film, all of whom needed background exposition because—unlike Avengers Assemble—there had been no previous films for these characters. A very large chunk of the film, I’d guess the first quarter at least, was taken up introducing each character in turn.
Some of these introductions—such as Harley’s—were fabulous. Others…not so much.
But I digress. This is not a film critique. This is a fan girl gushing on her childhood (and adult, I’ll admit it) crush.
Harleen Quinzel was originally in Batman: The Animated Series, and proved so popular she went on to appear in comics, video games and now the live-action film. For those of you very familiar with the character, I’m not going to get into the whole pre-New 52/New 52 question other than to say that this is a discussion of the film, and the film have clearly based Harley’s appearance more on the New 52 look (tight sleeveless top, short and boots) than the full jester outfit she sported prior to 2011 (if you have no idea what I’m talking about don’t worry, it’s a comic book thing).
Harley is a phenomenal character in that she began life as a bit part. A sidekick to the Joker who rapidly became as popular as the Joker himself. She’s been criticised and complimented in equal measure over the years for her crazy, adorable ways and sexual/slutty behaviour. Now DC’s best-selling comic behind only the Batman himself, Harley’s done extremely well for herself despite a conspicuous lack of appearances in live action films or television.
To say I was delirious with anticipation to see Suicide Squad is an understatement, and despite my criticisms of the film itself I will undoubtedly be watching it repeatedly simply for Harley.
But just how well did they portray this much-loved character of my youth?
Despite my love of the film (faults and all) I must say I have a few gripes with the portrayal of a character I have always admired, dare I say revered, for her loony little ways. Her on-again-off-again relationship with the Joker, her free-natured approach to relationships, not to mention her flirtatious, sexy, saucy, arguable bisexual shenanigans (I refer here mainly to her relationship with Poison Ivy), and, let’s face it, those outfits.
In her original incarnation as a fun-loving black and red Jester she was adorable.
Post New 52 she’s a certifiable sex bomb.
I say that as a well-educated feminist with a great respect for women and women’s rights, don’t judge me.
But feminism is actually the name of the game here. For Harley’s appeal (for me at least) has always been her self-assured nature. As a teenager I struggled. I was bipolar, un-diagnosed, un-medicated, and extremely confused. I strongly related to the obsessive love Harley had for the Jester and simultaneously understood how she could act the way she did. She was an adorable, highly intelligent, damaged bad girl, who used her sexuality to get what she wanted, loved deeply, cared greatly, and took shit from no one.
Not even the Joker.
I related to that, I understood it, I respected it, and her popularity demonstrates that a lot of others did too. Don’t get me wrong–Harley is coo-coo through and through—but she ultimately finds redemption for her transgressions and proves that she’s not so far gone as people suspect.
With Harley, it’s difficult to tell where the crazy ends and the act begins, because she’s a character who (like the Joker) delights in performance. Perhaps her greatest performance is that of stupidity. She plays the fool, in more ways than one, and this is what makes her original Jester outfit so perfectly suited to her character. The New 53 origin for Harley Quinn (and the one used in the film) is of a Doctor of Criminal Psychology who graduated top of her class. Harley plays the fool because it gives her a release from the uptight, driven persona she had, the one that allowed her to become such a high achiever.
As a character, Harley’s fan base is huge and, like me, many of her fans are female. She’s a charismatic figure, empowering, enigmatic, she goes after what she wants and she generally gets it. Where Harley falls down is in the obsessive nature of her pursuit of what she wants which is, to most people, too much.
Again, this is why I personally love her. I totally get it. I get the obsessive, unstoppable drive to get…whatever it is your whims dictate you want at that particular moment. I don’t believe this diminishes her as a character, or as a figure for feminism, in fact in a peculiar way I have always felt it made her stronger.
Harley is damaged. Seriously damaged. Her psyche is fractured beyond the point that popular culture will normally allow in popular positive role models. Yet she pulls it off. As an advocate of mental health issues I have to applaud her for this, too, because she makes the inexplicable just a little bit more understandable. She’s also a lot more human than her counterparts—Supergirl, Wonder Woman etc.
It is the fractured nature of her mind that led to her interest in psychology and, inevitably, obsession with the Joker. Her origin story (again, the New 52 version) shows some self-awareness of the chaos of her own mind and life, in that she admits she studied psychology to help people with similar chaos to contend with. This is how she ends up at Arkham Asylum treating the Joker. The problem is, in many ways, Harley (then Harleen) is a character unsure of her identity. She’s so good at performing and playing different roles because she doesn’t truly understand who she is and, in trying to find out, she’s tried on all sorts of personalities. Something about the Joker enchanted her, to the point that she adopted an entirely new, full blown persona in the form of Harley Quinn in order to get closer to him, better understand him, and help him.
What’s important to note, however, is that (in the comics) when Harley believes the Joker to be dead, and later discovers him alive but no longer the Joker she fell in love with, her new-found persona does not disappear. Rather, we see that her other persona—Harleen Quinzel—and various other aspects she’s picked up along the way can come out. In some ways, Harley has multiple personalities, and they don’t always agree with each other. She plays the fool, but somewhere inside her is the psychologist. Being with the Joker gave her freedom to express herself as she wished, yet she was simultaneously trapped by that freedom, because the Joker abused her, used her, and never truly loved her.
Harley Quinn is who she is now, whether the joker is around or not, whether the joker is alive or dead, whether she is in love with the Joker or with someone else. And as much as she is obsessed with the Joker, she’s able to see him as he really is. She’s under no illusions. One interpretation of her is that without the Joker’s presence giving her clear instructions, she falls into disarray once more and searches for a new identity. You could argue that this is the cause of her obsessions and the manner in which she persistently latches on to things and chases them no matter what.
I don’t agree with this interpretation, I think it does a disservice to the character. For while she may have a fractured mind and warring personalities, while she may not—originally—have had a strong sense of her identity, she develops one. She grows, she learns, she experiments, she incorporates those aspects of the parts she plays into her identity and discards the rest.
Without the Joker, she is stronger. And here lies the rub…
Because the film’s interpretation of Harley is…lacking in this regard.
While the film undoubtedly captured Harley’s coo-coo personality, her free-spirited and passionate nature, I felt it dwelt entirely too much on her obsession with the Joker and utterly failed to demonstrate the strong willed woman beneath that obsession for 98% of the film. I will concede, the very end of the film redeemed it slightly for this, but by that point it had annoyed me far too much.
It seems very likely to me—especially given the ending—that we will be seeing more of Harley on the silver screen and, perhaps, that is the reason for this. Perhaps, we have only seen in Suicide Squad the very beginning of her character arc and they are purposefully portraying her in this light to demonstrate how much she grows.
I am being very kind in giving them the benefit of that doubt.
I have spent considerable time discussing Harley’s established character so I will summarise the main issues with the film, partly for reasons of space, partly to prevent too many spoilers:
Harley is, in almost every way, presented as the ‘female version’ of the Joker until very near the end of the film. This could not be further from her established character, even in her time with the Joker in the comics.
When it is evidenced that they aren’t exactly the same in the film, it is done in a very undermining way. Harley is presented as being a smitten school girl desperate for love and a ‘normal’ life, rather than a powerful, intelligent woman craving purpose and continually flaunts the confines of normal social convention in the pursuit of freedom.
At one point, Harley’s deepest desire is conjured by the Sorceress and we see that the one thing she supposed wants, more than anything else in the world, is to be a normal woman, with a normal marriage, to a normal Joker. They have the house, the kids, the works. This simply isn’t in keeping with her character at all. The reality is that the two characters differ because the Joker is entirely destructive and incapable of experiencing real love, while Harley thrives in chaotic situations that echo the chaos of her mind but is perfectly capable of drawing lines, recognising situations that have gone too far, stepping back from that edge and, most importantly, feeling real emotions. Her time with the joker numbs her to them, but they are still there, her obsessions prove this. They are an attempt to define herself and her identity, but ultimately demonstrate to her that this is something you must define for yourself, it cannot be found from an outside source. The Joker runs on hate—Harley on the other hand is extremely loyal and compassionate and not just towards the Joker.
In the film, this side of her really only comes at the end when…
*****MAJOR SPOILER WARNING*******
…she believes the Joker is dead. Freed from the hold Flag and Amanda Waller have over her, there is no reason for her to stay. But in the absence of the Joker she decides to go back and rejoin the group. From that point on we see her demonstrate compassion, loyalty, and extreme courage, yet at the same time we’re forced to stomach the ridiculous notion that all she wants is to be normal. That she wants a nice suburban life with a Joe Average version of the Joker.
Ultimately she does redeem herself and proves her loyalty to her friends is more important to her than anything else—even the possibility of resurrecting the Joker.
This, I feel, is unfortunately only a small glimmer of redemption for an otherwise disappointing portrayal.
She’s cute, she’s funny, she’s crazy as all hell, and Margot Robbie does a phenomenal job of bringing out the true character of Harley where she can, but the script just doesn’t do her justice.
And this makes me so maaaaad…