Heroine Fix is a monthly feature where I examine heroines who have inspired and influenced my own writing. I take a closer look at why they've become real to me, and how the characters are constructed. Warning: this post will contain spoilers, including ones for Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey.
The Batman DC Universe has been fairly well established since the Dark Knight first premiered in Detective Comics # 27 in 1939. In 1992, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm created a new character, a female counterpart to the Joker: Harley Quinn. She was cheerful, a little ditzy, and absolutely devoted to her beloved Mr. J. She was a fun villain without the intensity of Joker, making her entirely suitable for a Saturday morning cartoon.
The fans latched onto the character, making Harley Quinn into a phenomenon.
I was first introduced to the character in the 2002 TV series, Birds of Prey, where Mia Sara played Dr. Harleen Quinzel, aka Harley Quinn. (If you haven't seen the series, I highly recommend it. 13 episodes of amazing comic book stories that were unfortunately ahead of their time.) In Mia Sara's hands, the character was highly intelligent, frighteningly manipulative, and completely amoral. She didn't have the same sense of whimsy as the cartoon, but she had the same fearlessness. She was one of the first competent female villains that caught my attention. She wasn't an adjunct to a more powerful male villain, she was a complete challenge in and of herself.
However, I think Margot Robbie's portrayal of Harley Quinn in both Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn offers an interesting opportunity to show how the same character can have very different interpretations in the hands of different writers and directors.
Suicide Squad was written and directed by David Ayer. The movie has a lot of problems but a few characters shone through. I still watch it for Harley Quinn and Deadshot's stories, both of which would have made wonderful movies in and of themselves.
Ayer played up Harley's insanity and impulsivity. We were shown her backstory, how Dr. Harleen Quinzel fell in love with the Joker when she was treating him in Arkham asylum. The way the story is told makes her seem like one of his victims. It's clear that Joker is manipulating his psychiatrist, with the goal of gaining weapons and escaping. He then takes her to Ace Chemicals and tells her that she needs to prove herself to him by dying for him. He's about to walk away, leaving her to die, then changes his mind and dives into the chemicals after her.
That moment breaks Harleen, creating Harley Quinn. She no longer has any fear and now indulges in whatever impulse she wants. There's an aggressive callousness to her, which we see most clearly in the prison sequences, specifically when she is taunting the guards, both at her cell and when one slips her a phone from the Joker during transit. She mocks them, demonstrating her contempt for them. She shows a similar lack of concern for her fellow inmates, abandoning them as soon as the opportunity arises.
The turning point is when she thinks the Joker has died in a helicopter crash. She returns to the squad, but still holds herself at a remove from them. She doesn't seem to be taking what's happening seriously, breaking windows to steal designer purses and breaking into a bar for a drink. If the bad guy succeeds in destroying the city, she seems to be fine with that.
What I think defines Harley's character in this movie is when the Enchantress tempts her with her greatest dream: a happy life with the Joker, not as the King and Queen of Crime, but as a loving, connected family. It shows that for all her giddy recklessness, she's not happy with her life. To me, it casts all of her actions in a new light. She's modelling herself on what the Joker wants, in the hopes that he will eventually give her what she wants.
Her transformative moment in Suicide Squad is when it initially looks like she's going to join the Enchantress in exchange for resurrecting her Mr. J., but then attacks her, saying "you shouldn't have hurt my friends." It's the first time she's demonstrated any loyalty to the Squad, or really, to anyone except the Joker.
My favourite moment in the movie is the very end, when she's back in her cell, but seems far more content than she did at the beginning. She's reading a romance novel, Molly O'Keefe's Between the Sheets. (Molly O'Keefe had a great reaction to seeing her book in the movie, something she didn't know about in advance.) I think it's awesome that she's reading romance, particularly that book, which deals with a couple who both have trauma in their lives. Harley's relationship with Joker isn't a good one, so I thought it was optimistic that she was reading about healthier relationships which are just as intense and passionate.
The fact that Margot Robbie plays Harley in both movies, and that Birds of Prey is a sequel to Suicide Squad gives us a great opportunity to compare the two depictions of the character.
Birds of Prey was written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan (with a nod to Paul Dini and Bruce Timm as Harley's creators).
I've seen people attributing the difference between the films to the fact that Suicide Squad was written and directed by a man, and hence used a dangerous Harley who was aggressively sexual, while Birds of Prey was written and directed by women, allowing a more nuanced, carefree character. I think that may be part of it, but there's also a significant difference in the tone of the two films. Suicide Squad is dark and depressing, despite their attempts to play up the comedy. Birds of Prey was intended to be funny right from the beginning. I think it's also significant that Harley is one of only two women in the Squad, and Katana is portrayed as devoted to her dead husband, without any sexual overtones. Whether deliberate or unconscious, it set up the cliched Madonna-whore dyad between the two characters. Harley is dangerous and sexual, Katana is virtuous and chaste. Not my favourite trope, even if the film ended up being more sympathetic to Harley.
But I do absolutely love how Harley is portrayed in Birds of Prey. At the beginning of the film, she's struggling to come to terms with the fact that the Joker dumped her. There's also a surreal montage of her life before Arkham Asylum, revealing that Harleen was neglected by her parents, driving her to be a perfectionist overachiever but one with a a desperate need for affection and recognition. It explains why she would be so vulnerable to the Joker's manipulations, without making her character entirely dependent on her relationship to him.
She's hiding the fact that she and Joker have broken up, still trading on his reputation to allow her access to Gotham's nightlife and free reign to treat people however she pleases. Impulsively, she decides to blow up Acme Chemicals to prove to the world that she doesn't care about being broken up with Mr. J. and isn't getting back together with him. The act alerts the entire criminal underworld that she is now unprotected.
Insecure narcissist and organized crime boss, Roman Sionis, decides to dish out a little payback to Harley for a long list of indignities. She bargains for her life by agreeing to get a particular diamond for him, which leads to her kidnapping Cassandra Cain from the Gotham Police Department in a glitter and smoke cloud. Unlike the gritty fight scenes in Suicide Squad, this fight sequence is light-hearted but still exciting.
Harley has long, rambling stream-of-consciousness speeches which are entertaining but also show insight into her character. She's more than a little lost, searching for a sense of connection and belonging. It makes her a much more relatable character. She's not overtly sexual, but is still very carefree and not self-conscious about her body. She also demonstrates more of her intelligence, reminding the audience that she has a medical degree. She's impulsive and whimsical, but not stupid.
Harley's character arc centers around finding her community. In the initial scenes, she shares her fondness for Sal (who makes the best egg sandwiches) and Doc, her landlord and the owner of the Taiwanese restaurant under her apartment. She has a brief moment of friendship with Dinah Lance, who becomes the Black Canary, when Dinah protects a drunken Harley from being taken away by two men. But there's no real sense of connection. These encounters don't require or inspire Harley to modify her behaviour.
It's only when she takes in Cassandra that her actions begin to change. As she so eloquently puts it: "You make me want to be a less terrible person." It's the first time that someone has looked up to her and recognized her talents, rather than using or dismissing her.
Protecting Cassandra and fighting alongside the nascent Birds of Prey demonstrates that her brief flare of loyalty in Suicide Squad wasn't an anomaly. She's still nowhere near being a hero, but the character is much more sympathetic and understandable in Birds of Prey than she was in Suicide Squad. Most of the difference is conveyed in Margot Robbie's body language. By removing the aggressive sexuality from her performance in Suicide Squad, the character immediately seems more innocent and childlike. But she also has more understandable reasons for her actions and choices.
To me, the biggest difference is that in Birds of Prey, the story is centered around Harley in her own right. In Suicide Squad, she is defined by her relationship with the Joker. It motivates every choice she makes. There's something celebratory in seeing a character break free from an abusive relationship and redefine themselves in their own terms. And there's a cathartic vicarious enjoyment in a character who refuses to obey the rules of society. Harley Quinn gives us both in Birds of Prey.
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