Harley Quinn Fever

Thanks to HBO Max, my wife and I have now watched Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and the Harley Quinn animated series. We loved them both.

My wife prefers Margot Robbie’s depiction, and Robbie is certainly doing a fantastic job, really raising the profile of the character in the public consciousness and providing a fun, whimsical, zany take. She was fun in Suicide Squad, but that movie had plenty of baggage. Birds of Prey is starring, written, and directed by women and presents its female antiheroes as flawed, bizarre, unusual birds of a feather, portrayed as complex and whole people, with a general avoidance of the male gaze. Quinn is coming off a breakup with the Joker, bouncing back from heartbreak, moving on from a life in the supervillain’s shadow, and finding both freedom and danger now that she is out of the Clown Prince of Crime’s bubble. She quickly becomes wrapped up in the lives of three other women and a young girl who are all caught up in taking down the criminal organization of the chillingly psychopathic Black Mask. The narrative chronology is a little more twisted up than it needs to be, but filtered through the unreliable narration of Harley Quinn, the film’s a blast. While the Joker is a driving force behind who Harley Quinn is at the start of the film, he’s entirely absent. This is largely to the film’s benefit, as it can then be about Harley and her new “friends,” but it is a curious choice, given that the film presents itself as a continuation of the same character from Suicide Squad. Sure, the Joker’s not good for Harley, and he was just as monstrous to Dr. Quinzel as any other version of the character, but the two seemed closely bonded and reciprocally loyal. What changed between them?

I really enjoyed Birds of Prey, but I actually favor Harley Quinn. This show provides Harley, voiced here by Kaley Cuoco, a little more autonomy from the get-go, as it is she who breaks up with the abusive Joker. He puts quite a lot of effort into getting her back at first, and then trying to kill her, and then trying to use her, but thanks to her close friendship with Poison Ivy, she is able to persevere and move on, forming her own criminal crew first to get back at Joker and later to do her own thing. Cuoco endows the character with considerable up-beat manic energy, sometimes disrupted by a depressive low (often when finally taking a moment to contemplate how her actions have hurt someone else, or how the Joker or her parents have traumatized her in some way), and sometimes masked in her conversation with Joker in cutesy line delivery straight out of Batman: The Animated Series. One of the things I’ve enjoyed in the series is how it draws on a variety of past representations of characters to distill something new, like the elements of Quinn drawn from that older series, among other comic and film interpretations. Other great examples: Bane is basically a parody of his The Dark Knight Rises version (with some DCAU influence mixed in), Lex Luthor feels straight out of the DCAU, Joker’s appearance changes over the show’s timeline to mirror different versions of the character, Kite Man has his “Hell yeah” catchphrase from his more recent comics incarnation, and Mr. Freeze is given an arc that at first appears to subvert his tragic story from the DCAU only to ultimately play it straight. Some versions of characters are just wacky and new: Commissioner Gordon is a shadow of his former self, lonely and rambling, teetering on the edge of insanity; the Penguin is a hardened criminal mastermind but also something of a family man; the Riddler is a little unhinged, a little weird, quite the survivor, and eventually really buff. The mixing of backgrounds and characterizations, and references to deep cuts from the comics and shows, quickly establishes a rich and varied timeline, of which we’ve only seen bits and pieces. It makes Harley Quinn and her gang feel like just a small (though significant) part of a much bigger world, benefiting from the depth of accumulated storytelling to quickly achieve a sense of a lived-in setting in a way that Justice League Unlimited and Young Justice also used to great effect. And I especially like that under all the layers of comics lore, the show is still fundamentally about a woman figuring out who she really is as she sets out in a newly independent life and tries to set aside the traumas of her past. There are only two seasons so far, but I sure hope we get more of the show.

Both of these versions of Harley Quinn are very good. The former is a good movie and the latter is a good show. I recommend them both. You can easily watch them both on HBO Max now. (Blessedly, Warner Media is moving away from the DC Universe / HBO Max divide. For all the evils of these mega corporations, the least they could do is provide all their television and movie offerings on a single streaming service.)

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