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.)

Review: Titans

I really liked Titans. It’s got a great cast, coherent arcs for most of the characters, a brutally violent and dark world with a surprisingly emotional heart, and a good deal of the relationship dynamics that I’ve always enjoyed in young superhero team-ups without the degree of camp found in the Arrowverse collection of shows (the omnipresent Greg Berlanti is an executive producer for the various shows falling under the Arrowverse, as well as for Titans).

The core composition of the Titans in this incarnation ultimately consists of Dick Grayson’s Robin (played by Brenton Thwaites), Raven (Teagan Croft), Starfire (Anna Diop), and Beast Boy (Ryan Potter)–though all but Dick, who is haunted by his history as the Dark Knight’s sidekick, are basically only known by their civilian names, with but brief allusions to their eventual aliases. These four are occasionally joined by Hawk and Dove (Alan Ritchson and Minka Kelly), Wonder Girl (Conor Leslie), and Robin 2.0, Jason Todd (Curran Walters). I loved basically every character and thought that each actor did an impressive job with what they were given.

Each version of Dick Grayson is my favorite until the next version I encounter, so Thwaites’s turn as the character is currently at the top of my list of incarnations, but he might actually stay there. Dick’s so haunted by his past, by what he did as Robin, by how his gradual turn to greater violence tarnished what his alias was supposed to stand for. So much of his time is spent hating what Batman did to him, but in the end, I was left with the impression that, for all Batman’s faults, no one was more to blame for what Robin became than Dick himself. Midway through the show, Dick finally makes the decision to fully reject his former identity, setting the stage for an eventual Nightwing getup in a future season, I imagine.

Raven, here just preteen Rachel Roth, actually kicks the narrative off. Rachel runs away from home after someone kills her apparent mother and attempts to abduct her; in so doing, she flexes her buried dark powers. Rachel finds herself hunted by two factions: those who wish to destroy her, and those who wish to use her to release her demonic, inter-dimensional father. To the show’s credit, the loyalties of those pursuing her were often mysterious, leading to some fun surprises without ever leaving me with the feeling that the narrative unfairly withheld information. Rachel is the gravitational force in the narrative that pulls the other heroes together. She is understandably angsty, fearing the darkness inside her and obviously traumatized by the events that start off the season. She first goes to Dick because of a recurrent vision, and she quickly depends on him, seeing in him a sort of mentor similarly dealing with a dark internal impulse, even though Dick wants nothing more than to walk away. (The relationship reminded me in many ways of that between Wolverine and Rogue in 2000’s X-Men film adaptation.)

Anna Diop plays an amnesiac Starfire, operating under the human name of Korey Anders. She comes to after an apparently violent car chase, under fire from gunmen, with a few obscure clues to her background. For most of the season, she does not know her mission or her true identity as an extraterrestrial, but she is able to quickly discover that her purpose had something to do with tracking Raven down. Korey is a fun counterpart to Dick; both are incredibly driven, clever detectives, and absolutely brutal fighters, but Dick is typically dour while Korey seems to mostly be having a blast. She has fun when she fights, coming across as cheerily psychotic. She also kills–a lot. That’s a little unsettling at first, until it sort of becomes a joke. Dick has Batman’s code and practically begs Korey to restrain herself, most of the time. She’s not the naive, fish-out-of-water character I’m used to, but there’s some shared DNA with past versions, scrambled to fit the darker, more “mature” tone of Titans.

Beast Boy–Garfield Logan–is the most tangentially connected to the characters, but he provides a lot of the soul. He’s sweet and funny and caring, and while he has a traumatic past as well, he’s had years of quiet existence with a family of sorts (the introduction of the Doom Patrol was as clear a backdoor pilot as I’ve ever seen, so it’s no surprise that they’re getting their own spin-off series). He also has an unsettling arc in which he channels the more lethal elements of his shape-shifting powers, though his natural lightness and cheer mostly allow him to cope. Mostly.

Hawk and Dove have an interesting interconnected past with Robin, and a later episode more fully fleshes out their backgrounds. I’ve never really cared for Hawk and Dove, nor have I given the characters much of a chance, but I liked them here. They’re rough-and-tumble street-level vigilantes who are, somewhat ironically, perhaps the most connected to the larger universe of superheroes outside of Robin and Wonder Girl. Wonder Girl is retired, now a photojournalist who improves the world through activism and investigative reporting; as Donna Troy, she’s an important mentor figure to Dick, and she proves to be a valuable ally toward the end (she also makes clear that the Justice League exists–or existed–in this universe).

Finally, Jason Todd is…incredible. He’s a shitty little punk always itching for a fight. He’s not nearly as clever or educated as Dick, he doesn’t have the natural athleticism and acrobatic ability of the former aerialist, and he looks like he’s a week overdue for a bath. But he’s scrappy and can pack a punch. Recruited by Batman after attempting to steal the tires off the Batmobile, he’s having the time of his life. He loves what Batman’s given him, and he’s initially awed to meet the original Robin, but his hero-worship ends quickly enough. He’s quite willing to break the rules, drinking underage and getting in bar fights and beating up cops for fun and petty revenge. He’s a total asshole, and I love him. I now fully understand Tumblr-culture’s “trash son” meme. He’s my trash son. Jason Todd is just having the fucking time of his life, and he’s loving every minute of it.

On Jason Todd, executive producer Greg Walker said in an IGN interview:

What I really love about [Jason] as a character is the unbridled sense of self that he has–there’s a lack of . . . maybe self-awareness, but for sure self-consciousness in terms of how he comports himself and how he moves through the world . . . . He’s completely seemingly unaffected by darkness – he kind of embraces it or walks right through it. He’s a breath of fresh air and that’s what I love about him, he’s got a punk rock, no-holds-barred attitude that’s massively unburdened. There’s a lot of energy that comes with that.

To that I say: yes. Exactly. All that. 100%. I love Jason Todd. This is a remarkable turnaround for me; prior to this, I mostly knew him as the Robin who was killed, or peripherally, as the Red Hood. He was uninteresting or a non-presence to me. And now, he’s just the coolest. “I kick ass with Batman and I fucking love it.” Yes you do, Jason Todd, and good for you.

jason todd.png

Ahem. My point is, the characters are well-acted and well-written, and you’ll probably fall in love with at least one of them–especially if you can give the show room to do its own thing, rather than merely adapting comics arcs or characterizations previously established in the Teen Titans or Young Justice cartoons.

There are villains, too, but the show so far is really more about the heroes. The villains are obstacles, not so much compelling on their own. Even the updated Nuclear Family (in this version, brainwashed assassins) still takes a backseat to the heroes. I hope future seasons introduce more interesting antagonists to the heroes, but I’m glad that this origin story gives the audience plenty of time to get to know the new versions of these heroic characters.

The show is rather violent and bloody. I wouldn’t mind that toned down a little bit. There’s a scene in the first episode, after a woman is shot, where the camera lingers on her bullet-hollowed forehead as it bleeds on the floor, and I was annoyed by the fixation, the silent declaration that this is the MATURE version of the Titans. But a lot of the violence just drives home how brutal the vigilante lifestyle really is, the lengths a hero must go to. I think this is clearest in Hawk’s backstory: there’s something a little broken about these characters, some hurt that they channel into violence against others. If they didn’t act from a cause, from some belief in upholding justice, they’d probably all turn to petty crime or militarism. That said, I cannot emphasize enough that there’s some humor and a lot of heart to the show. It’s a story about found family and emotional healing. It still feels like a Berlanti production about young-adult superheroes.

Executive producer Akiva Goldman told Deadline Hollywood, “We wanted to arrive at a tone that wasn’t as welcoming as some of the DC shows have been, nor as nihilistic as some of the films have been.” I think that they more or less hit that balance. It’s not as grim-dark as the worst excesses of the DCEU, but it’s not a campy teen soap opera like the Arrowverse shows. Without getting into spoilers, I will say that the show wavers toward grim-dark in the season finale. While I’m sure we’ll see a quick reversal of fortune in the next season, it nonetheless felt like a tonal shift with an unnecessary cliffhanger, leaving the central narrative of the entire season unresolved. Cliffhangers are fine, but it would have been nice to see this first act actually reach a conclusion. If nothing else, the finale highlights what a careful balancing act the intended tone of this show can be.

Overall, though, this was consistently enjoyable to watch. If you skipped over this first season, give DC Universe a trial run. Titans is easy–and fun–to binge.

DC Universe, Take Two

It’s stupidly quick how soon I have another take on DC Universe. I don’t want to keep talking about it, and this blog will never, ever be comics-focused, but I do feel that I have to update my initial impression.

That’s because I actually downloaded the Android app on my tablet today. DC Universe would appear to be developed around the app first; the website version simply feels inferior. Searching, browsing, and interacting with comics was easier. The searching actually worked better! It felt more intuitive when following characters or series down rabbit holes into new discoveries. Some comics were suggested that I simply did not find through the website.

And My DC actually works now, tracking what I read and watched (even historic stuff). Downloading comics was painless, and it was easy to delete them when done to free up space (while still preserving them in my reading history). I had no issues with reader stability, and the panel view and autoplay feature enabled me to read a comic issue while at the gym, even.

Maybe there’s been an update since my first impressions? But I’d still emphasize that using the app really shows the value of DC Universe and makes its digital comics reading experience a rewarding one.

DC Universe: Week One

My very DC weekend led me to trial the DC Universe app for some very DC week nights. Over the week, I’ve read some comics and watched plenty of Titans episodes. I’m just wrapping up Titans, and I’ve greatly enjoyed it. I’ll get to a full review of the season after I’ve, well, watched it in full. But with only an episode left, I can strongly recommend the show. And if you’re in the US, then I’d definitely recommend the one-week free trial of DC Universe to binge the eleven episodes of the first season.

But while I think I’ll continue with a paid subscription, at least for the first full month, I’m not sure that I can recommend the app–yet.

For starters, there are a lot of digitized comics available, but it doesn’t have nearly the back catalog of Marvel Unlimited, which obviously represents the preexisting competition from DC’s biggest comics rival. DC Universe is supposed to offer a “curated” selection, but it seems haphazard. Sure, it was “curated” in that the film and TV properties being marketed right now had plenty of associated comics to read through. But it still seems poorly thought out. Just in example, much, though not all, of the Rebirth arc is available through the app. The omissions are annoying when the digital comics even include a checklist of series in the arc (just a scan of the checklist, not something you can actually interact with in the app). Heck, the flagship DC Universe: Rebirth references comics issues from separate lines that you should read before starting it, but the app doesn’t have them. It begins to feel like DC is charging you a subscription to pay for the privilege of ads and teasers.

The app’s comics reader seems to ape what other digital comics readers do. You can read page to page or in a more dynamic panel-based mode. You can skip around in the comic via a page browser option. I haven’t played with the options very much. I found that reading issues would occasionally be interrupted by some sort of refresh that would kick me out of full-screen and panel-based modes and that would push me back a few panels or pages. It’s not an optimized tool yet, but it works.

The television shows and films are where I found the most appeal. There’s a rich collection of television shows, animated movies, and older live-action films. The original content already promises a lot of excitement, even if still small in scope: Titans is excellent, and I’m eager to resume Young Justice following its continuation exclusively on DC Universe. The app is especially inviting for any animation fans; old Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, most of the DCAU series, the old Teen Titans cartoon, and even Super Friends mingle with other series.

Still, it seems a missed opportunity that most of the Arrowverse shows (except Constantine, if that counts) and none of the DCEU films are on the app. But there’s still enough, for now, to make a subscriber’s time worthwhile.

The app itself is not especially user-friendly. I can give content a thumbs-up, but not a thumbs-down. There doesn’t seem to be much built in to make recommendations based on what you’re reading. I can’t even tell if it’s tracking what I’m reading and watching–and if it is, it would seem to be exclusively to the benefit of DC and Warner Bros. You can create public or private lists of things to watch and read. To view your lists, you have to click first on your profile, then on “My DC,” and then choose the “Lists” tab–but that feels like what you should see on a home screen. There are also tabs for Videos and Comics, but it only seems to show me whatever I might currently be watching. Once I’ve completed a comic or show, it disappears into the ether. Curiously, that means that “my” videos and comics might only show things I abandoned for lack of interest; my Comics tab annoyingly announces, “You haven’t read any comics yet.” Search functionality could be improved–and it would be nice if it didn’t always dump me into the middle of the results (especially since they appear to be sorted by relevance). The app isn’t available for any consoles, which are what I’ve historically relied on for home entertainment.

There’s an online encyclopedia of characters, which seems cool, but not worth paying for, especially in the age of ever-more-granular wiki sites. (Actually, I think the encyclopedia might be a free feature.) And there’s a store with tchotchkes for discounted prices, or something–I don’t have much interest in collectible baubles, so that element has no appeal for me.

Most of these things are open to improvement. More comics, shows, and movies can be added–will be added. I’m sure we’ll continue to see more original content (like Titans season two and Doom Patrol). I read a support page that suggested that DC Universe might soon be made available on more devices. I imagine that there will be user interface improvements over time that should address my gripes. Still, for now, DC Universe feels incomplete, a work-in-progress. It’s as though continuing my subscription at the start of next week is really a way of paying to beta test a service. That’s disappointing for a service that launched in Q3 2018, but in the big scheme of things, that’s still very early going. For what I get in return, for now, I still think it’s worth it for me. But I don’t think I’d pitch it to anyone else. Not yet! But hopefully soon.