Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Is Harley Quinn a Problem?

Spoilers for "Suicide Squad" ahead.

I decided not to write a "Suicide Squad" review, because I don't have much to say about it. I was expecting it to be worse than it was, but a couple of good characters and performances kept it watchable, in spite of a rushed production and some horrific editing. However, there is one aspect that I think it's worth going into some depth on, the character of Harley Quinn.

Harley, as played by Margot Robbie, is the undisputed star of the film. She outshines everyone, including Will Smith's Deadshot and Jared Leto's Joker, Harley's boyfriend and "Pudddin." I've waited a long time to see Harley on the big screen, having loved the animated version of her from "Batman: The Animated" series. With her appearance in "Suicide Squad," she's now a hit with the mainstream, and was a popular Halloween costume last year. However, there have been some concerns raised about her portrayal, especially her relationship with the Joker, that have rung alarm bells.

In her original animated incarnation, Harley was a zany henchgirl to the Joker and their relationship wasn't explicitly romantic. It was eventually revealed that she was his former psychiatrist, seduced and twisted by the Joker into being his costumed sidekick and girlfriend. Their relationship was abusive, and the two had some spectacular breakups, but Harley always went back to the Joker eventually. She proved so popular with fans, that she was written into the DC comics continuity, and even had her own series for a few years. In the comics, she was portrayed as more violent, with mental problems of her own. Her costumes were also far more revealing, and recently she was retconned to be bisexual.

The "Suicide Squad" version of Harley tweaks parts of her character and relationship with the Joker in important ways. He's far more physically violent with her, subjecting her to electroshock therapy and a dip in a vat of chemicals in flashbacks. There's also the early scene where he uses her to pick a fight with another baddie played by Common. However, their twisted romance is also portrayed positively, as one of the central emotional lynchpins of the story. Harley and Joker's attempts to reunite are given at least as much weight as the relationship of good guys Rick Flag and June Moon, for instance. And frankly, Harley and Joker's love story isn't supposed to be played so straight.

When Harley was primarily used as comic relief, her simpering after the Joker was usually played for laughs. Joker often treated her as an annoyance, a screw-up, or simply a project that he'd lost interest in. They were bad for each other more often than not, with an incredibly contentious, dysfunctional history. In their more serious outings, Harley's attachment to the Joker was portrayed as tragic, because he didn't really care about her. Any affectionate moments between them were always either funny or ironic because we all knew they were only going to lead to further disaster.

The "Suicide Squad" version, where the Joker really does love Harley in his own, sick, special way, can be seen as romanticizing the abuse. Harley and Joker's triumphant reunion at the end of the film certainly seems to suggest that we're supposed to be happy that they're back together, and Harley's fantasies of domestic bliss seem to be serious. There's a strong argument that Harley being part of such an unhealthy relationship makes her a terrible role model for teenage girls, who she's become popular with. Similar criticisms were leveled at "Twilight" and "Fifty Shades of Grey."

Frankly, as a villain, Harley is already a pretty lousy role model all by herself. She's an anti-hero roughly analogous to Deadpool, who is really screwed up when you look at him up close. And "Suicide Squad" is so incoherent, it's hard to tell what the filmmakers actually intended for Joker and Harley. If you think of Harley as a traditional romantic heroine, than yes, the relationship is an absolute travesty. If you think of her as a comic or subversive figure, however, it gets more complicated. Harley's codependency is part of what makes her a baddie in the first place.

Personally, I enjoyed Harley Quinn in her original incarnation, a bubbly, funny henchgirl with all the best lines, who was at least as violent towards the Joker as he was with her. I thought she was a lot of fun on her own too, being an independent reprobate, or teaming up with gal-pal Poison Ivy. Also, though she's been increasingly sexualized over the years, she's retained her strong personality and remained sympathetic.

I like Margot Robbie's interpretation of her, but she doesn't act like my Harley. She could though, eventually - and that's the part that makes me want to put this analysis on hold until the inevitable "Suicide Squad" sequel. If the honeymoon with Joker is over in the next installment, and the weapons come out, it's definitely something that I want to see.


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