I’ve come to the conclusion that, as far as I am concerned, the best version of Harley Quinn is from the movie Assault on Arkham.
I’m kind of picky about my Harleys. For instance, I’m not really a fan of the Harley-leaves-the-Joker-and-becomes-a-wacky-Deadpool-like-antihero way the character is often handled now, because I feel like her massively screwed-up personality and warped mind are on display with Mista J. It allows her to be bad and corrupted, but also kind of pitiable and sad. Turning her into a copy of Deadpool takes away what made her interesting in the first place.
Then there was that dreadful Batman and Harley Quinn movie, which tried to pad itself out with diarrhea gags, musical numbers, and R-rated humor that felt like it was written by a fourteen-year-old boy. But the worst part was how it moralistically wagged its finger at the audience for objectifying Harley Quinn… while it blatantly objectified Harley Quinn.
Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay? So-so movie, and Harley is suitably flaky and intentionally annoying, but I felt like it didn’t really reflect her nastier, weirder side. She seemed to be all kookiness.
Suicide Squad? Do not want. Birds of Prey? No thank you! The Suicide Squad? Reserving judgement, but James Gunn gives me hope that things will turn out for the best. Or at least entertaining.
I do think she was handled interestingly in Batman: The Brave and the Bold, where she had a flapper aesthetic without losing her edge. And of course, I loved her role in Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, where she annoys the hell out of Shredder, demands her doctorate be respected, mutates into a hyena, makes out with the Joker in a way that is both “weird and gross,” and is a huge pain for the heroes in the second-act climactic battle.
And of course, there’s the original Batman: The Animated Series, where the character came from – and which is still one of the best depictions of the character. For one thing, there was a whole arc in her interactions with Batman, growing from just being a henchwoman who obviously tries to kill the Dark Knight to kind of having a crush on him. At the same time, you see Batman’s opinion of her evolve, and he develops sympathy and even pity for her. It was a kids’ show so it was restricted in the way it could depict Harley, but they did get away with a lot, including showing an abusive Harley/Joker relationship that, scarily, is more adult and realistic than the one depicted in Suicide Squad.
Which brings me to Assault on Arkham, which is basically the movie that Suicide Squad was trying to be, but failed to be because David Ayer was also trying to make a darker, grittier version of Guardians of the Galaxy. The story is quite simple: the Suicide Squad is assembled by Amanda Waller, who wants them to break into Arkham Asylum (it seems to be harder to break in than out!) to recover something from the Riddler. Also, Batman is running around the place freaking out because the Joker has a dirty bomb hidden somewhere in Gotham.
If you were one of the many people disappointed by Suicide Squad, then Assault on Arkham might make you happy, because it does everything right that Suicide Squad did wrong. The biggest difference is that Ayer tried to make the bad guys in his movie ultimately heroic, and pushes the importance of working together and friendship. And… that doesn’t work for a team of murderous sociopaths that include a cold-blooded assassin whose only soft spot is somebody who isn’t on the team, a cannibal, a psychopath’s psychopathic girlfriend, a woman who doesn’t care about anyone else on the team (and isn’t really a part of it), and Slipknot.
(Admittedly, Slipknot might be a big fan of friendship and working together, but we don’t know because he dies about two minutes after being introduced, because he was kind of an idiot)
Honestly, the only person for whom that entire arc makes sense is El Diablo, a gang member who killed his family. Because unlike the others, he at least feels bad about it. And well, you have to have some cooperative skills if you’re in a gang.
It feels like Ayer wasn’t really comfortable with making a movie about bad people (as evidenced by Harley stealing a purse and explaining with a cringy “we’re BAD GUYS!,” as if shoplifting was a sign of her being a psycho). There’s always the feeling that he’s trying to paint them as not being as bad as they’re supposed to be, because he can’t bring himself to have them do bad things or act like the sociopathic losers they are.
There is none of that in Assault on Arkham. The best part of the movie is that the Suicide Squad do not act like friends. Oh, a few bonds (some very short-lived) do form between members, but for the most part these are bad people who dislike each other, don’t work well together, and take the absolute first chance they get to stab each other in the back. In fact, the climax of the movie is everything going to hell because these idiots have caused so much mayhem and disarray, and even as Arkham Asylum bursts into mass violence, they are still fighting each other. The characters are fun to watch, but they are definitely not depicted as good people or in any way likable.
I’m going to split this blog in half, because it’s getting too long.