And Harley Quinn is definitely considered one of those bad, unlikable people. Unlike with the DCEU version of Harley Quinn, we have it demonstrated for us that she’s crazy and dangerous in two different ways. First, when we first see her, she’s watching Looney Tunes on a phone, until a therapist takes it away from her… and Harley bites the woman’s ear off. That few seconds demonstrates what she is far more effectively than the DCEU Amanda Waller talking for several minutes about how she’s really crazy and dangerous, guys, REALLY. She’s as scary as the Joker, you guys! I swear! Please believe me!
It also establishes her kooky, somewhat childlike tastes. She likes laughing at cartoons, and ignores the strictures of prison rehabilitation in order to watch them.
The other is a scene in which Harley tries to use her sexuality to throw an intrusive security guard off his game, by pulling her jumpsuit top down and exposing her breasts. The guy’s response? Well, unlike in Suicide Squad, he isn’t immediately gaggling at her sexy body… instead, he screams “Don’t move, you crazy bitch!” and takes out his gun, implying that she is so dangerous and so insane that the sight of her is TERRIFYING and will override even the sight of a seminude, extremely attractive woman.
So, we have a woman who is established quickly as being dangerous and violent. However, immediately after establishing that, the movie quickly establishes that she is quirky and eccentric through dialogue. But even more importantly, it establishes that she is automatically drawn to authoritative male figures. Not just men like the Joker, note – she immediately voices her attraction to Deadshot, a man who is extremely unlike the Joker, being controlled, organized, focused, professional and sensible. However, he makes it clear that he’s the one in charge of the Suicide Squad, and that immediately draws Harley’s interest. And being Harley, she keeps pursuing him even though he really doesn’t give a damn about her.
A lot of people who have Harley “get over” the Joker and move on from him (such as in Birds of Prey) don’t seem to realize that being attracted to the Joker in the first place would indicate some serious, deep-rooted issues that wouldn’t magically end with a breakup. It’s not like she’s having a once-in-a-lifetime bad-boy fling that just got out of hand – she romantically attaches herself to a vile psychopath, and identifies with him so strongly that she styles herself after his gimmick. That indicates something that would take serious therapy and psychiatric intervention to even begin to unravel.
But the brilliant part of this movie is that it acknowledges both sides of Harley’s psyche. When the story begins, Harley has broken up with the Joker. It’s never explicitly said just what led to this breakup, but it is kind of hinted at when the Joker says about women that you can’t live with them, and can’t kick them from a moving car.
And this genuinely creepy scene is when we see that on some level, Harley is aware of how utterly screwed up she is, as she screams at Deadshot to let her go, and that she’s going to kill him for what he’s done to her. This is the closest Harley ever comes to full awareness of her own psychological twistedness, and the closest she comes to actually dealing with the wreck of her life due to her choice to be with the Joker.
But at the same time, we know this isn’t improvement. It isn’t empowerment. She’s following the same pattern with Deadshot, even to the point of addressing him as “puddin.” She isn’t attracted to Deadshot for healthy reasons – she’s attracted to him for the same reasons she’s attracted to the Joker, even though the two men are very different.
And because Harley isn’t actually fixing anything in her mind or her life, her screwed-up, twisted mind ends up circling back to the same old abusive relationship as usual. When the Joker manages to free himself from his Arkham cell, he encounters Harley and the Suicide Squad, and Harley immediately leaps on the opportunity to reunite with her “puddin,” to the point where she lies that her presence in Arkham was entirely a ruse to save him from captivity.
There is actually a brief pause between the Joker’s arrival and Harley’s embrace of him, and it actually made me wonder – when I first saw the movie – if she was actually sneakily finding a way to keep the Joker from killing Deadshot and the other surviving members of the Squad, or just seeking a way to escape Arkham without getting shot by him. However, it soon becomes evident that no, Harley is entirely in earnest.
And the demonstration that she’s completely in earnest in reuniting with the Joker – the man she previously tried to murder for “what he’s done to me” – is seen in her final fight with Batman. In this scene, Harley attacks Batman with dark tears dripping down her white-painted face, shouting that while the Joker might abuse her, “you’re the one that’s always hurting me!” Her self-awareness has been swamped by the familiarity of her abusive relationship, and rather than blaming the Joker for his abuse of her, she projects it onto a man who consistently interferes with the men she fixates her whole identity upon.
That’s what ultimately makes the Assault on Arkham Harley Quinn my favorite Harley Quinn: she’s complicated. She’s painfully realistic. She’s kind of a tragic figure, since she’s locked into the same patterns of destructive fixation on men who don’t care about her AT BEST, and she falls into her old abusive relationship again at the end. And yet, while clearly having some sympathy for her, the movie also doesn’t pretend that she’s in any way a good person – she is a violent psychopath herself, and she won’t magically turn into a semi-decent, semi-sane human being just because she’s away from the Joker…
… which is one of the biggest mistakes Birds of Prey made, with its much shallower, stupider version of Harley who is apparently nevertheless supposed to be likable and relatable. One thing Harley Quinn should ideally never be is “relatable.”
So that’s why Assault on Arkham’s Harley Quinn is probably the best depiction of the character to date. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to comment.