On Harley Quinn Part 2

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.

On Harley Quinn Part 1

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.