‘Suicide Squad’ did better than my low expectations with Harley Quinn’s origin

08.05.16 12 months ago

Way back in January of this year, I wrote about my fear and exasperation that Suicide Squad appeared to be using Harley Quinn”s New 52 origin story. Now that I”ve seen the movie, was I right? Has my opinion changed?

Kind of. And not really.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SUICIDE SQUAD BEYOND THIS POINT:

We”ve known for a while now that Harley Quinn was going to take a dip in a vat of chemicals in Suicide Squad. It”s in the trailers, and it was accidentally spoiled by Margot Robbie”s stunt double. I was pretty bummed out about this. Harley Quinn”s first origin – Mad Love – positions her as a woman who finds herself slowly trapped in a cycle of domestic abuse. Only amped up to 11 and knob ripped off. She abandons to her profession and her life to follow her lover down a path of destruction. Her only superpowers come later when Poison Ivy gets Harley”s permission to inject her with a serum that will help Harley keep up in a world of superheroes and supervillains.

So it was a disappointment when the New 52 wiped that all away and had Harley become the victim of the Joker throwing her into a vat of chemicals (albeit after Dr. Quinzel was well on her way to falling in love with him). It was lazy shorthand for her transformation, which is odd considering Batman: The Animated Series managed Harley”s original story with aplomb in a single episode.

That shorthand appears again in Suicide Squad, though with an added twist. Instead of the Joker unceremoniously dumping Harley into the vat, she makes the choice to do it to ‘prove her love.” On its head, this is a step forward. Harley is given agency to make her own terrible life choices, which is all I ever wanted. Part of the character”s appeal is that she isn”t a hero and, as such, can fall prey to more of life”s pitfalls. It makes her layered and interesting. But in a world where Harley Quinn would jump into a chemical bath – knowing that she can”t swim – is it even necessary for her to do so? I”d argue no.

The timeline of the Joker and Harley”s relationship in Suicide Squad is hard to pin down due to editing. But from what we see, it looks something like this. The Joker is incarcerated and Dr. Quinzel is assigned to him as his therapist. He manipulates her into falling in love with him. He asks her for a machine gun. Despite being taken aback, she eventually agrees as the Joker”s men run amok through the facility with said machine guns. After capturing Dr. Quinzel, he subjects her to electroshock treatment. Harley says she can take anything he can dish out. Not in a defiant way, but in ‘prove my love” way. Time passes. At some point, Joker takes Harley to the Ace Chemical plant. This can”t be immediately after the electroshock scene as both characters have changed clothes and their relationship seems to have evolved into one that is dysfunctionally BDSM. The Joker asks Harley if she”d live for him and she demurely agrees. To prove it, she jumps into the chemical bath. The Joker walks away and it”s implied his intent was to kill her, but he changes his mind at the last minute and dives in to save Harley. The end.

By the time the scene at ACE Chemicals happens, Dr. Harleen Quinzal is already long gone. The character is already Harley Quinn. She's destroyed her life to be with her lover, armed his minions, been tortured, psychologically abused, and has clearly been playing the submissive to Joker”s deranged dominant for quite some time. There”s the Mad Love origin right there. What conceivable purpose does the swan dive into the chemicals prove that couldn”t have been shown without it? How is it more meaningful than if the Joker had left and broken and befuddled Dr. Quinzel on the hospital floor, only to have her show up at his club later with a “Surprise, Puddin”!” transformation?

So yes, having Harley Quinn choose to jump was a step in the right direction from her disastrous New 52 one. Ultimately though, I”ll never be on board with a Harley origin that involved a bath of chemicals instead of a slow slide into madness.

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