[UPDATE 8/5/16: Now that Suicide Squad is in theaters, check out my updated opinion on Harley's origin!]
DC Films came out swinging yesterday. Two new Facebook pages dropped ahead of The CW”s special about the upcoming DC Cinematic Universe line-up.
From the first footage of “Wonder Woman” to a look at the finalized Justice League team, DC did not disappoint. But the crown jewel was the new trailer for “Suicide Squad,” which showcased more of how the team will interact with each other. It also showed how the movie version of Dr. Harleen Quinzel will become Harley Quinn, if you knew what to look for.
The only problem is, it”s the wrong origin.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR “SUICIDE SQUAD” BEYOND THIS POINT.
It”s no secret that I”ve been really hard on “Suicide Squad.” But it”s not because I WANT to hate it. Quite the contrary. I want to love it! Harley Quinn is one of my favorite superhero characters. She”s complex and troubled and very, very human. But “Suicide Squad” has rebuffed me – and many other female fans – at every turn. “This isn”t for you,” it practically screams, as Harley bends over to pick up a trinket, the camera focused squarely on her booty shorts. Every woman in this film save for Amanda Waller is scantily dressed for no good reason. I”ve already gone over what an egregious example Enchantress is: whether you think she”s sexy or scary, she”s definitely never worn anything that skimpy. For some reason, Katana”s armor has been traded out for a midriff baring top. And Harley is once again regulated to something from a prepubescent boy”s dream. You can thank Arkham Asylum for that particular legacy.
Meanwhile, the men are dressed to the nines, with El Diablo showing the most skin. Even KILLER CROC – who is usually lucky to wear a pair of ripped pants – is fully clothed.
But I held out a sliver of hope. Looks can be deceiving. A movie catering to the male gaze can still have really good female characters. Then the full length trailer dropped last night and the origin of Harley Quinn alluded to in the Comic-Con trailer last year was confirmed. And that hope died.
The above screenshot is immediately preceded by the Joker jumping into the vat of chemicals. Those tendrils of color are his clothes being eaten off as he fishes Harley Quinn from the toxic sludge. The toxic sludge he threw her into as the film is obviously taking a page from Harley”s reboot origin from the New 52. In SUICIDE SQUAD #7 – from May of 2012 – Harley”s transformative origin was unveiled, explaining her bleached white skin and two-tone hair. It was a severe departure from her first origin, and a far inferior one due to one factor: it removed Harley”s agency. In other words, it took her choices out of her hands and put them in the Joker”s.
Harley Quinn first appeared in “Batman: The Animated Series.” From her first line in 1992 – “It is to laugh, huh, Mr. J?” – Harley captured the imaginations of Batman fans everywhere. What was meant to be a walk-on role turned out to be the beginnings of a iconic character. By 1994, creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm had created a background for Harley. How did she meet the Joker? What kind of woman would fall in love with a psychopath? Dr. Harleen Quinzel, psychiatrist, that”s who. The answer was surprising in its normality.
Any two-bit criminal can throw a person into a vat of chemicals and create a super-villainous side kick. What was simmering between the Joker and Harley was more complex than that. Her origin comic MAD LOVE – based on her cartoon character and drawn in the same art style – even got the Dini treatment in the 1999 cartoon episode of the same name in “The New Adventure of Batman.” Ostensibly, Dr. Harleen Quinzel went into psychiatry in part to discover why her abusive, con man father did the things she did. The Joker used her past and her personality against her to garner sympathy and admiration. It”s a classic case of an abuser grooming his mark, luring her in an subtlety testing the boundaries to see what she”ll tolerate. Over time, the ante is upped until you have the Joker LITERALLY trying to kill his girlfriend.
This doesn”t mean Harley Quinn is a pushover. She chooses to become a supervillain. And there”s the rub. She CHOOSES it. It isn”t foisted on her against her will. Harley”s smart and tough, yet vulnerable and damaged. Yes, Harley”s relationship with the Joker is abusive. Part of her relatability is her dichotomy of being a bad ass and making terrible choices. The cartoon never shied away from it. “My puddin”s a little rough sometimes, but he loves me really,” Harley lamented in one episode, but her heart wasn”t in her words. It”s a supervillainous metaphor for how anyone can find themselves inexplicably with a partner that abuses them. This humanity is what many fans relate to. In a Vulture article about Harley”s legacy, Tara Strand may have summed the character up best:
“There weren't a lot of female characters at the time like her who were so human and unique and refreshing and weird, and not just sexy […] Feminism is about showing women as fully fleshed out human beings, and that's what Harley is. She doesn't make choices that are smart or good for a woman, but she gets to make those choices. Men are allowed to be fuck-ups in all kinds of characters, and women aren't. We have to be idealized. She gets to not be.”
Harley only begins to pull away from the Joker when he can no longer isolate her from the outside world. In “Batman: The Animated Series,” Harley befriends Poison Ivy during a heist gone wrong. It”s through Ivy that Harley Quinn becomes more than human. Ivy uses her knowledge of plant toxins to inject Harley – with her permission – with a serum that makes Harley immune to toxins and poisons, as well as enhances her agility and speed. The friendship does wonders for Harley”s self-esteem and would luckily carry over to the New 52 comics as Ivy helps Harley move past Joker to have her own life again. Harley dives into finding herself again – from starting a gang to helping stray animals to getting back into psychiatry – over a year after her rebooted origin.
Before the video game “Batman: Arkham Asylum” decided Harley needed to be sexier, she and Poison Ivy even made a great team in putting gross dudes in their place. Of course, the descent of Harley Quinn from feminine yet assertive woman to deranged sexpot is a completely different article.
But all of Harley Quinn”s power is wiped away with the New 52 – and now “Suicide Squad” – origin. Dr. Harleen Quinzel isn”t a three-dimensional supervillain with a complex personality and layered motivations. She no longer chose to be a villain. She no longer chose to alter her genetic code to become more dangerous. She no longer even chose Joker of her own free will. By having Joker forcibly convert his psychiatrist into his girlfriend, Harley is stripped of her personality, her flaws, and her ability to make her own choices, as toxic as they are.
“Suicide Squad” might have Harley Quinn, but I wish they had Dr. Harleen Quinzel instead.
[UPDATE: 1/20/16]: An earlier version of this article stated Harley's first origin was in cartoon form first and comic book form second.
[UPDATE 1/21/16]: Minor grammar and clarification edits.