This summer has been a veritible slog through the superhero doldrums — it's not hard to see how films based on comic books have become a bit stale (and racist). While many hoped that the latest upcoming movie, Suicide Squad, would reinvigorate the genre, early reviews have been overwhelmingly negative.
Nonetheless, Suicide Squad is set to break box office records worldwide. Perhaps the biggest draw for die-hard fans of the source material is the cinematic introduction of Gotham style icon Harley Quinn, a favorite character of cosplayers and comics enthusiasts alike.
While many Batman villains have had their fair share of screen time, Harley has remained a side character and severely underexposed to mainstream audiences, many of whom have no clue who the hell she is. So, who is this costumed cutie and why should we care about her at all? Let me explain!
Harley was first introduced in the beloved Batman: The Animated Series in 1992.
Not much more than a schlocky one-off gag, her adorable pin-up inspired style (designed by legend Bruce Timm) piqued the interest of viewers rather quickly, leading to the character getting more developed in the 1994 graphic novel Mad Love. Harley's transition — from cartoon side character to comic book protagonist — was a first for DC.
Mad Love explained how Harley, real name Harleen Quinzel (pun very much intended), had come to shack up with The Joker. See: Harleen worked as an ambitious psychologist at Arkham Asylum, where Joker was often kept in between crime sprees. Studying extreme psychopathology, Harleen took it upon herself to interview The Joker for her research. That is, until she fell in love with him.
Harley helped J-man escape and quickly became his sidekick.
Joker was thankful to have a partner in crime, but wasn't so kind to Harley. He physically and verbally abused her, despite her usefulness as a villainess. Being that "Mistah Jay" (as Harley called him through her Arleen Sorkin voiced thick Brooklyn accent) is a complete sociopath, he tended to take advantage of Ms. Quinn's lovesickness and quickly abandoned her numerous times when he needed to make a fast escape. But Harley kept going back to him.
Harley proved herself a capable criminal with a genius-level intellect. She found it rather easy to outsmart both Batman and The Joker plenty of times, but given that violence was never really her thing (she's a lover, not a fighter) she often abdicated her more libertine proclivities in favor of following her Puddin'.
Harley's tale, although often goofy, was relate-able to fans who found themselves trapped in cycles of abuse of their own. Her character was sexy, smart, deadly, and deeply flawed — this kind of complexity and vulnerability was rarely seen in comics, especially at the time, when many female characters were created or utilized purely for sex appeal.
Harley would later become a more ambiguous character in her own right, sometimes fighting for good, sometimes fighting for evil, and sometimes shopping with her gal pals. She eventually teamed up with fellow Gotham villain Poison Ivy, who often attempted to coach her away from her abusive ex-lover to no avail. Ivy also exposed Harley to a handful of super-toxins, making the clown queen invulnerable to poison and accelerating her acrobatic and hand-to-hand combat skills.
Harley and Ivy became reluctant bosom buddies, with frequent hints that the two were more than just friends. Eventually, creators confirmed that they were also lovers thus making Harley one of the only canonical queer Jewish women in comics.
Harley's design has undergone numerous revisions. Her original onesie is perhaps her most iconic look, but her later iterations have been somewhat unfortunately Hot Topic inspired. See: her terrible corseted outfits in the Arkham Asylum video games.
Creative variations of Harley's costume have become rather standard at comic cons. Suicide Squad gives Harley a massive redesign, introducing street style elements into her iconic look. I've dubbed this new incarnation Banjee Girl Harley. What's a Banjee Girl, you ask?
Suicide Squad takes it's inspiration from the comic of the same name, which sees Harley teaming up with a handful of other lesser villains at the behest of the mysterious and malevolent Amanda Waller. We don't yet know how closely Margot Robbie's interpretation will follow the original character's story and idiosyncrasies. And although many are already suggesting that the Suicide Squad movie is a failure, numerous reviewers have praised the introduction of this beloved character and Robbie's exciting performance as highlights in an otherwise droll movie.
Even if time isn't kind to Suicide Squad, Harley will remain a popular inspirational character, despite (or because of) her loveable nefariousness. It will certainly be interesting to see how DC revises Harley after the success or failure of the character's introduction on the big screen.
Suicide Squad debuts in theaters on August 5th.
[Image: from Batman: Harley Quinn by Alex Ross]