Post #28: The Transformations of Harley Quinn
By Vincent Tomasso
Originally published Saturday July 30 2016
“Well, I’m no Picasso, but do you like it?”
--The Joker, Batman (Burton 1989)
EDIT 8-15-16: This post now looks like SF (in the sense of "speculative fiction"), because the film’s portrayal of Harley didn’t turn out as I thought it would. It’s quite conservative, in fact; some might call her puppy-dog doting on the Joker borderline misogynistic. I still think that the trailers give a different impression, and I wonder whether director David Ayer’s vision of the Joker and Harley was very different from what ended up on screen. One Reddit user has detailed all of the cut elements that we can see from the three trailers that WB released. There is an intriguing scene in trailer #3 in which the Joker, with his face partly burned off from the helicopter crash, lobs a grenade and wields a gun (a scene that doesn’t appear in the theatrical version). Could this suggest that in Ayer’s cut, Harley chose her teammates over the Joker?
In this post, I’m going to compare the character Harley Quinn in the forthcoming film Suicide Squad (Ayer 2016) with her first appearance in the Batman: the Animated Series (B:TAS) episode “The Joker’s Favor” (Kirkland 1992). Harley, who dresses like the harlequin character in commedia dell’arte performances in Italy during the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, was created for B:TAS as one of the Joker’s henchmen but soon became a love interest. A few years before Harley’s creation in the early 1990s, Tim Burton’s 1989 film Batman featured a relationship between the Joker and model Alicia Hunt. Juxtaposing these three very different takes on the Joker’s love interests will demonstrate how pop culture’s view of women has changed over the years, from passive victim to henchman, and presently back again to victim who is nevertheless a match for her partner in crime.
A caveat: as of my writing, Suicide Squad has not yet been released. However, several trailers have, which provide enough material for me to speculate on the film’s likely directions with regard to Harley and the Joker.
Alicia Hunt is mob boss Carl Grissom’s girlfriend, and it is her and Jack Napier’s secret tryst that indirectly leads to Jack’s transformation into the Joker. When Grissom finds out about Alicia and his subordinate’s clandestine affair, he orders Jack to steal files from Axis Chemicals and then tips off the police. Jack almost escapes, but not before Batman intervenes and Jack ends up taking a bath in a vat of toxic green sludge.
Alicia continues her relationship with the Joker, who then makes her into a “living work of art”, as he calls it, by dousing her face with acid (figure 1). She looks something like her partner--her face ashen white, her lips a bright shade of red. The Joker has remade Alicia to look like him. Indeed, Peter Coogan notes in his book Superhero: the Secret Origin of a Genre that this is the Joker’s modus operandi more generally (2006: 109): consider, for an example, his plot in Burton’s film to make Gotham’s citizens into versions of himself by poisoning common household products.
Whether the Joker treats her badly or his artistic experiment causes permanent psychic damage, Alicia soon commits suicide by jumping out of a window. (Or perhaps the Joker murders her, as this Wikia entry suggests.) Suicide Squad’s Joker similarly creates Harley in his own image, as we see in a still from a trailer in which he lifts her out of a vat of chemicals (header image). A promo image for the film shows Harley’s previous appearance as Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist working with the Joker when he’s incarcerated (figure 2). But whereas the Joker transformation was so traumatic for Alicia that it resulted in her death, Harley’s transformation allows her to become one of the major antiheroes of Suicide Squad. Indeed, we might even say that it empowers her.
Suicide Squad’s Harley is premised to a large degree on the Harley of B:TAS. For one thing, the cinematic version wears a gold necklace of sorts emblazoned with the word “Puddin” (figure 3), which is Harley’s pet name for the Joker in B:TAS. Clearly, then, the Suicide Squad Harley is a reference to the animated version. Second, the animated Harley will always be a major reference point for any iteration of the character because she was originally created specifically for the animated series. The character became so popular that she crossed over into comics, where she appears regularly to this day.
Harley’s origin is not revealed in “The Joker’s Favor,” although it is clear that she’s not a victim like Batman’s Alicia and Suicide Squad’s Harley. Her look complements the Joker’s, with white face-paint, black lipstick, and black diamonds on the right leg of her costume, but it is also very different, with a domino mask and black instead of red lipstick (figure 4). This ability of Harley’s to appear “normal” (in contrast to the Joker, who can never remove his “make-up”) is crucial to the Joker’s plans in the episode. Harley appears as a limo driver to pick up one of the Joker’s unwilling accomplices and as a cop to set in motion the Joker’s plot to murder Gotham police (figure 5).
The fact that the Harley of B:TAS is in control of her appearance and not a passive victim of the Joker is an update of Burton’s Alicia and so becomes a worthy partner for the Clown Prince of Crime. Her strength in the face of patriarchal men comes across clearly when Detective Harvey Bullock wolf-whistles at her. She responds by hitting him in the knee with her police baton as she passes.
In contrast to the mostly self-sufficient animated Harley, Suicide Squad’s version is obsessed with being reunited with the Joker. In the first shot of her in one trailer, Harley sits cross-legged in her maximum security cell at Belle Reve Penitentiary, sipping genteelly from a teacup and reading a book (figure 6). The steamy cover image of a woman and a bare-chested man embracing suggests that she’s reading a Harlequin Romance novel. Of course this is a nice little pun on her name, but it’s also indicative of her character’s deluded worldview. The Queen song “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the background of this trailer, and the line “Is this just fantasy?” is heard over the shot of Harley, implying that she inhabits a dream world that doesn’t really exist. Harley’s romantic obsession with the Joker appears to be a result of the trauma that he inflicts on her when he escapes from Arkham Asylum. In a sequence at the end of the Comic-Con trailer, the Joker prepares to electroshock Harleen, explaining, “Oh, I’m not gonna kill ya. I’m just gonna hurt you--really, really, bad.” I suspect that the subsequent trauma makes her dangerously unhinged and transformed her into Harley.
Harley’s unstable mental state seems to make her the most unreliable and least valuable members of the squad--at least at first glance. In one trailer, Rick Flagg, the government wrangler of the squad, reads the attributes of the members from a file. While Deadshot “shoots people”, El Diablo “burns people”, and Killer Croc “eats people”, Harley is “just crazy.” In another scene Harley addresses the other members of the squad: “What was that? I should kill everyone and escape? …Sorry--the voices. I’m kidding! That’s not what they really said.” Her appearance is highly sexualized--portrayed by Margot Robbie in sparkly hot pants with a tattoo of the words “Lucky You” on her stomach. All of this leads her team members (and the audience) to underestimate her. And then she single-handedly dispatches an opponent in an elevator with a baseball bat and her gymnastic skills in one trailer.
The Joker’s significant others have often become more like the criminal mastermind, either through his intervention, as with Alicia and the Harley of Suicide Squad, or through their own agency, as with the Harley of B:TAS. Whereas Burton’s Alicia is another victim of the Joker’s twisted sense of humor and aesthetics, B:TAS’ Harley is in control of her appearance and her devotion to her boss. Suicide Squad’s Harley will apparently be a combination of these two portraits of victimhood and agency. The director has explained that Suicide Squad is in part "about her [Harley] breaking free of The Joker and becoming this fully actualised, independent person.” This Harley is victimized by the Joker, but her trauma also gives her power. For her, there is agency in tragedy.
Header photo credit: Atlas Entertainment/DC Comics (screen capture from trailer #2 for the film).