I have been a huge fan of Harley Quinn ever since I first saw her in Batman: The Animated Series, so it’s been great to see her burst out from her status as a notable comic book character to reach prominent pop culture icon status. Kickstarted by her scene-stealing roles in the Batman: Arkham games after over a decade of solid groundwork in the comics, A-lister Margot Robbie then took the acid bath, followed by a Kaley Cuoco led-animated series. There are several more appearances in the mix – Injustice, Mortal Kombat, Gotham, Lego, a boatload more cartoons, but the point is Harley Quinn is now officially a Big Deal. That’s why it’s so disappointing that 2016’s Suicide Squad, her highest profile outing to date, got the character so wrong.
The unhinged Marilyn Monroe version of the character David Ayer brought to the screen in 2016 has so many missteps I don’t even know where to begin. You can tell Ayer is an action director first and foremost – everything is visual and loud. Harley has no room for subtlety, for the set up, for misdirection, it’s just punchline punchline punchline, energy energy energy. Nothing really lands, but that’s okay – let’s just have her take her shirt off. That’ll eat up some time.
I don’t blame Margot Robbie for this. You can see her trying to understand the character, especially in the Harleen Quinzel scenes, and in the spin-off Birds of Prey (co-produced by Robbie), Harley is much more realised and rounded. She’s still silly and reckless and often inappropriate – but she’s Harley about it. At her core, Harley is a comedian; the laughter is applause. She wants to make people laugh, but David Ayer’s take on the character made her the butt of the joke, while Birds of Prey put her on stage with a spotlight at open mic night.
But now we’re back to The Suicide Squad, with a kinda sequel, kinda reboot releasing later this year. Despite my love for Task Force X in the comics and several of the characters individually, I was ready to let this one pass me by. James Gunn is a great filmmaker, but the whole property is damaged goods – or so I thought. I’ve already written about how Polka Dot Man’s intense weirdness was the thing that actually got me back on board with the film, but the only reason he’s able to do that is because of the solid foundation Harley provides. As is typical with Gunn’s trailers, not much of the story is given away, so we don’t know exactly what Harley’s role will be, but in her two mini-scenes we get a glimpse of exactly who she’s going to be – and it seems like Birds of Prey’s Harley and Cuoco’s Harley had a very strange baby, a baby that grew up and murdered the 2016 travesty.
The trailer begins with Harley having been captured, which seems very 2016, helpless little girl who acts weird. But as they’re planning the jailbreak and about to start the mission, Harley pops up innocently behind Rick Flagg and asks “whatcha doin’?”, even offering to go back inside when she finds out they’re there to save her.
Playing the idiot after outsmarting everybody is quintessential Harley. She doesn’t care how much time and effort and planning went into saving her, because she knew she could save herself, but she constantly likes to push buttons to see what people are capable of. She was doing a bit, and in order for it to land, the gang had to have no idea that she was already safe – total commitment to the punchline, whatever chaos it may bring. Sidebar: I also feel I owe Joel Kinnaman a personal apology. I always thought it was his bad acting that ruined Flagg in 2016, but nope, turns out that was Ayer too. I guess I should have known after Sabotage.
Harley is the same when they’re interrogating Peter Capaldi’s character, The Thinker, at the end of the trailer. When Harley says “We find out you have personalised license plates, you die,” she’s not being stupid – she’s playing the fool. She’s also a master of unpredictability, and can both raise and lower the tension at once. The tension deflates in the moment, because Flagg and Bloodsport are both making serious threats. But actually, they’re giving Thinker a very tangible dilemma: co-operate or die. Harley’s nonsense changes all that, and he doesn’t know if she’s kidding or about to kill him for the fun of it. This is the genius of Harley, not a lingering shot where she strips down to her bra.
The red and black hair is back too, and while the pink and blue has grown on me a little, it’s good to see her back in her proper colours. Will the movie be any good? I’m not sure. Gunn’s Guardians movies are probably the MCU’s most distinct films, but the DCEU has been hit and miss for its entire existence, while Suicide Squad has some skeletons in the closet and way more stars than you’d expect. I have no idea if it will all come together, but it’s trying to do right by Harley, and for me, that’s enough.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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