In a year that’s positively bursting with superhero movies – Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, the list goes on – there’s one unlikely candidate receiving a surprising amount of attention: Suicide Squad. To begin with, the film isn’t even necessarily a superhero movie, boasting a cast of characters better known as supervillians and anti-heroes. It also doesn’t appear as responsible for furthering the DCEU like Batman V Superman is, or establishing future conflict in the MCU like Civil War is going to. To succeed, all Suicide Squad need do is be a fun, entertaining, and insane romp starring the Worst. Heroes. Ever.
Except there’s a pretty significant linchpin to Suicide Squad‘s success and her name is Harley Quinn. When the first footage from Suicide Squad was shown at San Diego Comic Con, she and the Joker garnered the biggest reactions from the hall. A full year ahead of the film’s release, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn costume was already an enormously popular cosplay. Of all the characters that comprise Task Force X, only Harley has inspired a litany of think-pieces and editorials (like this one).
Harley Quinn is a character poised to explode. Among the comic book community she is already immensely popular, proving to be a powerhouse for publication, starring in three ongoing series as well as several one-shots and mini-series. Harley is a major force of merchandising for DC Comics, too, with every Hot Topic across the country plastered with her red and black diamonds. She’s played a prominent role in DC’s animated series and films, debuting first in Batman: The Animated Series and recently starring in Batman: Assault on Arkham (something of an animated precursor to Suicide Squad). Plus, she has been a main character in each installment of the Batman: Arkham and LEGO: Batman video games – not to mention Injustice: Gods Among Us, where she appears in both the game and popular tie-in comic.
Yet, for all that exposure, Harley Quinn has a relatively low profile when compared to Batman, The Joker, or Catwoman. For general audiences whose only knowledge of capes and cowls comes from the cineplex, Harley Quinn is as recognizable as Slipknot or Diablo. Suicide Squad will be Harley Quinn’s mainstream debut and is likely to define her character from here on out.
That fans are frothing at the mouth for Harley Quinn to appear in a major motion picture, even though she remains virtually unknown to most movie-goers, isn’t lost on Warner Bros. or DC. There’s been an obvious effort on their part to put Harley front and center in Suicide Squad‘s marketing – more so than any other character.
Though we’ve only seen a mere fraction of the film in the Comic-Con reel and first trailer, Harley appears to be the only character whose whole origin is depicted on screen and the one with the most potential for a full arc. Whether Suicide Squad will give Harley the shot at redemption she often receives in both the cartoons and comics remains to be seen, but there’s no denying how large her role in the film is going to be.
Suicide Squad may be first and foremost a movie about a team of villains, but it’s serving as the DCEU’s origin for Harley Quinn, a character who has the potential to be integral to the DCEU moving forward – probably far more so than Deadshot, Katana, Killer Croc or anyone else in Suicide Squad outside of The Joker and Amanda Waller.
So if Harley Quinn is such a large part of Suicide Squad, and its success potentially hinges on their interpretation of her character, how are they doing?
Finding the right actor for a role that will be so heavily scrutinized is key – and that’s especially true for comic book movies. When it comes to casting Harley Quinn, Suicide Squad isn’t simply the character’s first appearance in a movie, it’s her first ever significant live-action appearance. She may have been in the short lived series, Birds of Prey and had a cameo on Arrow, but neither can compare to the exposure of big budget blockbuster.
It was utterly serendipitous, then, that Suicide Squad cast Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. From her breakout role in The Wolf of Wall Street to her scene stealing performance in Focus, Robbie has already displayed the necessary acting chops for Harley’s unique mix of gleeful, childlike energy and insane brutality. Will Smith and Viola Davis may be the bigger names in Suicide Squad, but it’s Robbie’s casting that’s been received most enthusiastically.
From the glimpses we’ve seen of Robbie’s performance, she and writer/director David Ayer have apparently nailed Harley’s bubbly yet dangerous nature. One moment she might be laughing, the next she’s bashing someone’s brains in. There’s no mistaking Harley for a hero, but she also isn’t pure evil or entirely irredeemable. Part of what makes Harley such a compelling and tragic character is how often she tries to do right, only to end up either back in prison or the arms of her abusive ex. As a regular member of the Suicide Squad, Harley has a chance to not only do some good but build for herself an identity that exists beyond The Joker.
Allowing Harley Quinn an identity all her own is especially important now that Suicide Squad is seemingly using the character’s New 52 origin, as opposed to how she was original conceived. In her animated and comic book origin, Mad Love by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the then Dr. Quinzel is manipulated by The Joker during his therapy sessions, eventually falling in love with the maniac and choosing to become Harley Quinn to break him out of Arkham. Her choice is inadvisable to say the least, but becoming Harley Quinn is her choice and that’s fundamental. It’s a tiny but important amount of agency, making it all the more possible for Harley to save herself and all the more tragic when she can’t.
When it came to DC Comics’ New 52 reboot, however, Harley’s choice of the demented and daffy lifestyle is stripped from her character. Instead, The Joker and flings her into a vat of chemicals, mimicking his own “birth”. Once she emerges, Harley Quinn is fully-formed: bleached skin, two-toned hair, head-over-heels in love with The Joker and lacking any hold on reality. She’s now firmly The Joker’s creation – no longer a misguided fool in love with the worst of the worst.
The decision to go with Harley Quinn’s New 52 origin over her original conception has understandably rubbed some fans the wrong way. And personally, I much prefer her original origin as well. Yet I don’t believe using her new backstory means that Suicide Squad has failed Harley Quinn. Instead, it can be an opportunity for Harley to become something more than what The Joker made her. That’s what Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner have been exploring in the current Harley Quinn comic series, where they’ve moved her to Coney Island, surrounding Harley with her own supporting cast of crazy characters as she tries to live (mostly) on the right side of the law. She’s still one kooky clown and solves more problems with murder than she should, but the series is taking great strides in establishing Harley Quinn on her own – separate from The Joker and Gotham.
Suicide Squad has the potential to do this for Harley on a massive scale, introducing her to legions of new fans not simply as The Joker’s battered plaything, but as a survivor who’s crazy, capable, and willing to cause her own mayhem. She is a bad guy, after all, it’s what they do. The debate over what’s right or wrong with their version of the character will rage from now until long after the film releases, but it’s how Harley is used within the plot that will either make or break Suicide Squad. Will Harley be a force of chaos that’s all her own or nothing more than The Joker’s punching bag? Will she have agency and aspirations, or just be some sexy clown in booty shorts?
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice opens on March 25, 2016, which is followed by Suicide Squad on August 5, 2016; Wonder Woman on June 23, 2017; Justice League Part One on November 17, 2017; The Flash on March 23, 2018; Aquaman on July 27, 2018; Shazam on April 5, 2019; Justice League Part Two on June 14, 2019; Cyborg on April 3, 2020; and then Green Lantern Corps. on June 19, 2020.