Did you know it’s been a whole four months since a Superhero movie has come out? Well this weekend that dry spell finally gets broken with Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). The kinda-sorta follow-up to Suicide Squad is getting way better reviews than that flick with as of this writing a 91% score on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s being praised for being a fun balls out action movie although it’s been criticized for being more of a Harley Quinn movie than a Birds of Prey one. But there’s a pretty good reason for the film focusing more on her. Harley Quinn after all has become one of the most popular DC characters in recent memory. True to her character, the behind the scenes of how she came to the DC universe isn’t as conventional as other characters. So let’s go down the rabbit hole of how Harley happened.
Harley Quinn’s first appearance wasn’t in a comic book but rather a cartoon. Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Tim, she appeared in the critically acclaimed Batman the Animated Series in the episode “Joker’s Favor”. The role was originally intended to be a one-off female sidekick role for the episode, just another wacky goon for Joker to play off of. Arleen Sorkin, a soap opera actress on Days of Our Lives was the inspiration for the character and also voiced the character. The character’s role quickly expanded beyond one episode and she became a regular in Joker stories from that point on. Her key traits were fleshed out in this series, like her abusive love relationship with the Joker and her friendship (although maybe more) with Poison Ivy. Even though she was a villain you could emphasize with her, something later appearances work with even more.
Audiences instantly fell in love with the character and in 1994 Dini and Timm came out with a graphic novel called The Batman Adventures: Mad Love that told her origin story. It revealed that her real name was Dr. Harleen Quinzel, PhD, and was an Arkham Asylum Psychologist who fell in love with the Joker and became his on-again off-again girlfriend. The graphic novel was a huge success and won an Eisner Award (Comic Oscar basically) for Best Single Issue of the Year. 5 years later it would be adapted into an episode of The New Batman Adventures.
Despite being introduced in 1992 and having made 14 appearances in various non-canon comic books, it wouldn’t be until 1999 when she would be officially a part of the main DC Comics continuity, in the storyline “No Man’s Land”. But once that happened it was off to the races with her. In 2001 she got her first solo series titled “Harley Quinn” of course. It lasted 38 issues and ended with her turning herself in to Arkham Asylum, having finally realized she needs help. This being comic books it didn’t last of course but the idea of Harley growing beyond her relationship with Joker and getting better was something many writers of the character would focus on heavily, marking a transition from her being a super-villain to more of an anti-hero.
Gotham City Sirens, though only lasting 26 issues, would end up being a major hint of things to come for the character. Written by her co-creator Paul Dini (and too many artists to name), it was a book that teamed her up with her best friend Poison Ivy, and Catwoman. At one point a film of it was being developed before Warner Bros decided to do Birds of Prey instead, although Margot Robbie just recently said she would still like to do a movie of it. Gotham City Sirens wouldn’t be the last team either as a very significant one was to happen just a month after Sirens ended.
In September of 2011 DC made the bold move to reboot their entire continuity. It was a controversial move that was supposed to make it easy for newer readers but, as with all reboots, it kind of did the opposite. Thankfully in Harley Quinn’s case things mostly stayed pretty similar, with one major profession change, she became a part of the Suicide Squad. In spite of being a recent addition to the team she quickly became one of it’s most associated members. Two years into the New 52 another solo Harley series was launched as well. This series effectively turned her into DC’s Deadpool, with Harley often breaking the fourth wall and having fun with the reader. It was a significant transition that would play into her appearances in other media.
In 2016 Harley Quinn finally made her film debut. “Suicide Squad”, directed by David Ayer was released August 5th of that year and…well it was a movie. Plagued by reshoots and competing edits (one cut of the film was edited by a movie trailer company!). The story behind the movie is more interesting than the film itself. I mean Jared Leto did his whole method acting shtick which had him sending used condoms to cast mates only for the majority of his scenes to be cut. It’s a terribly edited movie with conflicting tones, a movie that wants to be Guardians of the Galaxy but was reportedly shot initially as a gritty action flick. But it wasn’t a complete wash, Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn was praised, as well as Will Smith’s Deadshot. And despite the terrible reviews, the film grossed over $700 million and will be getting a sequel next year, ironically being directed by Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn.
Also even though Suicide Squad is very much a bad movie, it is not nearly as big an insult to the character as 2017’s “Batman and Harley” was. It’s a direct to video animated movie written by Bruce Timm, shares the same art style as Batman the Animated Series, and features the same voices of Batman and Nightwing from that series. Sounds awesome right? It’s not. Harley Quinn in the film is constantly objectified, has a scene of her farting constantly in a car with Batman, and also has her have uh, non-consensual sexual relations with a tied up Nightwing. Yeah, it’s bad. And it also features a double-butt crack.
Honestly I brought this trashfire of a movie up just to show this.
But thankfully things have turned out a lot better for Harley after this. Last November, she finally got her own TV show called “Harley Quinn” of course. Currently only available on the DC Universe streaming service (please come to Netflix), it focuses on a lot of the recurring elements I’ve already mentioned. She breaks up with the Joker, is best friends with Poison Ivy, and the show is focused on her getting better mentally. I love it! It’s like a mash up of Batman and Rick and Morty. The humour is whip-smart and the show’s overall narrative treats Harley great, keeping her funny elements but also making her enough of a human so that she works as a lead character. On top of that the show has a ton of fun turning serious Batman characters into joke machines, just take a look at this brilliant Calendar Man gag.
And that’s just from the first episode. Yeah, I really love this show, just don’t ask how I was able to watch it in Canada.
Finally we come to Birds of Prey. Margot Robbie pitched the film to Warner Bros. herself, choosing to do a team film because in her words “..’Harley needs friends.’ Harley loves interacting with people, so don’t ever make her do a standalone film”. She spent three years presenting the film to WB until the studio felt the project could be made. On top of that she is a credited producer on the film and her production company ,LuckyChap Entertainment, is involved as well. Directed by Cathy Yan, the first female Asian director to direct a superhero movie, it’s looking to be Harley’s next hit.
Harley Quinn is a character with a rich history and unconventional rise. I didn’t even get into her videogame appearances or non-canon comic history. Heck, she’s an incredibly popular Halloween costume on top of that. And if Birds of Prey doesn’t quite hit the mark Harley will still be on screens soon enough, with her appearing in “The Suicide Squad” in 2021. What can I say, everything is coming up Harley.