2016 is going to give us a new Batman, and now if the internet is to be trusted it might give us a new Joker as well. Whereas the Ben Affleck Batman will debut in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice a new version of the Joker will pop up in The Suicide Squad (due 8/5/16), with Jared Leto reportedly circling the role after Ryan Gosling turned it down. It’s a tough gig. Sure, Heath Ledger was also given a daunting task of having to replace Jack Nicholson’s Joker, but whereas Nicholson gave us a camp delight Ledger gave us an Oscar-winning, legendary, once-in-a-lifetime performance. And by the time Suicide Squad arrives only 8 years will have passed since we first saw Ledger’s Joker do his magic trick with that pencil. So, yeah, good luck, Jared Leto.
However, that part doesn’t particularly concern me at the moment. No, the thing I immediately think of when I hear that the Joker is going to be in The Suicide Squad is that clearly this means they must be including Harley Quinn. There’s no real comic book-derived reason to include the Joker in Suicide Squad unless you’re doing so because the team will include Harley Quinn, ala the New 52. After all, how do you adapt Harley to film without also including her beloved Mr. J? In fact, in the time since I started writing this article Collider has exclusively revealed that Wolf of Wall Street’s Margot Robbie has now been cast as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad.
Harley Quinn debuted in the “Joker’s Favor” episode of Batman: The Animated Series because writer Paul Dini reasoned it would be cool to liven up Joker’s usual band of nondescript henchman by adding a female livewire who not only laughed at the Joker’s gag but made jokes herself, angering the Joker in the process for stealing his spotlight. Dini’s friend actress Arleen Sorkin was doing a character on Days of Our Lives that was a wise-cracking blonde, and he figured that was perfect for Harley Quinn. So, he wrote her like a 1930s screwball comedy type, imagining Sorkin delivering the lines (which she was eventually hired to do), and picturing her as a very 1960s type with a mini-skirt and weird mask ala the TV show Henchwoman. Batman: TAS artist Bruce Timm put the finishing touches on it by throwing out Dini’s rough sketch of Harley and re-drawing her as a modern court jester with a black, red, and white color palette.
She caught on with fans immediately, in a way that no new DC character had in years. Sorkin’s screwball voice for the character was just on the right side of the charming/grating divide, and you couldn’t help but embrace her insane love for the Joker, casually ignoring just how truly messed up that relationship was. Harley quickly made her way into the actual comic books, appearing in the Mad Love miniseries Paul Dini and Bruce Timm created to present Harley’s actual origin story. It turned out she had actually been Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a psychologist working in Arkham Asylum who was unwittingly manipulated into falling in love with The Joker as he recognized a darkness in her that he brought to the surface. She started out counseling him, buying each cliched lie he fed her about his rough childhood, “tortured, misunderstood, abused, yada, yada, yada,” and by the end he started counseling her, trying to get to the bottom of why a nice girl like her would want to surround herself with the lunatics in Arkham. She eventually suffered a psychotic break and became Harley Quinn once The Joker’s life appeared to be threatened.
Everything about Harley is keyed off of that story. Before, we had known her as a lovable Joker sidekick who wasn’t so much villainous as she was willing to do anything for the man she loved. Now, we knew she was actually one of the Joker’s greatest accomplishments, a woman completely destroyed by him who now followed him around like a lovesick puppy. It wasn’t even clear if Joker liked her. This definitive origin story was eventually adapted by Timm and Dini into one of the final episodes of The New Batman Adventures.
Harley later appeared in animated shows like Justice League and The Batman (with a slightly altered origin story), and made her way through Batman-based comics into other titles like Countdown and Birds of Prey before anchoring her own solo series from 2001 to 2003. In the interim, millions met Harley for the first time in the Arkham video games, which gave her a new skin-bearing costume.
DC capitalized on this resurgent fandom by first re-launching the Suicide Squad with the New 52 as a showcase for Harley, newly added to the team of incarcerated villains working government black ops missions in exchange for commuted prison sentences. Classic Suicide Squad elements were there, such as Amanda Waller as the team’s government handler and Deadshot as the de facto leader, but Harley was the focus, particularly her continued attempts to move past her deeply unhealthy infatuation with the Joker. Then DC gave Harley her own solo series, and she’s quickly become one of the most popular characters in all of comics.
Just earlier this month, Harley Quinn Annual #1 was the top selling title of the week, above Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the X-Men. This past June, Harley Quinn actually beat Superman in sales figures, finishing at #4 in the month’s top 10. In fact, the actual debut issue (Harley Quinn #0) of Harley’s new solo series debuted in the number 2 slot, beaten only by Batman. As Geek League of America observed, this was an astounding accomplishment because “Female-led titles rarely break the top 10, and often struggle to even make it into the top 20, with DC’s New 52 reboot of Wonder Woman being the only female-led title to rank consistently high–which is to say, in the top 75.” By comparison, the first five issues of Harley Quinn all finished at least within the monthly top 15.
Harley’s back story is so disturbing that the best stories involving her manage to balance that tragedy with her likable and often innocent-seeming demeanor, and her surge in popularity has coincided with the efforts to further remove her from The Joker. She remains so endearing because, as Geek League of America argued, “Harley Quinn is a nerd. Harley represents the insatiable fan. She represents the deep, neurotic, passionate love that fans have. Her relationship with the Joker is purposefully abusive–she is the unrequited fan. She follows the Joker and what he does, she desires him, she desires to be like him. Harley represents concepts that so many nerds can relate to: fanaticism. Passion. Love.”
Here’s Harley singing “Do You Want to Kill the Batman” to the Joker ala the sisters and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” in Frozen. I’m not the only one who actually finds it oddly touching when this fun parody actually turns into a break-up song at the end, Harley doing her best to part ways with the Joker:
So, from the moment Suicide Squad became one of Warner Bros.’ rumored DC movie projects the hope and excitement was for Harley Quinn to be involved. Sure, the modern Suicide Squad actually goes back to 1987, and Harley Quinn’s only been on the team since 2011. However, how do you make a Suicide Squad movie and not include its most popular member, good ole Harley? For a while, it seemed as if that’s exactly what they were going to do, with one widely reported rumor arguing the film was going to focus on Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, and Vixen with the supporting cast rounded out with Blockbuster, Mindboggler, Jaculi, and Multiplex (who has since been featured on The Flash). The implication now, though, is that the guy (David Ayer) they hired to direct the movie is tweaking the script, and even if that rumored roster was legit it may no longer be trustworthy. So, how do you do Suicide Squad without Harley? The answer is that you don’t. However, how do you do Harley without The Joker? Again, the answer is, apparently, you don’t.
Imagine if you know nothing about anything I just said. Imagine if you go to the Suicide Squad movie, and there’s this adorably off-kilter, kooky blonde (picture a far, far more lovable version of Jennifer Lawrence’s American Hustle character) who keeps making vague references to a horrible ex-boyfriend. Imagine how surprised you would be when they reveal that her ex-boyfriend is actually The Joker, maybe as a third act twist.
That’s one potential model for how they could utilize Harley and The Joker in Suicide Squad. It’s roughly what they did in the recent original DC Animated movie Batman: Assault on Arkham, which is a prison heist movie starring the Suicide Squad (including Harley) before the story gets hi-jacked by The Joker and Batman at the end. Overall, The Joker is simply a supporting character who springs to action once he sees that Harley has apparently moved on romantically (with Deadshot!). Of course, the Joker’s not actually hurt; as he puts it, “I don’t like other people playing with my things.” From that point forward, The Joker does become the primary obstacle for the anti-heroes, who keep dying left and right, with Harley’s allegiances put to the test. This live-action film could follow a similar pattern, or it could simply drop The Joker in for a small role via flashbacks or more of a book-ending piece, ala what the film is rumored to already be doing with Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. I guess I’m not really sure how The Joker will fit in to the story, but I recognize his necessity if we actually want Harley Quinn in this thing because while Harley now carries her own solo series in the comics her origin and complete persona is still intricately linked to The Joker. If having to watch someone like Jared Leto do his best Heath Ledger impression means getting to watch Harley Quinn finally make it into a live-action film then I’m all for it.
What about you? Is Harley Quinn over-rated? How dare you! Take that back, right now! Well, either way, leave a comment below.
Right now, Suicide Squad is due out 8/5/2016.