Harleen Quinzel has always been a fascinating character to me. For starters, when the writers were trying to add more depth to a popular side character who was “The Joker’s Girlfriend” they decided with a straight face to claim that her real name was “Harleen Quinzel” is pretty amazing. Really it could have been anything, but they went with something close to Harley Quinn, and just went for it.
In all seriousness, one of my favorite things about Harley Quinn is a fact that they don’t talk about a lot when discussing the character. It’s something that we see a little bit in Birds of Prey, and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (I love that they went with this for the title, but I won’t be writing that out the whole time) addresses it, albeit not directly.
At the point that the Joker is captured and put into Arkham Asylum for the 100th or so time, they have to know he’s pretty dangerous. He causes a lot of death, because when you’re the clown prince of crime I’m guessing that’s pretty heavy in the job description. So, the implication that they sent Dr. Quinzel into talk to him probably means that she’s not an inexperienced therapist. They sent her in there to try to cure the Joker, when instead he manages to twist her mind. While the Joker/Harley dynamic has a lot of underlying psychological issues that can really be broken down, I think that’s important to remember about Harley Quinn as a character: She was at some point so powerful that they put her against the Joker himself. She just happened to lose, much in the same way that Batman has kind of lost against him a couple hundred times. Hell, Superman was defeated by the Joker at some point.
Its a small point I think we tend to forget with this character: She’s pretty damn powerful on her own.
That’s a long way of saying that the recent Birds of Prey movie managed to craft an interesting narrative by leaning into these little facts, and what resulted was something unique in the world of superhero movies.
Sometime after Suicide Squad, the Joker and Harley Quinn break up. It’s far from a mutual dumping, and most of it done through cartoon or careful shots to not remind everyone that Jared Leto played the Joker at some point. After dealing with the breakup and realizing that a lot of people want her dead, Harley decides to go into business for herself as a freelance… something. Mercenary? Muscle for hire? That’s not important, really. She ends up being hired by the Black Mask to get back this diamond that might have some codes in it, because it’s the 21st century and we don’t want diamonds anymore we want complicated codes that might lead to more treasure. Along the way, she teams up with Black Mask’s driver/singer Dinah Lance; a cop who’s trying to build a case against Black Mask’s empire, Renee Montoya; and the Huntress, the daughter of a slain mob boss out for revenge. Oh, and there’s a kid involved, too (Cassandra Cain). We’ll get to why that’s my least favorite part of an otherwise good movie.
This movie can only be described as “madcap.” It zooms in and out of time, mostly because it’s being told through Harley Quinn’s point of view and as we mentioned earlier, the Joker kind of broke her from her sanity a while ago. On-screen text gives us only the information that she knows, which fills us in but still leaves some mysteries, like when Huntress starts showing up and shooting arrows through people’s necks. (This one is violent, kids.) But one of the great things about how Margot Robbie plays the character is not really sane, but really, really smart. Despite the fact that it’s fair game on Harley now that she’s no longer with the Joker, she still manages to manipulate her way through most of her problems because that’s what she does: She analyzes the person and the problem, then exploits their weaknesses. It’s through these active moments that show how she’s a terrifying villain/anti-hero in her own right, with a very loose moral compass.
I think lately we’ve tended to come down hard on the idea of the unreliable narrator, or how a movie plays with reality when we see it through our point of view character. There’s an idea that what’s on the screen is what we take at face value, but this plays with that idea really well because Harley Quinn is a master at figuring out what makes people tick. The Joker, for all of his evil clownness, had been portrayed as a loner until she showed up. This movie does more than emancipate her: it shows us the effect she would have had on him and why she would have impressed him initially, and why he would eventually be terrified of her. And that’s actually shown through a pretty subtle shift in references to “Mr. J” as he looms large over the first half of the movie, eventually fading more and more until he’s really more of an afterthought than anything else.
One of the other strengths of this movie is the collaborative effort of the Birds of Prey themselves. They aren’t given a ton of screen time, but they are fully fleshed out, and it’s interesting to see them team up with Harley Quinn not out of a sense of forming a team but of necessity. I’ve written and re-written sentences which justify each one of them as a standout, but I really can’t. I can think of moments that not only humanizes each of them, but also shows why they work together as a team. Honestly the only thing I wasn’t thrilled about was the change to Cassandra Cain’s character. In the comics she’s a living weapon who communicates through physical action, but here they made her a generic pickpocket who ends up with that diamond and acts as the person the Birds of Prey need to defend so there can be a big fight scene at the end.
Again: That is a very minor quibble. One could have been fixed by changing the character name or, you know, adding the Cassandra Cain to the group. She was Batgirl once. Have her fight against the clown queen of crime for a little bit.
I liked this movie, but then I really like the Harley Quinn character. As mentioned, she’s a really powerful character who has a lot of skills that we don’t think about. And I think this movie is a perfect example of how to look at an extremely complex character through her point of view. I highly recommend this movie, not just for Harley Quinn, but for all the Birds of Prey.
Hamlet T. Wondercat says…