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Not your father’s comic

A review of HBO’s Harley Quinn

Harley Quinn (television series)


HBO Max, 2019

Harley Quinn was first introduced in the well-regarded Batman animated series, which ran in various forms through the 1990s and early 2000s. Harley started out as a named henchman for The Batman’s arch-enemy The Joker. Harley quickly became a fan-favorite with her own origin storyline devoted to her deeply, deeply unhealthy relationship with the Joker. Since then, the character has appeared in print comics, other TV series, and most prominently as played by Margot Robbie in the feature films Suicide Squad (2016), Birds of Prey (2020), and (the much, much better) Suicide Squad (2021). A substantial amount of her history revolves around her close friendship with Poison Ivy, a plant-controlling super-scientist semi-villain.

The animated HBO superhero series is quite good: well written, consistently laugh-out-loud funny, with strong female characters, an emphasis on the personal relationships of the various characters, and a leftist political slant. As the series progresses it becomes increasingly queer, and exuberantly sex-positive. The third season finished in September; the series is worth watching all the way through. I frequently recommend it as an enjoyable watch to my friends and family. Although there are many comic book in-jokes, it can be enjoyed by people who are new to the genre. Also, the Joker becomes the socialist mayor of Gotham City.

The series is set in Gotham City, the hometown of The Batman, in the non-canon* world of the 1970s and 1980s Saturday-morning children’s cartoon Super Friends. The writers take advantage of the low stakes involved to double down on the inherent silliness of superheroes, where full-grown people run around in masks, capes and brightly colored onesies punching bad guys. An incorporated cabal of super-powered baddies called “The Legion of Doom” maintains a landmark clubhouse in the middle of what is clearly a stand-in for New York City.

Over the course of the series, Harley Quinn (voiced by Kaley Cuoco) breaks up with Joker, re-imagines her origin story, and develops a series of real friendships. She also journeys across the galaxy, acquires an army of winged demons, and then realizes that she isn’t really interested in world domination. She stops more than one horde of plant monsters and most importantly starts a romantic relationship with her best friend Poison Ivy (voiced by Lake Bell). This is not a normal comic book relationship. Harley and Ivy have fights, work through living together, trust issues, and revelations of prior relationships – as if they’re in a real relationship. Their relationship is a central plot point, which is not how relationships are normally dealt with in a super-hero series.

In a genre rife with racism and sexism, Harley Quinn is a welcome addition. As a genre, superhero comics and movies are rife with racism and misogyny, both explicit and implicit, and often are little more than toxic wish-fulfillment for both teenage and adult man-children alike. Although there are several recent exceptions, especially among independently produced comics, these criticisms are often valid.

For example, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, of the 50-60 major named characters who run around doing heroics, I count 14 who are female and 11 who are not white (aliens don’t count). There are a similarly small number of LGBTQ+ characters. Several of these women have died, had mental breakdowns, or have had other trauma which is generally not written into the story of male characters. Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) was trained and brainwashed from childhood to be an unfeeling murderer. Her training ended in an involuntary hysterectomy. Steve Rogers (Captain America) was injected with a ‘super-serum’. Female Gamora (of the Guardians of the Galaxy) was adopted by Thanos, who had just murdered her parents, and trained to be an assassin. Bruce Banner (Hulk) is exposed to gamma radiation.

Lack of representation is just one of the many issues in the comic industry. Toxic masculinity, a romanticization of vigilante justice, the Comics Code Authority, hyper-sexualizing women, heroizing the police and military are among the more common problems. However, this series is refreshing and worth watching (and reviewing) precisely because it turns many of these conventions on its head. The writers have recognized these issues and they attempt to address them.

While other characters and plot lines intersect, the series is very much indebted to The Batman mythos. Robin, Batgirl, Alfred, the Joker, and various recurring Batman villains are the main characters. The series relishes in, exposing and lampooning the toxic masculinity of many of these characters. In the mainstream Batman comics and movies, Commissioner Gordon (head of the Gotham police force and ally of Batman) is a hyper-masculine, super-competent, extremely honest cop. In this series, he is still hyper-masculine: a needy, incompetent alcoholic at the end failed marriage, who can’t wait to break out the fleet of tanks that the Gotham police force happens to have access to. Another previously established character is Bane – a roided-up, rage-filled, bomb-obsessed, lucha-libre super-villain – who in this series seeks counseling, works on his feelings, and organizes encounter groups for other villains.

The Batman is of course the epitome of toxic masculinity. Unable to deal with his emotions regarding his parents’ deaths, he is still attempting to avenge them even after more than 30 years. His inability to process his feelings permeates his life – family, friends, and romantic relations are all kept at a distance because of his need to maintain his secret identity. In most Batman movies and comics, this is presented as masculine and a heroic sacrifice. In Harley Quinn, it is sad and self-destructive, ending in a mental break and an unhinged attempt to resurrect his parents as plant zombies that form the climax of the third season.

Another example is the case of Nora Freeze, the wife of Mister Freeze, an ice-themed opponent of Batman. She has an incredibly rare, incurable blood disease and has to be cryogenically frozen until a cure can be found. Mister Freeze then embarks on a life of crime in order to fund his research on Nora’s cure. In this scenario, Nora is robbed of all agency, and is literally immobile. She only serves as motivation for a male character. This is so common in comics that there is a shorthand term: ‘fridging’ or ‘woman in a fridge’**. But this dynamic changes in seasons two and three of Harley Quinn when Nora is thawed and Mister Freeze dies saving her. Nora Freeze then has her own story arc, going from a mourning widow to a free spirit who makes up for the time spent in a block of ice.

The Joker’s evolution is one of the standout parts of the series. Like many of the characters, he goes through a profound evolution and ends up as a different person than he started. This is a normal part of human life, but as in sitcoms and soap operas, most comic book characters go through profound experiences only to wind up as the exact same person. But this Joker evolves from being a murderous psychopath, to being a sane bartender, and then once again an unhinged but non-murderous productive member of the community. He develops a healthy relationship with a Puerto Rican nurse and has two adorable step-children that he dotes over. And he runs for mayor as the socialist that we all wish that DSA electeds would be. His platform includes abolishing the police (this is literally his first act when he wins), expanding school services, free universal health care, and taxing the rich (often by actually robbing them and then throwing the money into crowds).

This show is not perfect. There is a lot of violence in this series. A lot. Many, many people are killed. Most of the violence is cartoon-ish, but some of it is extremely visceral (although still cartoonish) and potentially disturbing. One of the members of Harley’s gang is an aging CIA war criminal, while another is a distasteful misogynist. Neither of these characters are treated as good people, but they are recurring characters. Also, there are very few characters who aren’t white. As noted above, there are few enough minority superheroes to choose from, but the writers could have changed a few characters’ race, or just made-up new characters.

If you grew up reading comics (as this reviewer did), you should watch this series. It’s full of easter eggs – minor DC characters make cameos (Swamp Thing! Mister Miracle! Gorilla Grodd!), there are amusing observations about comic-book logic, and running jokes about superhero names. And even if you didn’t, it’s still a delightful watch that is easy to binge but is surprisingly complex. Harley Quinn is available on HBOMax, and a Valentine’s Day Special is set to drop on February 9 – pick up a free seven-day trial and binge the series!

*Canon is a term for the stories (comics/movies/etc…) that make up the shared history of a fictional world. So when the Black Widow character died in Avengers: End Game, that became part of the history of all of the MCU movies. But in Harley Quinn, when the President declares Gotham City to no longer be part of the US, that isn’t reflected in any other DC media.

**The term comes from a 1994 Green Lantern story. A more recent example would be the 2018 movie Deadpool 2, where the eponymous character’s motivation is the murder of his girlfriend in the first act.

Featured Image credit: poster by DC Fandom; modified by Tempest.

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Glenn Allen View All

Glenn Allen is a long-time political activist in Chicago.