A Cycle of Violence: Harley Quinn and the Joker
Love is a funny thing. It can be the most complex mystery of the human experience or the most obvious thing in the world or both at the same time. Our fascination with love is so great that love stories seem to make up the bulk of fiction, and there's at least a little romance in most works, regardless of genre. Everybody loves a love story.
But the tale of Harley Quinn and the Joker is not a love story.
Throughout their many incarnations, abuse has consistently been a larger piece of the story than love. Together, they make a unique exploration; what happens when someone falls in love with one of the worst humans on the planet? Manipulation and abuse are what happens and in this case an opportunity to illustrate a completely dysfunctional, unhealthy romantic relationship in supervillain form. But where do you go from there? When a couple of characters with a relationship based on mistreatment get as popular as these two, how do you respond? And how does the movie version of the Suicide Squad handle this? To answer these questions, it helps to know the history.
Spoiler warning for 20+ years of Harley Quinn history and the new Suicide Squad movie.
The Original Origin
How exactly the relationship between the two functions can usually be illustrated pretty clearly by how their origin works at any given time. Quinn's first appearances were on Batman: The Animated Series, where she was created more or less as a background role for an episode in 1992, merely a jester themed female minion of the Joker's. She proved popular enough among the audience and the show staff to continue appearing as a full character on the series. In 1994, her creator Paul Dini finally penned an origin for her in a single issue comic, “Mad Love”, which would then be adapted for an episode of the cartoon.
The details throughout the comic and episode are quite pointed, with the Joker and Harley's behavior matching note for note descriptions of an abusive relationship as defined by HelpGuide.org. The Joker is sweet and thoughtful and sympathetic and charming, up until the point he starts beating and insulting her. When alone with the Joker, Harley is visibly frightened by him and his behavior, flinching as he gestures broadly and moving out of his line of sight. The Joker berates her for their failed attacks on Batman and belittles her ideas for new plans. Harley blames herself for the abuse, saying, “I didn't get the joke.” The Joker perpetuates a cycle of violence, 'punishing' her for what he perceives as her failings, then turning on the charm and sending her a gift to maintain her loyalty. While Batman: The Animated Series was a kid's show, it was quite accurately portraying domestic abuse, a terrible situation that is a dangerous reality for far too many people today. As HelpGuide.org says, “Recognizing abuse is the first step to getting help”, and this episode gave a pretty clear cut example.
The flipside of this characterization is that Harley may be a victim of the Joker's abuse, but she is also distinctly her own villain with her own sense of agency. Most of Batman's villains fall at a tragic point somewhere in between brilliant and mad in their own way, and Harley is no different; she leads the confrontations with Batman throughout the episode, and Batman even comments to the Joker that she came closer to killing him than the Joker ever did. And this is her tragedy; she's legitimately an intelligent, capable villain in her own right (and before her days of villainy, she was even a gifted and skilled psychiatrist), but in her madness she devotes herself to a man who will never love her back, always waiting for the appreciation she will never receive.
The Times They Are A-Changing
Harley's popularity throughout the cartoon and her following appearances in comics were so great that she was made a pretty prominent character when DC rebooted in 2011. How did they handle the new Harley Quinn? By most accounts, poorly.
Quinn was immediately made a member of the Suicide Squad, with a strained devotion to the Joker still intact. By issue #7, the Suicide Squad comic detailed her new origin, which involved her developing feelings for the Joker, freeing him while under mental duress, regretting her decision, then the Joker attempting to murder her by kicking her in the same chemicals that transformed him. She emerges with similar bleached skin and discolored hair and a loose grip on reality.
The primary issue with this revision of her origin is how it takes away her agency as a character. In “Mad Love”, she becomes Harley Quinn of her own accord; the Joker may charm her, but she falls in love with him, she makes her costume herself, she sets out a plan to free him from Arkham Asylum. The relationship she ends up in may not be what she was hoping for, but she is not 100% a victim in the events leading up to it. In the New 52, she has none of that. Her direct involvement in the events is in letting the Joker out of his cage, which she immediately expresses regret over; from that point forward she is essentially a hostage, captured by a villain who tries to kill her and accidentally turns her as crazy as he is. While the character had always been at a complicated place between being a dangerous foe in her own right and being an abused partner, this interpretation of her origin makes her nothing more than a victim, and that removes a huge chunk of what makes her compelling as a villain.
You Don't Know the Half of the Abuse
This is where the Suicide Squad movie comes in. When tasked with portraying Harley Quinn to the widest audience she'd ever been made available to; the film needed to figure out how to handle the differences between her original version and the current iteration which was involved with the comic being adapted. And like the rest of the film, its solution was chopped up and reorganized into a confusing mess.
Here's the deal; what we see in the movie of Harley's character arc and her relationship with the Joker is very likely not what was originally intended. While not officially released, test audiences have described scenes from earlier cuts that included a much more obviously abusive interpretation of the Joker. The Joker in the theatrical cut has an oddly stable relationship with Harley (relatively speaking), and genuinely seems to care about her. She gets captured by the authorities and forced into the Suicide Squad, and Joker spends his entire arc in the movie trying to rescue her, successfully freeing her and escaping in a helicopter. When the helicopter is hit by a missile and appears to be going down, the Joker pushes her out of the back and onto the rooftop of a building to save her, appearing to die in the process.
There're two possibilities for why their relationship is presented this way. The first is simply that it might have been decided that the movie shouldn't delve that deeply into the abuse angle. One of the interesting compromises the movie made was in her on-screen origin. While shown in quick sequences, Harley's role is somewhat prominent in her own origin; similar to before the reboot, Harley, the doctor, falls in love with the Joker, her patient, and voluntarily helps him escape. He repays her with electroshock therapy, though she puts up notably minimal resistance to it. When faced with a vat of acid, the Joker gives her a choice to 'live for him', and she makes the decision to prove her love by leaping in. Adding to the Joker's more caring attitude towards her, he's shown to have the option of leaving her to drown in the chemicals but instead, dives in himself to bring her to the surface. To its credit, the movie makes the effort of giving her back her agency, by pointedly making the choices in this situation hers. But in the cut that we saw in theaters, the movie chooses to overlook the abusive elements of their actual relationship, and the portrayal seems somewhat neutered because of this.
And here is where I have a different theory as to why they were portrayed the way they were. A part of me suspects that on some level, the characters we saw here weren't even the Joker and Harley Quinn at all. I mean, yes, ACE Chemicals, Arkham Asylum, Dr. Harleen Quinzel, Batman; sure, the lore and the mythos are all there saying that this is indeed the Joker and Harley Quinn, but their relationship in the movie resembles much more strongly the connection between a different jester themed criminal couple who were members of the Suicide Squad: Punch and Jewelee.
It's worth noting that the lineup of the Suicide Squad movie substituted several more famous villains for the less prominent roles originally in the comics. Killer Croc, a Batman villain who has been used in several multimedia adaptations, was subbed in for the less famous King Shark; Katana, who's been receiving a massive push from DC filled a role very similar to Vixen's from the 80's series; Nightshade, a rather important Suicide Squad member but infrequently used comics character, was absent from the movie entirely, but character elements from her ended up grafted onto other characters, like her Catholicism going to Deadshot, and her powers and romance with Rick Flag going Enchantress. It makes sense, in this context, that if aspects of Punch and Jewelee were wanted in the film, they would be given instead to DC's more famous clown criminal couple. Much like the movie version of Harley and the Joker, Punch and Jewelee may be distinctly unhealthy, dangerous people and spend a fair amount of time bickering, but they seem to care genuinely for each other and have which is equivalent to a relatively stable relationship. At the end of the day, they're the couple who fights constantly, yet would do just about anything for each other, and will probably last a lot longer than a lot of the other couples around them.
And while this is cute on them, it still doesn't work for the Joker and Harley Quinn. The big difference between these couples is that Punch and Jewelee are just thieves and petty criminals. The Joker is a psychotic terrorist, and in the movie portrayed as something of a crimelord to boot. He's not the kind of person you can have anything remotely resembling a stable relationship with, and the original version of Harley Quinn used that information to craft a romance that was not at all to be romanticized. In making a surprisingly loving relationship between the two in the movie, it normalizes and even romanticizes what is in every other media an abusive relationship with a character incapable of demonstrating love, putting the film right back into questionable territory, despite what efforts they took to improve upon the New 52's reinterpretation of Harley's origin.
“Away From You and Your Garbage”
Where all this seems to lead is that the first version is still the best, but even it has one small problem: “Mad Love” is just a short, temporary piece of the long form media represented by Batman comics and cartoons. These characters are built to be perpetually locked in battle, fighting each other again and again. Harley's portrayal was excellent for drawing attention to a real life problem, but it also made her a sympathetic character, which made her a popular character. She was introduced into the comics not long after her first appearance on the cartoon, and demand for the character meant that she would be appearing with increasing frequency and focus over the next several years. Because she was usually seen as a decidedly less evil figure than the Joker himself, she was the kind of petty criminal who could also be pretty fun to get behind, but because of her design and theming, she's a complicated character to separate from the Joker for long, so the character finds herself stuck in an abusive relationship for decades worth of comics at a time. This puts her in kind of a weird position. The longer this goes on and the most prominent of a character she's made, the more normalized this abusive relationship becomes and the less urgency there is about it. As DC began to push Harley Quinn the anti-hero, Harley Quinn the domestic abuse victim had less and less weight.
And this is where the New 52 finally did right by Harley Quinn; when her popularity proved significant enough to support a solo title, she was given to the creative team of Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti. To address the long-standing issue of Harley being a likeable, decreasingly villainous character who keeps getting back into a relationship with one of DC's vilest villains, they finally told the story that Harley had needed for some time: she breaks up with the Joker, permanently (or for whatever passes as permanent in comic books). If Harley Quinn is meant to be something more than a cautionary tale, this is what the writers needed to do with her.
The results have been pretty positive for her, both for her character and for her title. Harley Quinn is consistently one of DC's top-selling books on a monthly basis, just behind Batman but frequently outselling Superman and the Justice League. Jim Lee recently referred to her as the fourth pillar at DC, just after the 'trinity' of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Despite some slip-ups, DC's handled her fairly well; her character has served the purpose she's needed to at any given point in her publication history, whether she needed to be a random minion, a tragic participant of doomed love, a lovable petty crook, or an anti-hero in her own right. When the time has come for her to move on to a new role, DC has let her forge her way there. It's been a long and twisting road, but this little jester has made it all the way to the top.