Good Guy/Bad Guy: Pick Your Poison (Ivy)
Despite its flaws, DC’s latest film in their superhero universe, Suicide Squad, was a hit, due in no small part to the popularity of Margot Robbie’s performance as Harley Quinn. DC has since announced a spinoff starring Harley Quinn, officially titled Gotham City Sirens. Fans of the comic know this likely means we’ll finally see Harley Quinn working with her frequent partner in crime, Poison Ivy, and thus this feels like the right time to talk about Ivy and what makes a good interpretation of the character.
A few months ago I wrote about Harley Quinn herself, and part of that focused on the pros and cons of treating Harley as a villain or as an anti-hero. Since Ivy runs in the same circles, she’s gone through a similar development over the years, with her alignment being pretty fluid and ranging from villain to mentally unstable (portrayed in a sympathetic light) to surprisingly helpful and idealistic. But what works best for her as a character? The best way to answer that is to start at the beginning.
Victim or Victimizer?
Poison Ivy was created in 1966, and at the time her villainous role was merely that of a plant themed femme fatale. In addition to her general sex appeal, she had command over plant based toxins and pheromones, giving her the ability to control people and use them as her slaves. These powers were given different origins over the years, but the original origin from the 60’s and the first update to the origin in the 80’s (by Neil Gaiman, no less) both involved her falling in love with her professor, only for him to poison her, with the poison accidentally giving her superpowers. In the 60’s, her professor used her help in stealing a valuable artifact, then attempted to murder her to cover it up; in the 80’s, her professor was performing mad botany experiments on her. Don’t let the botany-related exposition fool you. However, the toxins and pheromones were merely a comic book explanation (and metaphorical substitute used under the Comics Code Authority); sexuality was always a major component of Poison Ivy and her powers.
It’s true, the femme fatale as a character trope was nothing new, but the particular time of her creation coincided with second-wave feminism which had kicked into high gear a few years earlier, and this is reflected throughout her character. In both versions of her origin, she’s a promising young scientist entering the academic field, only to be seduced and exploited by a man in a higher position of power. Her ability to control people might have been explained via plant-based pseudo-science, but an emphasis is always placed on her sensuality as she delivers the toxins, a kiss on the lips being her most frequent form of attack. The bottom line is that this is a female character who is in command of her sexuality and uses it as her primary weapon, just taken to a superheroic extreme in application and aesthetic.
That manages to be both progressive and regressive, in different ways. On the one hand, yes, it’s great to see a female character empowered by what is frequently portrayed as a trait entirely for the benefit of men; abuse of women by men in positions of power is a narrative that crops up repeatedly throughout Poison Ivy stories. There’s a certain sense of cosmic justice in seeing her level the playing field by use of her womanly wiles. That being said, the problem is that she remains a supervillain, and while her origin is meant to evoke some level of sympathy for her, at the end of the day, she’s still the villain who does wrong and needs to be stopped. When looking at her as a woman in command of her sexuality, this takes on an unfortunate judgemental tone, particularly when you consider that the closest female character to her is the good Batgirl, created a year later, who remains chaste and mostly unsexualized.
On the other hand, there’s also value (and equality) in having powerful female villains alongside the frequent male villains, and in this Ivy was one of the rather few examples in her early years; part of the impetus for her creation was the need for a new female villain in Batman’s rogues gallery as Catwoman was becoming decreasingly villainous. As a form of balance, Ivy’s mental control works best when there’s context through the characters around her, someone to point out that she might have part of a valid argument, but she’s taking it way too far to be justifiable.
Eco-Terrorist or Social Issue Crusader?
As with many characters, 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths brought updates and reimaginings to Poison Ivy and her history. Her origin was updated to include a lonely childhood with neglectful parents, and her poisoning was altered from a one-off murder attempt to an ongoing abusive relationship with a man who treated her as a science experiment, driving her to criminal insanity. This new version was published in 1988 and would set the stage for all her subsequent appearances in the newly rebooted DC Universe. Over the next several years, she was given power over plants, and the temptress aspect of her personality would be downplayed for a vengeful form of environmentalism.
Of particular note is the idea that her powers became connected to a DC concept called “The Green.” Stemming from ideas in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, The Green is a mystical force that connects all plant life (it also has an animal-based analog called The Red), and it would eventually be used as the canon explanation for Poison Ivy’s plant control. This is important, because it helps root her powers not just in a physical control, but in a symbiotic relationship based on communication, emphasizing a more empathetic interpretation of Poison Ivy. She saw herself as a protector of plants and the earth itself, and her villainous rampages typically involved (lethal) retaliation against anti-environmental corporations and their business leaders.
This empathy played out in other ways as well. In the event comic No Man’s Land, when Gotham was hit with a major earthquake and declared a no man’s land outside of national police protection, the escaped Ivy did more good than harm. She cordoned off a section of Gotham City Central Park and used it to protect and care for orphans and runaway children. In following disaster stories, Ivy would frequently turn out to be one of the more reliable forces of stability, like in Convergence, where she grew gardens to provide food for all of Gotham. This empathy is exactly where we get into...
The Quinn Connection
Ivy’s empathy is perhaps most famously demonstrated in her relationship with Harley Quinn, as Ivy genuinely cares for Harley when she’s left behind by her abusive paramour, the Joker. This bleeds into Harley Quinn’s personal, ongoing arc, the growth from a woman trapped in the cycle of abuse that is her entire relationship with the Joker to a lady who managed to break free and become an independent character in her right. Ivy is central to this relationship, being the stabilizing force Harley can rely on time and time again, both when she gets away from the Joker and when she inevitably gets sucked back into his orbit. Different media and different DC timelines have portrayed the events of this cycle differently, but in the situations where Harley does finally make a clean break from the Joker, it’s Ivy who plays a significant role in helping facilitate that.
With this particular relationship and how cathartic and empowering it can be, it’s tempting to look at Ivy (and Harley) and see it as the time for them to graduate from villainy and become full on anti-heroes. But is that really what we want from them? Harley and Ivy first met in an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, the events of the story being that they helped each other out while robbing the same museum. The popularity of the characters as a duo is partly because of the simple fun of a couple of best friend criminals going on crime sprees together. That said, fictional crime sprees are only fun if they’re not particularly horrific, so the extent of villainy that the two can get up to together while still being enjoyable as characters is a bit on the limited side; rob a museum here, brainwash Brue Wayne and spend his billions there, etc. So what’s the best way to play them? Should Poison Ivy be a good guy or a bad guy?
Personally, I think the answer is somewhere in the middle; not quite an anti-hero, but more like an anti-villain. If a superhero is a character who is guided by ideals and standards, doing good and following the law, and an anti-hero is a character with similar ideals but is more willing and capable of performing less than moral acts to accomplish those ideals, flirting with villainy but for the greater good, then Poison Ivy should be the villainous version of that. She’s not truly evil, she doesn’t have grand plans for conquering the world, and she’s not a murderous psychopath. However, she tends to use criminal means to get what she wants only because she wants it and she doesn’t really care about the law or doing the right or moral thing or the effects it has on most people. In essence, she’s just kind of a jerk.
I think the idea of villains who are villains because they’re just normal, everyday jerks operating on a higher level is quite liberating in what you can do with a character. Intense villains, like world conquerors and villainous idealists and mentally unstable killers, can be great for really intense stories, but they’re somewhat limited in the kinds of stories they can tell. A story with Ra’s Al Ghul or the Joker tends to have a sense of urgency; these villains have to be stopped as quickly as possible, or a lot of people will die. The stakes tend to be higher but also homogenous, and it’s easy to reach the point of diminishing returns in story intensity if that’s the only kind of story you’re telling. Jerk villains, on the other hand, can basically be whatever they want; maybe they just want to get back at some person who they feel wronged them, perhaps they want to steal a particularly famous diamond, perhaps they just decided that this thing of yours is theirs and there’s nothing you can do about it. Their goals can be just about anything, and as long as it’s still against the law, a superhero is going to need to intervene.
This also allows them to be more human. The Joker is not a human character, he’s a force of nature within the world in which he lives, but that also means that stories between him and Batman are just solo Batman stories where he’s up against a particularly charismatic problem to solve. Jerk villains, on the other hand, are still basic, average people with basic average person emotions. Maybe they don’t care about humanity as a whole, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about individuals; they could be anti-social loners, or they could have close friends or even have families and stable romantic relationships. They’re bad in some aspects of their lives, but it doesn’t have to be all, and because of that, they can even do some good on occasion.
Poison Ivy cares more about plants than she does most people. Poison Ivy controls people’s minds and doesn’t care about the effects that could have on them, but she still tends to focus her powers primarily on men and still feels the need to justify it to others as vengeance for millennia of a dominant patriarchy. Poison Ivy has a soft spot for the weak and the abused and can be a great friend if you’re on her good side. She remains, in general terms, a bad guy; she’s just a villain who’s not below doing some good.
But she is still totally down for robbing the botany museum.