ARTICLE / SHORT READ
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BY Liam Calvert
HARLEY Quinn - a.k.a. Dr Harleen Quinzel - has become an icon of pop culture in recent years. She stands amongst Batman, Superman, Robin and the Joker as one of DC Comics’ most well-known characters, despite being created decades after them. First appearing in BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES in September 1992, she started out as the sidekick and romantic partner of the equally chaotic and evil Joker. Her character, however, develops to show her as a victim of an abusive and toxic relationship. She eventually leaves the Joker to become a popular independent character and symbol of female empowerment in comics. This story arc is roughly translated into film form for the DC Cinematic Universe, with the character being played by Margot Robbie in SUICIDE SQUAD (David Ayer 2016) and BIRDS OF PREY (Cathy Yan 2020). Both tell the story of one woman surviving a toxic relationship and emerging stronger on the other side.
SUICIDE SQUAD introduces Robbie’s Harley as a prisoner of Belle Reve Penitentiary, forced to work for the titular squad to save the world after a bomb is implanted in her neck by the manipulative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). The Joker (Jared Leto) does not take kindly to his girlfriend being taken. Harley’s journey is a battle with dependency and learning to stand up for herself, initially being reliant on her “puddin’” coming to save her.
Despite having a strong personality, Harley does not have much agency across the film. We first meet her in a jail cell and she is frequently used by characters to further their own goals. Waller, The Joker, and the film’s villain - the seductive Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) - all try to use Harley in various ways, until she learns to stand on her own and goes on to play a vital role in saving the day, even if she does not deal the final blow herself. However, as the final moments of the film show, Harley has not moved on from The Joker.
The technical elements of the film similarly serve to reduce Harley’s agency. Ayer’s camera frequently reduces Harley to an object of desire, making sure to include her miniscule booty shorts or tight t-shirt in the frame, sometimes even without including her face. Her costume also stands out among the predominantly male squad, with most wearing dark-coloured body armour, contrasting Harley’s bright and skimpy outfit. These elements position Harley as an object to be ogled by male viewers, rather than a character that audiences can relate to.
Harley’s next appearance, six years later in BIRDS OF PREY, takes the character in a very different direction. The film opens with Harley having just been dumped off screen by The Joker. When this becomes public knowledge, it puts her in the crosshairs of crime lord Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) and forces Quinn to team up with the other members of the Birds of Prey: Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
Compared to its dark precursor, BIRDS OF PREY has a much more optimistic outlook, using a vibrant and colourful palette across the film. This is visible in the set design for Gotham City, explored mostly in the daytime, which is immediately unusual for the iconic city. Set pieces like Harley’s hideout, a local market, and a disused funhouse where the final battle between the Birds of Prey and Black Mask takes place, are bright and bursting with colour, which makes a refreshing change from the dark and gloomy cityscape of SUICIDE SQUAD.
Similarly, Harley’s costume design is vastly different to her previous appearance, with costume designer Erin Benach taking a decidedly female-focussed approach. Benach described her thought process as “in my dreamiest of dreams, what would I want me and a gang of girlfriends to wear to kick butt?”, and this approach clearly comes across in the film. Harley and the Birds of Prey wear fashionable and stylish clothing that make them look great but also believable that they could fight in.
The theme of female friendship has not been explored before in superhero cinema and BIRDS OF PREY makes a refreshing change from the macho norm. The film opts to avoid any romance plots for the main cast, instead focusing on them simply being superheroes and allowing them to kick butt as well as any other male superhero. However, small touches are included that show the film was clearly made by women. During the final battle, Harley offers Black Canary a hair tie, and although a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, it is something that most male directors would not think to include. All these elements work together to create the new image of Harley, a woman who has begun to find a new way in life after her relationship.
Despite being stark contrasts to each other in terms of tone and themes, SUICIDE SQUAD and BIRDS OF PREY surprisingly work in unison to tell an empowering story of emancipation. Harley frees herself from the darkness and gloom of her abusive relationship with The Joker to create a new life of freedom and female empowerment as a strong and capable survivor.
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