Oh Harley, My Harley

Reader Beware: I am about to geek out as never before on this blog, unabashedly and without shame. They say only Fan Boy love is pure, but it ain’t for everyone. You’ve been warned.

My girlfriend and I had extended fantasy casting sessions for the final installment in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. We were speculating if, in the absence of Heath Ledger’s genre-defying Joker, Nolan might elect to tackle the Joker’s occasional girlfriend and capo, Harley Quinn. (I’ll avoid a nerdly summary of Harley’s back story, canonical and otherwise, but details can be found here, here, and here.)

Though I can’t imagine Heath’s Joker sustaining a romantic relationship (even a totally insane, abusive one), I could see him converting a wide-eyed young doctor to his brand of madness. Throughout The Dark Knight, the Joker extols his particular philosophy, or rather anti-philosophy, corrupting Harvey Dent, and attempting to turn a ferry of frightened commuters into mass-murderers…What better way to continue this thread than with the Joker’s greatest creation, Harley Quinn? Ultimately, we get Catwoman instead, which, you know…fine.

To me, Harley is a fascinating character, and one of my all-time favorites in the comic-cartoon world. For one, she’s a shrink who goes nuts, her own rational methodologies entirely subverted by a stronger (albeit seriously bent) mind. Harley isn’t born crazy…she just listened. And was convinced. That makes her transformation chilling, one that could happen to any of us.

I’ve just finished the latest Batman-franchise video game, Arkham City, the follow-up to last year’s phenomenal Arkham Asylum. In both games, Harley takes the role of opener to the Joker’s headlining act. Like the Joker, Harley possesses a macabre sense of humor, but without the Joker’s lurking connivery. Harley is pure exothermic energy. She has no plan, no methodology. She’s embraced the chaos, perhaps even more than her boss/beau. Her devotion to the Joker is childlike, as is her fearlessness. Despite being nowhere near his physical match, in both games Harley takes on Batman in hand-to-hand combat, which, for the most part, the other Super Villains eschew in favor of monologuing in the shadows, or from behind very large guns.

But even so, I don’t think the Arkham game creators quite knew what they had with Harley, and like Christopher Nolan, I think they’ve missed a great opportunity. Throughout both Arkham games, Harley is a punching bag. Batman flicks her away like an insect, the Joker certainly doesn’t return her devotion (he offers to give Harley away in Asylum). Even the thugs ostensibly under her command aren’t very afraid of her, chatting out of earshot about who will get to have sex with her first, should the Joker leave the picture.

What is interesting to me about Harley, I guess, is that she isn’t empowered. This makes her a terrible role model (in addition to, you know, all the wanton killing), but a wonderful character. As the battle for Gotham rages around her, Harley seems like a confused little kid amidst feuding adults. To me, this makes her, on the surface, oddly sympathetic: this poor, fractured woman who followed a man into madness, and got little in return.

But there’s another layer here. Remember, Harley was a doctor when she met the Joker, which means her “aww-shucks B-Man” shtick is all an act. While Catwoman’s sexuality is empowered, Harley chooses to disempower herself, becoming a (dangerous) child. Just as, I think, allowing oneself to “go crazy” is at once empowering and disempowering, i.e. seizing control by losing it.

For all the time spent on Bruce Wayne’s demons (which, as some reviewer pointed out, could be resolved with like two minutes of therapy), I’d like to know more about one of the Batman universe’s most subversive characters, and since I’m not quite ready to embrace the dark realm of fan fic, I hope future Harley-imaginers will do the job for me.

When sexual politics and fiction mix, my stance is we writers have a responsibility– not necessarily to create empowered characters– but layered ones, to investigate and nuance both our muscly chunkheads, and our scantily clad vixens.


10.25.11 Update: Between Harley’s end credits audio and the Easter Egg mentioned in the comments, looks like Dini might be planning something epic for H. in the third Arkham game. I can’t wait!



    1. I was about to say the same thing. Dini created and practically single handedly wrote every episode and quite a few of the comics that featured Harley Quinn. He also wrote Arkham Asylum/City. You may disagree with the way she was handled but you can’t say that he didn’t have enough familiarity with her character. Maybe a bit more research would have helped here.

      1. Actually, I did know Dini created Harley, and didn’t suggest there wasn’t enough familiarity with her. I wish he would have given her a little more nuance in these games, however.

  1. I’m a bit late to this, but I’ve always liked Harley Quinn; she was always my favorite villainess. I suppose it is because she’s so…flawed. As you pointed out, her slow descent to insanity was frightening, mostly because she alone is someone who should be able to control it. And her temptation is love – something that can tempt us all. She’s absolutely fascinating, and almost deadly. I, too, wish they could have had her in a film, but I am excited to see what they do with her in the Arkham games. (Is it dorky to say that I have a Harley Quinn action figure on my desk? No. Okay then.)

  2. What would you have done to Harley’s character in the Arkham series games and in the third one, John Cusick?

  3. I meant what would you have done to her character in the previous two Arkham games and what about the future one?

  4. What would you have done to Harley’s character in the previous Arkham games? What are your thoughts for her in the future game? I say she will work with Ivy in the 3rd game..

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