In Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn transforms from Joker’s love interest to self-realised Loki-style spreader of upheaval and mischief. And it’s one hell of a ride all the way.
From the Golden Age onward, with a few notable exceptions (eg Wonder Woman, Catwoman, Poison Ivy), female comic book characters have too often suffered from being less powerful copies of male originals.
Supergirl (actually the older cousin of Superman) was made younger than Kal-El by a freak of Einsteinian relativity. Spiderwoman, She-Hulk, Batgirl and many others appeared to be created with little originality as cheap enticements to a female readership, or to titillate the boys – or both.
Harley Quinn is in a similar position. Her origin story – she was the Joker’s psychiatrist who fell for him and turned to evil – is an echo of the old stereotype that women are driven by emotions to do bad things at the behest of males – a narrative as ancient as Eve and the Serpent. She’s all too easy to view as the impish, psychotic diminutive version of Mr J.
So, the question is, in a comic book world now burgeoning with fully-realised, powerful female characters, how does Harley Quinn claim an identity for herself away from associations with the Joker?
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) deals with that problem head on. The original title, which has been shortened in theatres to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey is far more accurate because at its heart, this movie is about freedom and self discovery.
Its celebration of breaking out from societal constraint is a subversive, radical, deviant message for our times. Oh. And it rocks, too.
It’s also given an original setting. Though tales of slave revolt are nothing new, this one is given a fresh comic book context, when a group of women rebel against the dominance of their various male overlords.
For the journey to begin, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has to sink to rock bottom, enduring post-break-up grief over splitting with her mentor and tormentor the Joker. She’s a complete mess, living on the borrowed fear the Joker instils in the hoodlums of Gotham.
She expresses her fucked-up, emotionally dependent state to Black Canary, another woman under a man’s thumb:
“You know what a Harlequin is? A Harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master, and no-one gives two shits who we are, beyond that.”
And so her journey of self-actualisation begins, with a grandiose and potentially suicidal declaration of independence.
The scrapes that follow stem directly from her escaping the Joker’s protective orbit. Because an awful lot of people have a truckload of grievances with Harlene Quinzel they’ve been too afraid to act on.
In the movie’s early stages, a drunk, grieving and fucked-up Quinn is at times vulnerable and so out of control she’s in danger of being raped or horribly murdered – all because she’s now a woman on her own.
“It’s a man’s world,” Black Canary pointedly sings. In that masculine violent hoodlum’s world, she needs to create a space of her own – and it’s not going to be a tiny apartment above a cheap takeaway for long.
Quinn isn’t alone on her journey. Finding her story echoed by each of the main characters, Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), she observes: “…turns out, I wasn’t the only dame in Gotham looking for emancipation.” Nor is she the only person seeking it in the world, either.
Just like Eve in the Genesis myth, she is the cause of everything that follows from her first act of rebellion against male domination. Unlike Eve, in this story, there’s no-one to judge her nor anyone strong enough to punish her. She acts according to her own lights. Beyond good and evil, she is pure self-serving elemental force. She’s what English Romantic poet William Blake once said Satan stood for – energy.
Harley Quinn is a trickster figure, the Loki of Norse mythology (not the Marvel one), who MAKES THINGS HAPPEN. She’s the driving motor at the movie’s centre, while all the other main characters are fellow travellers, each on journeys of self-realisation.
As with all great tricksters, she’s lucky and cunning in equal measure. And just like Loki, she operates by her own code outside of conventional morality .
Harley Quinn is most definitely not one of the good guys. She is a fighter and a survivor. By the end, she finds her own way by her own rules – no matter how impermanent and nebulous those rules may be. She has her own inner life, and is no longer “Pudding’s” (the Joker’s) distorted reflection.
Harley Quinn is, in many ways, any ambitious person seeking to create their identity in the world. It’s just that she also happens to be a devious, brilliant, witty, funny, remorselessly violent, scatterbrained and totally nuts supervillain.
That’s why she’s able to declare at the end:
“I’m the one they should be scared of. Not you, not Mr J, because I’m Harley freaking Quinn.”
That’s her hero’s journey. What a journey it is. And it’s worth following all the way to its explosive conclusion.