The Suicide Squad: Harley Quinn Has Had the Best Character Arc in the DCEU

There seems to be an ever-growing number of reasons for fans to be excited about The Suicide Squad, with the blockbuster arriving in theaters and on HBO Max this week, and featuring characters from all across the DC universe, ranging from the obscure to the already-iconic. One Squad member who might be in that latter category is Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who appears to be at the center of some standout sequences in the film. The Suicide Squad will be the third onscreen appearance of Robbie’s Harley, following 2016’s Suicide Squad and 2020’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Ever since she was first introduced onscreen five years ago, Harley’s live-action journey has been just as erratic and entertaining as the character herself — and in a roundabout way, it might be the best character arc that the modern DC Films world has had.

Suicide Squad brought the CliffsNotes version of Harley’s origin story to general audiences — her start as Arkham psychiatrist Dr. Harleen Quinzel, her grooming at the hands of her manipulative lover The Joker (Jared Leto), and the years the pair thrived in Gotham City’s underworld before Harley was arrested by Batman (Ben Affleck) and thrown into Belle Reve. Over the course of the film, as Harley was recruited into the Suicide Squad itself, fans got to see multiple sides of the Harley they recognized from comics and animation — outgoing, violent, and driven during the team’s task of bringing down Enchantress (Cara Delevigne), but also privately struggling with whether or not her love for The Joker would give her the life she really wanted. When The Joker rescued her from Belle Reve at the end of the film, it certainly seemed like that would be the case… only for the opening minutes of Birds of Prey to quickly throw that all away and break the pair up.

As Birds of Prey marched along and pitted Harley and the film’s other female characters in a deadly fight against Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), the film also served as a no-holds-barred showcase of who Harley always had the potential to be outside of The Joker’s shadow. Her quest for “emancipation” involved everything from the mundane (eating ice cream while crying on the couch) to the larger-than-life (fighting police officers and hitmen with random objects in a cocaine-fueled brawl) — but at the end of the day, it proved to be a mix of wild and earnest in a way that perfectly suited Harley. And while we don’t know exactly what narrative is in store for Harley in The Suicide Squad, the promotional material has indicated that it will take Harley’s personal sense of freedom to an even more bombastic place, with over-the-top outfits and visions of cartoony graphics in her fight scenes.

Has Harley Quinn’s movie arc been exactly what fans might have been expecting when Suicide Squad premiered? Probably not. But across the films she’s appeared in thus far, we’ve received a surprisingly comprehensive — but also completely varied — look at all of the shades of Harley Quinn that have existed across the source material for three decades. (And that’s not even factoring in the elusive “Ayer Cut” of Suicide Squad, which would have apparently added even more of Harley and Joker’s twisted dynamic.) The fact that each chapter in Harley’s journey has come from a separate creative team feels noteworthy in its own right, something that Robbie herself has even acknowledged, saying that she's “fascinated” to see what each writer and director are drawn to about the character.

Purely in terms of Harley’s onscreen arc in the DCEU, what we’ve already seen has been rich with detail and reverence for what her character has always symbolized, while also recontextualizing that symbolism in the modern era. Even from her first appearance in Suicide Squad, Harley became a fan-favorite (particularly among female fans) for her incredibly unique, but also incredibly universal character arc. So many people have dealt with the emotions of being in a bad or abusive relationship, with the pain of a bad breakup, and with the freedom of rediscovering themselves. Sure, it’s safe to assume most of those stories haven’t involved run-ins with supervillains and vats of toxic acid, but seeing the way Harley has navigated those domains — all while becoming a person who is authentically herself — has been both impactful and entertaining, especially as Harley has gone toe-to-toe with an ever-growing number of other DC characters. (Even the reference of Harley in Zack Snyder’s Justice League’s apocalyptic “Knightmare” timeline, which used her offscreen death as a threat from Batman to The Joker, still felt oddly on-brand for her journey.)

When you look at Harley’s arc in the larger landscape of comic book movies, and especially female representation in those movies, the comprehensive feeling of her storyline only begins to shine. Even in terms of characters with multiple film appearances in the DCEU, no hero or villain has quite come close to Harley — Batman and Superman (Henry Cavill) have had meaningful and reverential evolutions across their onscreen appearances, but still remain a far cry from the multiple-movie arcs that Zack Snyder originally crafted for the characters. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), meanwhile, has popped up in more DCEU installments than Harley, but still has huge swaths of her personality or lore that are completely unexplored, and has had very few strong interpersonal relationships outside of her boyfriend. If (both in comics and on screen) Wonder Woman has represented the idealized version of feminism, Harley has represented the reality of it, in all of its messy, honest, and unabashedly fun glory.

There’s no telling exactly what the future holds for Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn once The Suicide Squad has come and gone — rumors of a Gotham City Sirens movie or a potential crossover trilogy with the Birds of Prey continue to pop up, as does the idea of just seeing Harley in any other film context. Robbie herself previously stated that she’s taking some (well-deserved) time away from playing Harley, following the back-to-back productions of Birds and Squad, but has since walked back those comments. Either way, we can only hope that her journey with the character is far from over. Harley Quinn has received a story in the tapestry of the DCEU that is wildly entertaining, complex, and surprisingly rewarding — and based on Harley’s comic history, there’s still a lot more that can be explored.

The Suicide Squad debuts in theaters and on HBO Max beginning Thursday, August 5th.


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