Margot Robbie shines as Harley Quinn in 'Birds of Prey'

In addition to a take on feminism, the story also translates well to being an overall focus on being an outsider.

MARGOT ROBBIE attends the world premiere of ‘Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,’ in London last month. (photo credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS)
MARGOT ROBBIE attends the world premiere of ‘Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn,’ in London last month.
"Do you know what a Harlequin is?” actress Margot Robbie asks Jurnee Smollett-Bell in the recently released film Birds of Prey. “A Harlequin’s role is to serve. It’s nothing without a master.”
In the context of the film, the statement is not meant to be taken at face value. Harley Quinn, the fictional character Robbie so skillfully played in the 2016 film Suicide Squad, is being both bitter and ironic in a production that promises her character will be both fabulous and emancipated, two poles the story revolves around.
Harley was originally created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm for the 1992 show Batman: The Animated Series. She was first introduced to solve a practical problem: the Joker was meant to enter a room with a large cake and, seeing he couldn’t be inside the cake and also carry himself, a helper was needed to function alongside the clown prince of crime.
Harley not only seemed to have solved this issue, but also struck a deep emotional need among fans of the show. Brought to life with the voice talent of Arleen Sorkin, Harley was daring and beautiful, street-smart and vulnerable. She was bad but adorable, and when Gotham police officer Harvey Bullock wonders if she can read him his rights, she uses her club to hit him, saying: “You have the right to remain silent, jerk.”
A star was born. Faced with such demand, the writers quickly fleshed out the origin of the character. She was meant to be the love interest of the Joker, part-time comic relief, part-time ditz, a little dangerous and always charming. She was a massive artistic and commercial success, and was soon incorporated into the comics themselves and has even received several solo story lines, which are among DC’s most successful and acclaimed titles. It also sparked the release of the ongoing adult-oriented Harley Quinn animated series on DC’s streaming platform, DC Universe.
A Harlequin is a centuries-old character out of the commedia dell’arte which often foils the plans of its master, much like Harley manages to do with the Joker. Like Harley, a Harlequin speaks in the vernacular, in her case, Coney Island American English. Cézanne painted the character in 1888, and a similar costume was used for Harley.
PERHAPS BY mere chance, the creation of a romantic interest for the Joker was a powerful return to its original inspiration, the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs.
Unlike the evil Joker, the protagonist of the film is a good man deformed by a “Comprachico” to always appear to grin. He falls in love with a blind girl, Dea. She doesn’t notice the disfigurement and is able to love the soul inside the damaged man. Based on the 1869 same-titled novel by Victor Hugo, it’s a tale of overcoming childhood trauma. Hugo invented the word “Comprachico” to describe adults who maim children for profit to make them into better beggars and circus freaks.
Harley, then, was not a ditz at all but a powerful character able to love the Joker while remaining willingly blind to his many faults. Yet what began as a borderline abusive relationship in the animated show, which was always careful not to pass the line set by its function as children-oriented television, grew into something darker and more troubling in the comics and movies.
If Mark Hamill’s Joker taunts Harley to shoot him, saying “You don’t have the guts,” only to discover that she does, and the gun proves to be a gag pistol, Jared Leto in Suicide Squad has Harley electrocuted, jump into a pool of toxic waste, and sit on the lap of another man. The shift was felt also in the comics and video games with the full-body outfit of the Harlequin giving way to tighter and more revealing clothes.
The emancipation of the character in Birds of Prey is both from that destructive relationship as well as Harley finally starring in her own film. Directed by Cathy Yan, the film is smarter than it lets on. On the one hand, it is very much a superhero-oriented film with plenty of action. On the other hand, it maintains a highly intelligent, and at times even critical, conversation with Hollywood and the icon of a female superstar.
To be blunt, the film offers eye candy, lets you know it’s aware of being eye candy, and at times turns the camera to the audience to joke about candy and tooth decay.
Robbie storms a police station, but, dancing on the line between being bad and good, no cops are killed. The film is violent, and Harley does break legs and kill people; but when she does, it’s off-screen and, we are meant to believe, it happens to the bad guys – so it’s ok.
Harley is also aware she’s in a movie and often breaks the fourth wall; this is the self-aware part of the film. Often by referring to 1940s’ Hollywood, Robbie moves from being comic-book bad girl Harley to Marilyn Monroe singing the 1949 hit “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and a film noir femme fatal.
The film also includes the 1966 “It’s is a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” sung by Smollet-Bell, in a club owned by the film’s bad guy played by Ewan McGregor. It’s a man’s world, the film says, and these men are often horrible.
THIS IS a point worth pausing on. Part of the charm in Suicide Squad was the relationship between Robbie and Will Smith in the role of Deadshot. Smith and Joel Kinnaman, who played Rick Flag, played the roles of flawed men who are also positive and reliable. No such male roles in Birds of Prey. Men are either completely evil, abusive, exploitative, or sexual predators. The only exceptions to the rule seem to be older men who have blue-collar jobs and are ergo cute and trustworthy as they make our heroine the perfect sandwich.
In such a world, what’s a girl to do? In the sly 1949 song, Monroe, who was an expert in playing the ditz who turns out to be smarter than the men around her, suggests that diamonds are a constant in a world of ever-changing sexual dynamics and marketplace worth. But diamonds can be stolen, and with the erosion of the social norms of the 1950s, Robbie can’t finish the song, because she’s struck in the face before finishing her lines.
But in addition to a take on feminism, the story also translates well to being an overall focus on being an outsider. Numerous times throughout the film is Harley referred to as having a target on her back, now that she split from the Joker. The sense of being an outsider needing to be independent and self-sufficient is something that many groups can relate to.
An interesting comparison can be made, for instance, between how many Jews feel in a Christian-dominated West with women in a patriarchal society. This is a notable comparison, as many incarnations of the character of Harley Quinn are either half Jewish (like in the comics) or fully Jewish (like in the DC Universe animated series).
While this is not a notable part in the film – indeed, Harley is shown having gone to Catholic school – the sense of being an outsider needing to find strength to be emancipated and independent is something that most audience members will relate to in one way or another.
In the end, that’s what this movie is about – emancipation and independence; and it manages to do the impossible and offer a unique take on an often simple format.
This is why women are the focus of the film’s climax. In a film about emancipation, the female characters don’t let males define what their alter ego name is or to finish their big bad guy speech. If it feels unusual, it’s because it is. Who said that changing pop culture would be a piece of cake?