‘Harley Quinn’ Review: Harley Moves Out of Joker’s Shadow

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Let’s start with some backstory! Harley Quinn was first introduced to audiences as Joker’s sidekick and love interest in Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. She was then incorporated into the wider Batman comic book series, becoming a popular character in her own right with a rich origin story. Harley met Joker while working as his psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, where he gained her sympathy and seduced her in order to escape. Harley fell deeply in love with Joker and devoted herself to a life of crime by his side, creating her own psychotic and villainous persona in the process. For a long time, Harley remained oblivious to his abusive nature towards her – until now.

DC Universe‘s Harley Quinn aims to move Harley out of Joker’s shadow, beginning with a much-anticipated and long-overdue change. After Joker (Alan Tudyk) flees the crime scene and leaves Harley (Kaley Cuoco) to take the fall, she spends a year in Arkham Asylum where she meets “eco-terrorist” Poison Ivy (Lake Bell). Harley doesn’t lose faith that Mr. J will come to break her out, but everyone around her can see that Joker doesn’t care about her. Upon her capture, even Batman (Diedrich Bader) asks: “Why are you protecting a psychotic clown who treats you like garbage?” But Harley doesn’t care about Batman’s opinion, because she thinks he fucks bats.

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After Ivy breaks them both out of prison, she finally gets Harley to see that Joker is, quite frankly, the worst boyfriend ever. When given the option, he always puts himself first, even if it means putting Harley in harm’s way. Harley finally makes a breakthrough by putting her psychiatric knowledge to use: this is a classic case of abusive codependency. The series follows Harley as she breaks ties with Joker and finds her own identity, becoming a supervillain in her own right – a similar premise to the upcoming Birds of Prey (2020) film, which stars Margot Robbie as the ‘Cupid of Crime.’

It’s refreshing to see Harley Quinn depart from Harley’s notorious relationship with Joker and allow her to develop a healthy friendship with Ivy instead – a strong element throughout the series. The pair are perfectly cast, with Cuoco providing hints of Arleen Sorkin’s famous rendition while still making the role her own, and Bell chiming in with Ivy’s angsty drawl to aptly capture her misanthropic nature. As complete opposites to each other’s personality types, their exchanges end up being nothing short of pure entertainment.

Harley Quinn definitely earns its title as an adult animation. Not only is the series genuinely funny, it doesn’t shy away from the f-bombs and gory violence that are key to its charm. While the Gotham of Batman: The Animated Series was dark and miserable, in Harley Quinn it’s vibrant and stylish (a reflection of Harley’s bubbly, haphazard and unpredictable personality). Thematically, the series is appropriately dark without ever taking itself too seriously – exploring Harley’s traumatic past, while still retaining the silliness of her own perspective.

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Pre-existing knowledge isn’t necessary in order to understand and enjoy Harley Quinn, but those familiar with the Batman universe will naturally get more out of those well-established characters that do make an appearance – such as Riddler (Jim Rash) and Commissioner Gordon (Christopher Meloni). When putting together her own crew, Harley learns the hard way that men don’t want to work for a woman. She has to resort to hiring D-list villains like Clayface (Tudyk), King Shark (Ron Funches) and the misogynistic Doctor Psycho (Tony Hale), who was kicked out of the Legion of Doom for saying the c-word live on television. Unfortunately, the aloof Ivy doesn’t join the team – preferring plants to people – but she remains an integral part of Harley’s support system (though, sadly, not in a romantic way).

With their self-contained stories, the first few episodes of Harley Quinn are certainly its strongest. The rest disappointingly waver due to some weak plotting; Harley’s character is competing to outrank others as the top supervillain, but she often struggles to be as wicked and psychotic as she was in those earlier episodes. Fortunately, her fierce attitude is always present and demanding of our attention. Despite its flaws, Harley Quinn is a constant riot that is stylish, gratifying and full of laughs.

The series aims to redeem Harley as an anti-hero while freeing her from the toxic shackles of abuse that usually accompany her stories. It’s about time we saw Harley as more than just “Joker’s girlfriend” and Harley Quinn delivers exactly that. Part of the fun is that Harley remains an unreliable narrator with an electric personality. She’s truly a phenomenon – more than deserving of her own series. It’s Harley Quinn’s world; we’re just living in it.

Harley Quinn premieres on DC Universe on November 29th and will air weekly.

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