Harley Quinn is completely nuts. She’s a former psychiatrist who becomes as mad as her patients, she’s in one of the most fucked-up fictional relationships since Catherine and Heathcliff, and she sugarcoats her viciousness in ditzy-girl language and pigtails. That being said, her onscreen appearance in Suicide Squad, portrayed by the sexy throwback Australian human Margot Robbie (as she was described in a recent totally normal profile) will be the most important female character to grace movie theaters this summer.
Why will this nutcase in a shiny movie filled with explosions and terrible songs carry such weight? Because comic book movies do not have a good track record with female characters. They’re either the Damsel in Distress (Mary Jane and Gwen in all Spiderman movies; Jane in Thor, Lois in Man of Steel, Pepper in Iron Man) or they are idealized pictures of what male writers think Strong Female Characters should be (Black Widow).
Make no mistake, this isn’t to say female characters in comic books don’t have depth. But in their screen adaptations — through a mixture of reduced screen time (Sif in the Thor movies) and writing — their presence leaves much to be desired. If women attending superhero movies want to see representation onscreen, they either have to imagine background material that isn’t there, or give up and latch onto the more intriguing and deeply rendered male characters.
Now, the presence of relatable women is not a requirement — watching superhero movies is like watching the first season of True Detective; we accept that the women are all but nonentities and put up with it in order to get on with the better parts of the story. But it sure is nice when we don’t have to accept that.
Harley Quinn is different. She’s a three dimensional woman with deep flaws and an intriguing mixture of playfulness and danger. In that regard, she shares similarities with Jessica Jones, the best female superhero character to ever grace the small screen. Jessica Jones was allowed to be a flawed, three-dimensional human, and it made the titular show shine. But we have yet to see that kind of character on the big screen.
Harley will change that. She might not pound whiskey like Jones; the film’s PG-13 rating might make her antics with the Joker less sexy than Jones’s with Luke Cage, but they share two important similarities: They’re both in fucked up relationships that contain large doses of psychological trauma — which makes for gripping material when it’s handled right — and they’re both not women who are easily “likable.”
Too often, women in these films are blander than white bread because the writers are concerned that likeability equates interest — which often yields the opposite effect. Television is not exempt either, just look at Daenerys.
Like Jessica Jones, Harley Quinn is abrasive and aggressive, all sharp edges with dimensions that are hard to swallow. And that makes her interesting. It’s high time the most popular and lucrative movies in the world stopped tiptoeing around women and delivered one for whom “likeability” is not a factor. The big secret is, once they stop worrying about that, everything becomes more fun. Like Loki, Harley Quinn is a blunt instrument; a force of nature. So come Suicide Squad’s release date, bring on her box office reign. It’s time this kind of female character stormed the superhero movie world and paved a new road for the future.