To call Joker’s relationship with Harley in Suicide Squad anything other than abusive is dangerous – especially since the film was marketed to the mall-rat teens most likely to buy “Daddy’s Little Monster” merchandise at Hot Topic. Society wonders aloud why young women stay in problematic or controlling relationships, but we fail to point to cultural products like Suicide Squad as inspiration.
That said, there’s a lot of sexual work being done in Suicide Squad, and although much of it fails, unpacking the movie’s attempt to excite our “loins,” as Joker so queasily calls them, is worth a spin. Let’s analyze Joker as a potential boyfriend in a serious-minded way, punctuating our take, as always, with spoilers. The question is: how does he hold up as a sexual and romantic partner for Harley?
Harley, played enigmatically by Margot Robbie, is ogled and touched and attacked in almost every scene: by the prison guards at Belle Reve, by Batman, and every member of the Suicide Squad. The only two characters who ask her direct, non-sexual questions are Deadshot and Joker.
The scene in which Harley runs to Joker amid gunfire is where Suicide Squad cashes in most of its sexy chips. It’s the erotic cornerstone, or what Jared Leto’s Joker would probably call the “soft center of its exotic, steamy pear, but with a razor blade in it.” Given the choice between Deadshot and Joker, Harley chooses Joker, and Joker watches her do this, repeating, “come here baby, come on,” under his breath, his voice guttural and animalistic. Jared Leto, in this moment, is giving us his best shot at what Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow was to audiences back in 2003: befuddling to straight men, but chemically electric to many, many straight women. He fails in myriad ways, but the attempt is obvious.
As a member of the demographic this scene was aimed at — odd, undersexed, geeky women prone to writing and reading fan fiction — I responded to it the way Suicide Squad wanted me to so badly: by asking myself whether this particular Joker was sexy or not. A part of me reasoned he’d probably be a dynamite lay, as evidenced by his wild eyes and oral fixation. As Captain Boomerang points out later, “you know what they say about the crazy ones.” One can only imagine the fun Harley and Joker probably have off-screen, as Jared Leto so obviously wanted us to. It’s funny, however, how Leto shoved his Joker performance closer to something predatory in search of taboo sexuality, only to careen straight past an intriguing kind of lechery and crash head-first into that guy who always asks, “where’s my hug?” Fuck that guy, and fuck Jared Leto’s shitty Joker.
Some of Joker’s dialogue is so cringeworthy that it inspires automatic Kegel exercises: he says “this bird is cooked” when his plane catches on fire, and he straddles another criminal after making him kiss his ring, gushing, “I felt that,” or something similar. He also offers Harley to another criminal as payment for a deal (although it’s not clear he actually means to go through with it), and changes her from Harleen into Harley, either by electroshock therapy or by goading her into jumping into a vat of chemicals. The weirdest part is, she’s cognitively present in every scene not involving The Joker, which makes her lobotomization less clear.
While she’s devoted to him, Joker’s feelings toward her are lost in his chaotic, nonsensical behavior. He wants her with him at all times (red flag), and is both proud of her (green flag) and excited by her (neutral flag). In the scene with the chemical vat, Jared Leto dances around Margot Robbie, performing his manic metrosexual tap dance for her, asking first if she’d die for him, and then, perplexingly, if she’d also live for him. Possibly, this Joker is a Lauryn Hill fan. It doesn’t make sense to the audience — because it’s gibberish — but Harley apparently knows what’s up. She tosses herself off a ledge, apparently overcome with desire for his microwaved, leftover sexuality from the early 2000s, wrapped in a shiny pleather jacket and slicked with Manic Panic green goo.
If you’re a reader who balks at the idea of being alternately worshipped and “punished”, well, I don’t know to tell you. Maybe read up on sub/dom play. What’s going on in Suicide Squad isn’t as healthy and fun as sub/dom games, but it’s definitely borrowing from that realm of sexuality. Joker and Harley are to actual BDSM-loving couples as Jai Courtney is to Tom Hardy.
The film doesn’t explore abusive relationships in any purposeful way, but it’s worth mentioning that most abusers don’t reveal themselves to women early on. Though we don’t get any Suicide Squad scenes where Joker explains to Harley ahead of time — “we’re gonna act like you can fuck this guy, but really I’m gonna kill him” — we don’t ever get a shot of Harley reacting in real-time either. By leaving Harley’s consent, or her internal feelings about the Joker, up in the air, Suicide Squad makes itself less interesting, less useful, and more insidious.
There’s an argument to be made, however, that Joker is a better boyfriend than Rick Flag, who tries to protect June Moon in the most milquetoast and ineffective way possible. Rather than try to empower or rescue her, Flag just shackles himself to her and says, “well, we’re both in this hole now, guess we better mope together.” He’s also a superior boyfriend to Diablo, who we’re supposed to believe accidentally incinerated his family, although the two shots that make up that sequence suggest something more sinister. He follows his wife up the stairs, yelling at her, and in the next shot, he cradles her dead body.
It’s not the suggestion of domestic abuse that makes this terrible, but the fact that it’s sold to audiences as a tragic, inevitable event. We’re not supposed to blame Diablo for having “a temper,” but we’re supposed to assume Joker is an asshole based on similar scenes. Is he a bad boyfriend to Harley because of his lack of remorse? Further, does remorse from an abuser change anything? No, not really. While Joker’s presence in a film can be a positive thing, Joker and Diablo and Flag mistreating the women in their lives just makes Suicide Squad an insidious movie that’s chock-full, up to its neck tattoos, of misogyny.
If Joker is an understandable college boyfriend, the one who gets you into party drugs and opens up your experimental sensuality like a tropical, poisonous flower, Deadshot is the far superior Boyfriend 2.0, the one whose life follows a similar trajectory to yours, one who already knows his way around cunnilingus and isn’t threatened by your professional success. Deadshot, not to be outdone in fuckery by Joker, does tell Harley, “I will knock you out. I don’t care if you’re a girl,” and the line got a laugh in my screening, second only in intensity to the riotous laughter that followed Batman sucker punching Harley in the face.
Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn has a strong enough presence onscreen that her next appearance in a DC film, probably in her solo movie alongside Batgirl and the Birds of Prey, shouldn’t involve a romantic interest at all. As for Joker, he’s probably a better temporary boyfriend than people give him credit for. Even if he isn’t a very creative texter — there’s no way the Clown Prince of Crime would text something as innocuous and boring as “I’m coming for you be ready” — he does seem to value something in Harley that other male characters don’t: her internal mind, though admittedly he Frankensteined her into what she is. He probably loves the way Harley thinks because he conditioned her to think that way.
However, if Harley uses Joker for inspiration, to ascend socially among Gotham’s villains, and to network (eventually meeting Poison Ivy), he probably isn’t a complete waste of her attention. Use him and lose him, Harley – and you’ve got a bright future.