'Harley Quinn's bombastic, animated Gotham is different for a dark reason
When DC Universe’s uproariously violent and subversively hilarious Harley Quinn animated series comes to the streaming platform later this fall, fans of Batman’s home town will be treated to a version of Gotham City unlike anything they’ve ever seen before in the history of comics, television, and film — because the scope and even colors of the cityscape will be filtered through protagonist Harley Quinn, the mad clown who’s finally broken things off with the Joker once and for all.
During the Sunday Warner Bros. television panel at New York Comic Con, fans were treated to a screening of the pilot episode. Harley comes out of the gate swinging a giant hammer and shattering the limbs of anyone who gets in her way — mainly rich white men in the opening minutes. Almost immediately, we also see Joker as an emblem of toxic masculinity, ruled by his fleeting emotions as he constantly disrespects Harley and tries to upstage her. Things feel a bit ridiculous. Everyone behaves in surprisingly weird ways. Everything looks colorful, and the entire mood is cheery and vibrant, but is it really?
In an interview, series co-creator Justin Halpern tells Inverse that the world of Harley Quinn may not be what it seems.
“We’ve discussed in the writers’ room a lot: Is Harley an unreliable narrator?” Halpern says. “We’ve left that kind of up to the viewer to decide, but it is Harley’s point of view.” That might account for the pervasive tint of neon and the touch of joyful goofiness that’s infused in even Batman’s most villainous enemies.”
Seeing this city in a new light feels creative and utterly refreshing, regardless of how real or not real it may actually be.
“Even just the way Gotham looks in the show is different than how it looks every other iteration,” he says. “It has a lot of bright colors and a lot of life to it, so that’s probably not how it actually is.”
Harley Quinn is immediately rife with violence, gore, and meta-commentary. It’s almost like DC’s animated answer to Deadpool, but here it’s with the purpose of saying something unique about toxic masculinity in superhero stories. Between all the F-bombs, shattered limbs, and exploding bodies, Harley Quinn tells the progressive story of a woman who lost herself in a toxic relationship, but manages to redefine herself in inspiring and hilarious ways through the support of her friends. (If that sounds a bit like the upcoming Birds of Prey movie, well, you’re not wrong.)
Anyone startled by the gore and language of the pilot should know that things dial back slightly as the series progresses.
“We tried in the pilot episode to let the audience know that this is not what you might expect, that it’s not the Batman: The Animated Series,” Halpern says. “We pull back on the language and gore a little bit as Season 1 progresses.”
Nodding in agreement, series co-creator Patrick Schumacker adds, “We needed to set the table and see Harley go through this metamorphosis to reset the character in an efficient way. It’s more of a pure comedy moving forward.”
That reset for Harley arises in the pilot episode after she spends a year in Arkham Asylum waiting for the Joker to bail her out. When she finally escapes with a group of other inmates, she’s only able to resist slipping back into the same toxic behavior patterns with the support of her new BFF Poison Ivy. After one final confrontation against the Joker and his henchman, Harley’s free to become whoever she wants.
A lot of comedy in Harley Quinn comes from a farcical depiction of Gotham City and familiar characters who behave in surprising ways. It’s implied that all of it is filtered through Harley’s perspective, so we’re never all that sure if it’s the objective truth or just Harley’s fantasy. Schumacker and Halpern know what you expect of characters like Batman, the Joker, Commissioner Jim Gordon, and even Bane. They’re going to challenge those expectations in an R-rated farce that’s absolutely ridiculous.
Batman comes off as a barely human man of few words who speaks in short, simple, declarative sentences. For anyone exhausted by the countless number of stories we’ve gotten over the years of a heroic, tortured Bruce Wayne conquering his fears to protect a city that took everything from him, Harley’s version of the Dark Knight as a bland party-pooper is welcome and refreshing.
“She sees Batman in a different way than everyone else does,” Halpern says. “She sees him as a buzzkill.”
Harley Quinn boldly drops the “L-word” to convey that Joker loves Batman more than Harley, and it’s only then that she realizes how toxic her relationship with “Mister Jay” was. But it also winds up presenting Batman as a different shade of toxic masculinity. Harley is more than just the Joker’s girlfriend, but every man in this city labels her this way.
Despite the plot hook about Harley’s relationship to the Joker, the series is profoundly progressive, focusing on Harley’s evolving female friendship with Poison Ivy and the importance of having a nurturing influence in your corner. Harley Quinn proudly fails whatever the opposite of the Bechdel Test is. Harley and Ivy might spend most of the first episode talking about the Joker, but the narrative momentum is all about Harley channeling support from friends to define herself while portraying all of the men as overly simple caricatures. It’s delightful.
To see the first episode of Harley Quinn right now makes for curious timing. The plot hook about Harley leaving the Joker is the same as Birds of Prey starring Margot Robbie, which just got a new trailer earlier this week. Fans were even treated to a surprise appearance by Margot Robbie at NYCC. The Joker movie was also just released in theaters, portraying the character as a rabble-rousing incel raging against society who’s undeniably an emblem of toxic masculinity.
We’re all starting to realize that Joker’s out of place in today’s society and that it’s Harley Quinn’s time to shine outside of his shadow.
Harley Quinn premieres November 29, 2019 only on DC Universe.
Check out the live-action trailer for Birds of Prey to see a totally different story with the same lead character and plot hook: