'Harley Quinn' review: A hilarious, necessary palate cleanse after 'Joker'

Has 'Batman: The Animated Series' finally met its match?

Harley Quinn is the Batman animated series we deserve in 2019, and in addition to feeling like a wickedly hilarious palette cleanse after Joker, it might be the best Batman animated series around, especially by today’s standards. Harley Quinn is every bit a highly polished superhero action-adventure, with the lead role (voiced by Kaley Cuoco) occupying a fun middle point between anti-hero and anti-villain. It’s also a socially charged, R-rated sitcom about an energetic young woman gleefully skewering chauvinism on both sides of the law.

If Joker is about the fragile male ego lashing out against an oppressive society, Harley Quinn is here to call bullshit on just how toxic and dangerous that perspective is. It’s nothing short of beautifully ironic and timely that the cartoon’s version of the Joker is an asshole and a fool with a huge ego rather than some kind of tortured soul.

Batman and Gotham City have always been perhaps the single most beloved corner of the DC Universe, particularly for edgelords who like more grit in their superheroes, but filtered through the manic brain of Harley Quinn, who sees a brighter, lighter version of the city, we see all sorts of familiar faces in a new light. This world is brimming with a kind of infectious energy that’s only enhanced by snappy writing and an assortment of top-tier voice-acting talent.

At New York Comic Con, showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker spoke with Inverse about how the show presents Harley as something of an unreliable narrator.

“She sees Batman in a different way than everyone else does,” said Halpern. “She sees him as a buzzkill.”

In the world of Harley Quinn, Batman is a villain, but so are the villainous misogynists like the Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face that typically dominate these Gotham City adventures.

Commissioner Gordon's madness makes a lot of sense in 'Harley Quinn'.

DC Universe

Perhaps the best thing Harley Quinn does, however, is call traditional Batman stories and other superhero tales out on their bullshit.

I’d rather watch something that pokes fun at the toxic masculinity and fragile male egos of Batman and his mostly-male foes in clever ways. Harley Quinn is a breath of fresh air for anyone (like me), who feels exhausted by grim Batman stories. Show me a woefully insecure Bane who is easily bullied by egomaniacs like the Joker. Show me a Commissioner Gordon driven mad by all the weird things he’s seen over the years, instead of the unrealistically cool and casual one we usually get.

If you ignore the obvious fact that Harley Quinn is a DC Comics story, you’re left with a genuinely clever sitcom about a woman who lost herself in a toxic relationship and is now forced to redefine her identity. This relatable experience is an adventure in itself, but through the lens of shedding her former attachments to discover new ones, Harley Quinn also explores the funny nuances to the supervillain experience that usually go overlooked.

In a standout episode from early in the season, Harley botches a job simply because she doesn’t have any crew or even a few henchmen to back her up. Chief among her competitors is the Joker himself. He’s time and again presented as the epitome of a toxic ex-boyfriend, be it the way he manipulates Harley’s emotions or tries to spoil public opinion about her. When she dumps him, he lies about it and kills Howie Mandel on public television just to loudly proclaim that he dumped Harley, not the other way around.

Realizing that she can’t do it alone is a huge step for Harley, pushing her to invest in friendships and recruiting some of the least-liked among Batman’s villains. Her relationship with newfound BFF Poison Ivy delivers the heart and soul of the show as these two female supervillains develop an intimate and supportive friendship that evolves over time.

Harley and Ivy's relationship is hilarious and interesting in 'Harley Quinn'.

DC Universe

Harley’s “crew” grows over time, starting in Episode 3 when she recruits Mr. Psycho and Clayface. The same episode features an excellent sub-plot involving the Queen of Fables that really cuts to the core of what this whole show is about.

The Queen of Fables is an evil sorceress who brought all sorts of mythical fables to life to do her bidding, including giant gingerbread men, anthropomorphized animals, and a dragon. But when the Justice League showed up, they brutally dismembered and destroyed the Queen of Fable’s creations. They even had the League’s top magic-user Zatanna trap the Queen inside a copy of the U.S. Master Tax Guide, where she’s been stuck for around 40 years.

“They punished me in a way no one has ever been punished,” the Queen of Fables complains to Harley. “Instead of throwing me into Arkham [Asylum] like any male villain, they came up with this bullshit. A guy robs a bank, he’s a criminal mastermind. Woman robs a bank? She’s a crazy bitch.”

We don’t often see this kind of injustice in terms of supervillain punishment, but it makes the Justice League seem like villains in their own right. 

Even when the Queen of Fables admits to embellishing things a little bit, we still meet Mark, a broken human-sized gingerbread man on crutches with half his head missing who used to turn tricks on the street for cash — all because Batman or another superhero broke his face in half and he was left destitute when his master got stuck inside a book.

“A male supervillain can literally look like a deformed penguin, but God forbid we outshine them, even a little bit, and into the tax book we go … forever,” the queen of fables bemoans. The ridiculous comedic situation creates a striking metaphor for the glass ceiling within the scope of female supervillains in a way that’s as provocative as it is weird and hilarious.

Plenty of Batman fans might balk at the prospect of Harley Quinn being a better show than Batman: The Animated Series, but in an era when the R-rated crass animated humor of a show like Rick and Morty feels wickedly topical and relevant to a jaded audience with endless options, Harley Quinn is something special.

This might sound like sacrilege against one of the most beloved superhero shows, and if that’s the case am here to commit blasphemy by calling Harley Quinn the best Batman series ever — or at least the best one right now.

Harley Quinn premieres on DC Universe November 29, 2019.

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