The Conflicting Romance of Harley Quinn and the Joker

This post contains spoilers for Suicide Squad.

I was part of the record-breaking crowd that saw Suicide Squad last weekend, and I walked away from the film mostly pleased. But there was one part that stuck in my brain and that I couldn’t stop thinking about the whole rest of the day after I saw the movie. I was hooked on the Joker and Harley Quinn’s story, and as soon as I realized I was enjoying its romanticism, I felt thoroughly disgusted with myself. After some introspection, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a chance that was the film’s end goal.

Their perfectly matched crazy, best shown in GIF form

Hyper-Romanticism as P.O.V.

There has been ample criticism that the relationship between Harley and the Joker is hyper-romanticized and could therefore influence impressionable people that crazy, obsessive, abusive relationships are something to be desired. I’ve already seen plenty of “he gets my crazy” memes surfacing both in anticipation of the movies, because of the comics, and after the film. But I think where the film takes an interesting turn is how much they edited down the abuse and only tried to show happy, albeit co-dependent, moments between the two. A supposed leaked list of deleted scenes paints a much darker film, including one in which the Joker is frequently violent towards Harley, including a moment where he pushes her out of the helicopter to kill her after going to all that trouble to rescue her. The studio, either out of panic or because they wanted to show a different kind of relationship, took that out and made it seem as though he pushes her out to safety. The re-edits of the film to show an almost functioning relationship between two crazy villains can make the audience walk out of the film, like I did, going, “Aww, I loved them!”

As I thought about it more I realized that, in a way, the film portrays the relationship as Harley sees it. It focuses on the moments when he actually shows her love, whether its because of manipulation, to get something out of her, or because he is obsessed with her. The overall effect of this portrayal is that we get to see Harley’s motivations for staying in the relationship. She believes that they can get to the happy, nuclear family vision that she sees when Enchantress tries to play mind games with them all. Harley definitely loves the Joker, and sees their entire relationship as romantic. Whether or not the Joker sees things that way, it’s unclear from the film because of how much of his footage was cut. The impression I got of his motivations are that of obsession and ownership, since their entire relationship isn’t necessarily love (at least not mutual love) but that of absolute addiction and co-dependency. Perhaps he goes to all this trouble to save her again and again because he sees her as his property. If that’s the case, they are certainly planting the seeds for the abusive relationship to reach its breaking point in future movies.

Personally, I reject the criticism of how their relationship was portrayed in this film because of where we are in Harley’s story. This is not the point in the New 52 DC Universe where Harley is out of the control of the Joker and living her own life, doing her own thing. Suicide Squad shows the beginning of Harley’s story, and at the beginning of Harley Quinn’s story, she is no longer Harleen Quinzel but Harley Quinn, girlfriend and sidekick of the insane Joker. I do, however, hope that if they feature in future films in the DCU, that we begin to break away from this portrayal and begin to show the unhealthiness of their relationship, and Harley begins to wake up and walk away from the Joker.

Screen-Shot-2016-01-20-at-10.33

Audience Reactions: Intentional or Playing it Safe?

As I said earlier, I think that the way the relationship was portrayed was supposed to elicit a reaction from the audience. Besides being Harley’s POV of the relationship, I got the impression that the film wanted audiences to be uncomfortable with their relationship. Whether or not that was their intention, I think it’s the response they got because it certainly has generated a lot of conversation since the film came out a week ago. The fact that there is so much debate about the romanticism of the relationship shows that it elicited a lot of feelings in people after seeing the movie. There are still dark moments in their relationship in the film, most importantly the Joker subjecting Harley to electroshock torture after she helps him escape from the Asylum. To go from that so quickly to her being his doting, loving girlfriend felt like quite a leap for a lot of people, but in a way that showcased the insanity inherent in their relationship.

On the other hand, though, the studio may not have intentionally tried to get any sort of reaction from the audience and may have been trying to play it safe. The entire production of Suicide Squad has been riddled with rumors that there were extensive re-shoots, that the editing was taken out of control of the director, and that they tried to “lighten things up” after the box office “failure” of Batman vs. Superman and then the extreme success of Deadpool. It is entirely plausible that the studio decided to withhold a lot of the abusive aspects of their relationship in order to avoid a push back from people for depicting a woman remaining in said relationship. What’s happened because of that decision, though, has been backlash in the opposite direction from comic book fans for not being faithful to the source material and instead dressing up an unhealthy romance with passionate love instead of showing it for what it is. Personally, again, I almost think that they wanted the audience to have a similar reaction to what I did, which was “awwwwww—uhhhhh ewwww!” That’s the best way I can describe how I felt upon realizing I was enjoying their relationship and cheering them on.

I don’t think it’s helped that the soundtrack of the film is amazing, and Harley’s theme song, “Gangsta,” is a fantastic track and played at such a pivotal moment in their relationship that it added to the romanticism surrounding the scene. I’ll admit, I was thoroughly hooked on the way the “acid bath” scene played out.

Harley-Quinn-Suicide-Squad-Trailer-Margot-Robbie

Overall, I’m trying to be optimistic for where I think the DCU will take this. If Harley Quinn gets her own movie, I hope it deals with some of the concerns people have brought up with the way Suicide Squad handled her relationship with the Joker. Maybe that will be the majority of what it’s about, since there is a lot you could do with that. Margot Robbie and Jared Leto did, in my opinion, have a lot of chemistry together, and I’d like to see how that will feature in other movies that are in the works.

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8 responses to “The Conflicting Romance of Harley Quinn and the Joker

  1. I find this whole controversy to be very strange, particularly the “changing the source material” people, because Harley is just as popular in cutesy cartoony comic books that do portray a dysfunctional relationship, but not in realistic terms at all and not showing any abuse. So it seems like kind of a weird comic-bro thing to say the “real” Harley is the twisted victim and ignore the cuter “girlier” comics. I thought Suicide Squad balanced the two pretty well. (I also really mind how the controversy focuses entirely on Harley’s relationship with the Joker, when the movie as shown is NOT about that. The Joker is backstory, while Harley is one of the two central characters, Nobody’s obsessing about Deadshot’s daughter and whether or not it’s healthy for him to teach her about sniping or whether or not that’s “like the comics,” because he’s a man and his daughter is a side motivation.)

    That’s not to say they’re a “romantic”/awwww relationship, but I dunno. I feel like I can be judgy about whether or not “other people” will “get the right message” and I’m trying not to do that so much… It’s possible to recognize it’s a bad relationship but also relate to the “he gets my crazy” aspect, kind of the same way lots of people don’t actually want a creepy Edward/Bella relationship but can enjoy reading it as romantic fiction.

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    • Agreed, Harley was originally a one off sidekick in the animated series and was so successful they turned her into a real character. People who get upset about deviations from comic book source material generally crack me up because there are so many different versions of each story. And I agreed too, it’s a little hypocritical that everyone is so upset about how her backstory was portrayed vs. Deadshot’s relationshiop with his daughter, which could be seen as just as bad.

      I’m with you on the comparison to Edward/Bella too. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the romantic relationship as shown between the Joker and Harley, but that doesn’t mean I want my relationship with Capt. America to be anything like that.

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  2. I don’t like the take in the movie. The thing is, that there is this idea that Harley Quinn is a feminist icon, but that isn’t really correct. She started out as a female PoV we need more of and developed in a somewhat layered character down the line. And if you spin her story further you can turn her into a woman who eventually manages to overcome her toxic relationship with the Joker.
    But that is not what they did in the movie, they turned this abusive relationship into some sort of Bonnie and Clyde story. The whole point of their so called romance is that the Joker doesn’t care. But here we get a Joker who will avenge her and even goes the extra mile to break her out of prison. WTF? It does kind of send the message that there is a reward for Harley’s obsessive love for the Joker when the whole point of their story is that there can’t be a reward for the kind of love which requires from one party to give up herself.

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    • I really don’t see Harley as a feminist icon, or at least not as she started out, and I think that’s part of the issue with the criticism is that they want her to be. I’m hopeful that they will take the relationship from here and let it play out to its eventual end and let us see Harley become a layered character who moves on from the Joker. I think if they’d focused anymore on their relationship in the movie it may as well have been a Harley Quinn/Joker movie instead of Suicide Squad, which is why so many Joker scenes were cut from the final film. If they feature in more movies, I’d like to see them explore the aspect of him not caring, because you’re right there’s no reward in this kind of relationship.

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      • I see more a problem with that they romanticized an abusive relationship. The “This is Harley’s PoV” excuse might (might!) work if Harley were the clear PoV character of the movie, which she isn’t.

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  3. This week on the Storm of Spoilers podcast (they usually only talk Game of Thrones, but they’ve decided to podcast about all kinds of things during the summer) their comic book expert Da7e Gonzales had some behind the scenes info on the reshoots. That originally, Joker was more abusive to Harley, that part of his running gag was to abandon her during crimes (which is why he left her in the car in the water), and originally, she didn’t fall from the helicopter because it was hit, but because he went to the trouble to pick her up from the squad, and then pushed her out of the helicopter. (Which might explain why she bonded with them so hard.)

    It also, in some ways, makes more sense for the Joker. Rescuing Harley because he needs to dump on her seems more like the Joker style.

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    • That makes me think that the extended version/deleted scenes for this movie is going to be REALLY fascinating. And potentially change the whole feel of the movie and relationships completely. Which may or may not be bad…

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