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.
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.
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.