In addition to being the title of a cultishly beloved mass-audience disappointment, Batman v Superman could double as a summary of the long-term DC Comics movie strategy. Original Superman series petering out after a low-budget part four? Get Batman up and running. Batman series petering out after a mega-budget part four? Try to get Superman going again. Man of Steel underperformed? Try adding Batman next time, and then maybe skip straight to the Justice League. But after Zack Snyder’s take on a murderous Batman and a murdered Superman, a new DC standard-bearer was needed. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman seemed like a logical successor until her second movie was widely regarded as a disappointment and the third, while announced, has no particular production or release date. As great as Gadot is in the part, this ever-expanding, often-floundering, never-ending incarnation of the DC Comics universe on movie screens could probably use a more chaotic figure as its representative. With characteristic showmanship, that figure has revealed herself: Harley Quinn, as played by Margot Robbie in 2016’s Suicide Squad, last year’s Birds of Prey and the brand-new non-sequel The Suicide Squad.
Though modern franchising dictates that any given movie should be able to serve as a font of instantly beloved and spinoffable characters, the first Suicide Squad film still seems like an odd incubator in retrospect. It was critically reviled, and if general audiences didn’t seem to hate it quite so much (it made plenty of money, and not just on opening weekend), its director wasn’t pleased and it became well-known as a movie recut by whoever did the attention-grabbing trailers. At the same time, there are reasons the movie did well enough to inspire a sorta-sequel: The star power of Will Smith playing a semi-bad guy; the killer concept of supervillains teamed up and forced to do black-ops missions; and the live-action debut of Harley Quinn, who had long since made the jump from her origins as a Joker sidekick/love interest on Batman: The Animated Series to beloved comics (and videogames, and cosplay, and merchandising) mainstay.
Robbie’s three cracks at Harley don’t consciously shift as much as the lived-many-lives persona of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, who is by turns sardonic, seductive, mournful and sneaky, depending on the movie (that’s not a knock; it makes her way more interesting than Thor). Harley is consistent in as much as Robbie is delightful in all three movies, successfully translating a literal cartoon character into a flesh-and-blood person, however outsized her actions and accent. But it’s not just her hairstyle and tone of squawk that change from movie to movie. In the original Suicide Squad, she’s saddled with a lot of dudes-writing-Harley hang-ups: Revealing costumes, sexy gangster’s moll dynamics, a devotion to “Mr. J” AKA the Joker. This almost makes Robbie’s irrepressible energy more impressive; she seems extra indefatigable having to wade through the movie’s muck just to act in big scenes opposite Jared Leto. (Though it’s hard to believe the director’s cut is as good as Ayer says, the extended version on Blu-ray does have some nice additional characters moments for Harley, briefly bonding with Killer Croc and other weirdos.)
Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey recasts Harley as a free agent, reeling from a final Joker break-up, spending her last dollar on an egg sandwich, and ready to turn all of her fight scenes into glitter-bomb music videos in an act of “emancipation,” as the amusingly unwieldy subtitle puts it. In the new The Suicide Squad, James Gunn writes her as a bit more knowingly daft, befitting the comic style of his Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and upping the carnage factor. She oversees the paradox of how a movie less grim in tone can have a way higher body count; Harley personally kills more people than ever before.
Harley also undergoes a progression of sorts across her three movies, whether intentional or not. If she seems ready to cartwheel off into her own movie during the first Suicide Squad, her subsequent appearances better visualize that quality—even when, as in Birds of Prey, she’s already the star of the show. The Suicide Squad purports to avoid sequelizing either its same-named predecessor or Harley’s sorta-spinoff, but it’s careful to set aside a subplot for her. A whirlwind romance with the leader of a recent coup on a South American island, again puts Harley’s cracked sense of romance into conflict with a bad man—a quick guitar solo riffing off the full movie’s pop-punk sensibility. All together, Harley’s miniature journey feels like a postscript to Birds of Prey, and her big solo action scene plays like a direct companion. In Prey, Harley’s fight scenes come off like musical numbers, a connection made explicit by a too-brief dream sequence with actual singing and dancing. At one point, she sluices through shallow water like the climax of a Step Up movie; at another, she seems to be dressing the sets as she goes, with colored smoke and glitter. In The Suicide Squad, she twirls her way through henchmen in a red dress, performing balletic gunplay, and eventually cartoon birds and flowers follow in her wake—a continuation of that Birds of Prey fantasy. At this point, Harley Quinn has far more memorable action scenes in these DC movies than either Batman or Superman, not least because they function as extensions of her evolving personality rather than overdetermined mythical faceoffs.
The red dress sequence from The Suicide Squad also continues Robbie/Quinn’s embrace of the fashion-plate tendencies other superhero movies would rather downplay. Rather than obsessing over some minute tweaks to the shape of the bat-insignia on a grey-to-dark suit of rubbery armor, or assemble MCU-style practical outfits in muted tones, Harley has looks, more of a piece with the more outlandish costumes of the ‘90s Batman movies. Having her sprint through the streets in a poofy red dress doesn’t make much more sense than having her slay gunk-monsters while wearing short-shorts, of course. Robbie’s performance, with its little notes of heartbreak in between the joy and violence, has a way of making those details entirely beside the point. The unsubtle costume changes are part of the character’s ability to survive, and take genuine pleasure in herself while doing so.
This combination of adaptability and irrationality fits the DC movies perfectly—a compliment that’s only partially backhanded. As an MCU-like series of carefully interconnected superhero stories, the “DCEU” (even its shorthand is kind of an accidental fudge!) is woefully lacking in master-plot quality control. It’s also wonderfully lacking in traditional sequels, at least so far. More traditional follow-ups to Aquaman and Shazam! will soon join WW84, but much of the past five years has consisted of false starts, course corrections and screw-ups. This is all perfect for Harley, who must undergo her own course corrections as she navigates away from a life under Mr. J’s thumb. It’s telling, I think, that despite these constant revisions, the DC movies never quite write their predecessors out of continuity. It’s clear from Birds of Prey that it’s following the events of Suicide Squad, and the new Squad movie doesn’t un-ring any of those bells, either.
It’s not important for the greater good of the universe that DC maintain some kind of sacred timeline for plot purposes, but maintaining those experiences does seem important to the ongoing characterization of Harley, a character whose reinventions often feel more personal than, say, the many faces of Batman. A former sidekick unmoored from her villain life doesn’t necessarily take well to tedious saga-fication. That’s why Zack Snyder’s restored Justice League’s tease for a post-apocalyptic DC world felt like such an affront; in his world, the Joker is still more important and interesting than Harley (who was, apparently, brutally killed off-screen in this timeline). Somehow, we instead wound up with a DCEU that features three Harley Quinn movies versus one extended Joker cameo that no one much likes. It turns out any series could use an accidental leader like Harley Quinn—a character who can fight her way out of a dead-end saga.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.