Sometimes, a villain is just too good to remain a villain. Comic books are filled with characters who begin their fictional lives as bad guys but — because their popularity is too much for them to remain antagonists on someone else’s stage — either become so-called "anti-heroes" who walk the line between good and evil, or they just switch sides altogether. DC’s Harley Quinn is the perfect example.
Over the past two and a half decades, the appeal of Harley Quinn has made it impossible for the adorable maniac to remain in the narrow confines of her conception. She was never meant to be more than a one-note Joker henchwoman in a cartoon, yet since her introduction, she’s evolved to become one of the biggest players in both DC Comics and Warner Bros., on the big screen, on the small screen, and in the comics. So if you’re a newcomer to Harley’s gang and you want to know more about her strange and unique path, read on for the dark history of Harley Quinn.
Harley Quinn debuts in a cartoon
Harley Quinn is part of a short list of standout of comic book characters who weren’t adapted from page to screen but the other way around. The character first appeared in "Joker’s Favor," a 1992 episode of Batman: The Animated Series. And throughout the show, she made regular appearances as a henchwoman obsessed with the Joker, who clearly doesn’t reciprocate her feelings.
Paul Dini — a writer on Batman: The Animated Series who’s since gone on to write lots of other Batman-related media — conceived of Harley Quinn while watching his old college friend Arleen Sorkin on Days of Our Lives. Sorkin dressed as a jester in a dream sequence for the soap, and the scene inspired Dini to not only create Joker’s twisted girlfriend but to hire Sorkin to voice her. Sorkin went on to play Quinn for numerous projects over the following decades, most recently for the online roleplaying game DC Universe Online, and she told Starlog Magazine she sees Quinn as someone who "wants to be a good girl, but it’s so much more her to be a bad one."
Harley becomes part of DC Comics canon
It would take seven years after her TV debut for Harley Quinn to officially become part of the DC Comics Universe in 1999’s Batman: Harley Quinn #1. Sure, Quinn appeared in comics written before 1999, most memorably in the 1994 64-page special The Batman Adventures: Mad Love, which established Harley’s origin as Joker’s former doctor at Arkham Asylum who becomes obsessed with her homicidal patient. But those comics were connected to the world of the animated series, and they weren’t part of the larger DC Comics narrative.
Harley’s first DC Comics canonical appearance came as part of the 1999 event No Man’s Land, in which Gotham City is abandoned by the US government after being nearly destroyed by a massive earthquake. Like her counterpart in Mad Love, this Harley is also Joker’s doctor who falls for him in a big way. She helps him escape Arkham Asylum, she’s caught, and she’s immediately committed. When the events of No Man’s Land empty the asylum, Quinn is freed, finds her jester get-up in an abandoned costume store, and seeks out her "puddin’." Harley is as loyal as always, taking on Penguin and his goons for Joker and later going one-on-one with Batman so Joker can escape. Joker’s reward is to trick her into going inside a rocket which he crashes remotely. Harley survives, and Poison Ivy finds her and nurses her back to health.
Harley Quinn strikes out on her own
The first (but not last) ongoing Harley Quinn comic premiered in late 2000. In the first issue, Harley is still under Joker’s spell in spite of the abuse she’s endured. After all, the Quinn-Joker relationship is incredibly complicated. But eventually, with the help of Poison Ivy, Harley manages to see enough of the real Joker to rebel against him and his henchmen. Their renewed "relationship" ends with Harley hurling the Clown Prince of Crime into a neon sign.
The series ended with 2004’s Harley Quinn #38, a story that left its hero with a bleak, if not predictable, fate. After all, the writing duties changed hands from Karl Kesel to A.J. Lieberman with 2003’s Harley Quinn #26, and the title grew noticeably darker under Lieberman’s care. The final issue ends with Harley deciding she belongs back "home." The penultimate page shows Harley, in the pouring rain, pounding on the doors of Arkham Asylum. In the last page’s final panel, Quinn’s face breaks into a smile as she’s led to her cell.
Harley gets some backup
In 2009, Harley Quinn made some friends. That year saw the debut of Gotham City Sirens #1, in which Harley joins forces with fellow female anti-heroes Catwoman and Poison Ivy. It all starts after Ivy saves Catwoman from a supervillain wanna-be named Bonebreaker, and she invites Selina to her new home — the apartment of the Riddler, who Ivy has rendered catatonic with her mind control abilities. And then Harley shows up shortly afterward, announcing she’s moving in.
It’s clear that even now, after years of abuse and attempted murder, Harley is still obsessed with the Joker. Shortly after arriving at Ivy’s new pad, Harley insists she’s over "Mr. J," then seconds later, she excitedly asks if he’s called. By the end of the issue, the three have agreed to join forces, but they do leave Riddler’s apartment for an abandoned animal shelter.
Gotham City Sirens would only last 26 issues, shuttering in 2011. But if nothing else, it was an important step in the evolution of Harley Quinn as it was the first time she appeared in an ongoing team series with other women protagonists, which is something we’d see again in 2020’s Birds of Prey.
The character returns to Arkham
In August 2009, both DC fans and gamers alike were treated to Batman: Arkham Asylum. In this hit game, the player takes on the role of Batman who, after delivering Joker to the asylum, finds himself in a breakout conceived by the Clown Prince of Crime that includes classic Gotham villains like Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, and Scarecrow. In addition to Arkham‘s cool timeline, the game features a whole lot of talent from Batman: The Animated Series, including Kevin Conroy as Batman, Mark Hamill as the Joker, and Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn.
As for Harley, she appears quite a bit in the game’s cut scenes, though ironically, while she’s the Joker’s chief lieutenant in the asylum, she’s one of the only Bat-villains that players never confront physically. After sending squads of thugs after the hero, Harley is easily overpowered by Batman in a cut scene. What’s perhaps most significant about Harley’s spot in the game is that it’s her first major appearance in media without her classic jester suit. Instead, she wears a naughty nurse outfit, sporting the twin ponytails that would become a Harley Quinn staple.
She becomes inseparable from the Suicide Squad
Believe it or not, Harley Quinn didn’t appear in the first three volumes of Suicide Squad. Still, she’s since become such an inseparable part of Task Force X that it’s difficult to imagine there was a time when the team of blackmailed villains could function without her.
The 2011 volume of Suicide Squad that introduced Harley to the team came with DC’s line-wide reboot, the New 52, at which point Harley’s jester look was abandoned for black-and-red ponytails and a much skimpier outfit. Adam Glass — best known as a writer/producer on the TV series Supernatural — wrote most of the first 19 issues of the new volume, teaming Harley up with Task Force X mainstays like Deadshot and Captain Boomerang, as well as newer additions like King Shark and Diablo.
There have been two subsequent volumes of Suicide Squad since the New 52 series ended with its 30th issue, as well the short-lived New Suicide Squad, with Harley center-stage at every turn. After all, if you’ve got a crazy clown girl bashing people with a mallet, why not shine the spotlight on her?
The New 52 gives us a lighter, funnier Harley
Three years after the debut of the New 52, Harley had her own solo book again. This time, Harley’s story was co-written by what would prove to be the fan-favorite team of Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti. And why were they so beloved by readers? Well, it’s probably because the newer series had a lot more fun with its deranged antihero than the first. The series opens with Harley willed an entire apartment building on Coney Island from an old patient. Then she’s joined by hilarious supporting characters like the ex-spy, geriatric cyborg Sy Borgman and the dead beaver Bernie who talks to Harley constantly in spite of his post-life status. On top of all that, she joins a roller derby team and occasionally enjoys launching hired killers off her roof with a catapult.
But Conner and Palmiotti’s Harley Quinn isn’t all chuckles. The series also gives us one of the most definitive splits between Harley and Joker. When Harley breaks into Arkham Asylum to free her new boyfriend in 2016’s Harley Quinn #25, Joker thinks he can convince her to free him, but instead, she beats him to a bloody pulp in his cell. Holding a gun to his head and then turning away, Harley says, "I finally understand why Batman never just killed you. … It would give you exactly whatcha want."
Harley and Ivy, sitting in a tree …
For a long time there was speculation that Harley Quinn and fellow Gotham City anti-hero Poison Ivy were more than friends. They’d been trading innuendo and hints in comics, cartoons, and even video games for years, but it was a long time before there was any kind of official word. However, fan-favorite Harley Quinn writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner confirmed Harley and Ivy’s relationship status in 2015. And in 2017’s Harley Quinn #25 — the second volume of Harley Quinn that Conner and Palmiotti co-wrote — fans finally got to see these two share a kiss.
Sadly, Ivy’s unexpected death in the 2018-19 mini-series Heroes in Crisis is part of what drives Harley over the edge and again puts her on a collision course with heroes like Batman. Thankfully, this isn’t the end of Ivy … well, technically speaking, anyway. By the end of the series, it’s discovered that Ivy prepared for her death by creating a plant-based clone of herself. And as a result, Harley and the new Ivy team up for the 2019-20 Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy miniseries.
Harley Quinn hits the big screen
In 2016, Harley Quinn finally made her way to the big screen in a live-action motion picture, wielding a baseball bat and wearing some seriously short shorts in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. And of course, rising star Margot Robbie was cast in the role of the mentally unhinged Quinn after impressing critics and audiences with her performance as Naomi Lapaglia in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. And amidst an ensemble cast including superstar Will Smith as Deadshot, Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, and Jared Leto as the Joker, Robbie’s version of Harley was a standout.
Of course, it’s no secret that as much money as Suicide Squad made for Warner Bros, it was not a favorite of critics. But even critics who couldn’t stand the movie as a whole — like Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips whose review title called the flick a "mega-stuffed superhero mess" — pointed to Robbie as an exception. Phillips wrote Robbie is "radioactively watchable" and that she sold the movie with "wide-eyed enthusiasm."
Harley Quinn: Hero in Crisis
In the 2018-19 mystery drama mini-series Heroes in Crisis, Harley wasn’t only a hero but also one of the suspects. And yeah, big SPOILERS for that series are inbound, so read at your own risk.
In the first issue, we learn that over a dozen superheroes have been murdered at Sanctuary, a place for superheroes in need of emotional recovery. Most of the victims are obscure types, but a few — like Poison Ivy and Green Arrow’s old sidekick, Arsenal — rise above the C-list. Harley Quinn and Booster Gold appear to be the only survivors of the event, and we’re led to believe one of them must be the killer. By the end of the series, we learn the deaths were accidental and that the heroes were caught in the wake of the Wally West Flash unleashing his powers during an emotional breakdown.
But before the truth is revealed, Harley — heartbroken over the loss of Poison Ivy — reverts to her old form. She briefly returns to her old jester outfit and, when cornered, miraculously outwits and escapes the unbeatable trio of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. By the end of Heroes in Crisis, we learn Ivy actually prepared for her death by creating a plant-based clone of herself, and this new Ivy and Harley embark on a new adventure in the 2019-20 mini-series Harley Quinn & Poison Ivy.
DC Black Label offers new takes on Harley
In early 2018, DC Comics announced the launch of its Black Label imprint. DC Black Label promised to give "premiere talent" the opportunity to tell standalone stories "outside of the current DC Universe continuity." This freedom allows creators to tell exactly the stories they want to tell — even going so far as killing off marquee DC characters — without worrying about impacting the standard DC narrative. And as you might’ve guessed, Harley Quinn has already proven to be the star of two of the imprints’ miniseries, with Harleen and Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity.
Joker/Harley: Criminal Sanity, by writer Kami Garcia and artists Mico Suayan and Mike Mayhew, reframes Harley’s origin. Instead of beginning her comic book life as Joker’s doctor in Arkham Asylum, the Harley of Criminal Sanity is instead a criminal profiler assisting the Gotham PD in tracking down a killer. Meanwhile Stjepan Šejić’s Harleen gives us the more familiar Dr. Harleen Quinzel of Arkham Asylum, but Šejić takes us on a steady, intriguing trip to show exactly how the flawed Dr. Quinzel could become so tragically obsessed with the Joker.
She blazes her own path in an animated series
If you were thinking — what with multiple versions of Harley Quinn appearing in ongoing comics, Suicide Squad, and Birds of Prey — that DC was done with injecting as much Harley as it could into the pop culture scene, you’d be wrong. In late 2019, the new Harley Quinn animated series premiered on the DC Universe streaming service, and ho-boy, is it a unique spin on the character.
Harley Quinn follows the titular anti-hero as she tries to make a name for herself in the ranks of supervillainy after finally dumping her abusive boyfriend, Joker. The show is often a merciless, hilarious spoof on the Gotham City mythos, and the crew that Harley forms is a reflection of that. There’s Clayface, who’s more drama geek than bad guy and spends more time concocting the motivations of the people he disguises himself as than committing crimes. There’s also King Shark, who resents being seen as a killer (even as he bites security guards’ heads off) and identifies more as tech support. And of course, there’s Doctor Psycho, who’s really just as disgusting as he is in the comics.
Her best friend Poison Ivy is there too, pushing her from the beginning to forget the manipulative Joker. Some fans were furious to learn Harley and Ivy wouldn’t get romantic in the show’s first season, though there’s already been hints this could change later in the series.
Harley will lead the Birds of Prey
In February 2020, fans will finally have the chance to see Margot Robbie reprise the role of Harley in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
Judging by the trailer, the film takes place after a bad break up between Harley and the Joker, and like the DC Universe animated series Harley Quinn, our heroine is now on a quest to make her own way in the world without being in the Clown Prince of Crime’s shadow. She’s joined by a number of mainstays from DC’s mythos like Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Black Canary, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Huntress, Rosie Perez as former Gotham cop Renee Montoya, and Ella Jay Basco as Cassandra Cain. Joker doesn’t appear in the film in person, and instead, Harley and her new allies face Ewan McGregor as crime lord Black Mask.
The Birds of Prey have had a number of series over the years, and they even had their own short-lived television series in the early aughts. However, Harley’s addition to the team and her prominence in the line-up is one of the biggest departures from the Birds of Prey comics. In fact, on the page, she has pretty much nothing to do with the crew at all.
Harley Quinn will return to The Suicide Squad
When it was announced that James Gunn would be writing and directing The Suicide Squad — the sequel, soft reboot, or reinvention of Suicide Squad, depending on who you ask — rumors started flying about who would or wouldn’t reprise their roles in the casualty-heavy Task Force X. In February 2019, Forbes claimed Harley Quinn had been jettisoned from the drawing board. But a week later, Forbes writer Mark Hughes wrote a correction, saying he’d since learned Robbie was set to return to Amanda Waller’s captive anti-heroes.
For most of 2019, there was no confirmation either way whether Harley Quinn would be bringing her mallet and her homicidal joy back to the Suicide Squad. But finally, in September 2019, Gunn shared a picture listing every name in the principal cast of The Suicide Squad, including Margot Robbie’s. With The Suicide Squad scheduled for release in 2021, we can’t tell you a lot yet about Harley’s role in the film, though considering she’ll be part of an ensemble cast of talented actors directed by the guy who brought us Guardians of the Galaxy and its sequel, we’re pretty excited about it.
Since her humble beginning as the Joker’s lovelorn sidekick in 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn has risen to the heights of superheroic success. She’s in cartoons. She’s in movies. She’s in video games. She’s on T-shirts. She’s an enduring Halloween costume choice. Harley isn’t just a breakout character but a bona fide icon, beloved across the world for her trademark blend of comedy and heartbreak. Like all the best comic characters, she contains multitudes. Some love her as the tragic girlfriend, some enjoy her slapstick charm, and some gravitate to her as an independent anti-heroine. All of these renditions are Harley Quinn, just as Adam West’s 1960s swinger and Christian Bale’s Dark Knight are both Batman. She is many, and yet she is singular.
Not all Harley Quinns are created equal, however. There are smoldering failures among her many on-screen portrayals, as well as soaring successes. Where’s a fan to start, given the sheer number of Harleys to choose from? We’re here to answer that question the best way we know how — by examining each and every on-screen Harley Quinn and ranking them from the utter worst to the absolute best. Pin up your pigtails, it’s going to be a bumpy, joke-filled, mallet-swinging ride.
Birds of Prey has a pretty boring Harley Quinn
Long before the Birds of Prey were best known for being led by the fantabulously emancipated Harley Quinn, they were tearing up the 2002 TV screen … for a year, at least. Only one season was ever produced of the series, after its impressive premiere numbers gave way to a steep decline in viewership. It’s an odd little series, notably averse to comic book canon. Sure, it’s got Oracle working out of Gotham’s clocktower, but it also has a telepathic Black Canary, a Gotham that’s been abandoned by Batman, and a Huntress who, in addition to being Bruce Wayne’s estranged daughter, was born to a Catwoman with literal cat powers that she can also manifest through strong emotion.
Nothing, however, tops the show’s take on Harley Quinn for sheer strangeness. The show’s antagonist, Harley is a conniving psychiatrist out for revenge on the Gotham elite who incarcerated her Mr. J. It’s not a terrible idea on its own, but Mia Sara’s Harley shares little in common with the maven of mayhem that fans know and love. She smirks in lieu of cackling, coolly lays out her complex plans, and generally lacks the anarchic glee that makes Harley such a beloved character. This makes sense, given Birds of Prey’s sleek approach to superheroics, but it sure does make for sub-par Harley content.
Justice League: Gods and Monsters is too edgy to be cool
One of the best things about superhero stories is their flexibility. Alternate universes aren’t just possible within DC and Marvel’s cosmic confines. They’re often the order of the day. Soviet Superman? Check out Red Son. Wonder Woman tackling Jack the Ripper? Behold Amazonia. Batman and Tarzan teaming up to take down a 1930s Catwoman cult? Yeah, that one’s real too.
But where that openness to ideas leads to truly inventive storytelling, so too does it create some real stinkers. Enter Justice League: Gods and Monsters, in which DC’s premier good guys are re-imagined as brutal, world-conquering colossi with little interest in accountability. This world’s Harley Quinn is similarly dark. We find her, clad in ripped lingerie, taking apart corpses to construct the perfect family scene. She’s taken down by Batman — here a vampire — but not before we see her hit every tired item on the "Hardcore 2010s Superhero Media" checklist. Chainsaws? Check. Reflection in a shattered mirror? Check. Girlish affectations contrasted against bloody violence? Check. It’s the kind of Harley somebody might love upon putting away childish things at 12, then find abhorrent a few years later once they realize that R-rated content doesn’t maturity ensure. It’s brutal, bloody, and all the more boring for it.
Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay is just run-of-the-mill Harley
It’s not that Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay is bad, exactly, nor is its portrayal of Harley Quinn. Generally speaking, both are exactly what you might expect: violent, quirky, uninterested in ethics. Committed DC fans will have fun seeing lesser-known characters like Punch and Jewelee and Scandal Savage brought to animated life, while more casual watchers can enjoy some decently choreographed fight scenes. It’s something to put on, which is more than can be said for some of the other entries on this list, even if it’s best watched with chatty friends or while doing chores.
But really, that’s where the praise has to end, especially when it comes to Harley. Hell to Pay’s Harley is what you might get if you asked a computer to generate a portrayal based upon the Harley Quinn merch available at any given geek convention — recognizably Harley, but without any memorable scenes, lines, or moments. Hell to Pay gets that people like Harley because she’s a cheery nutcase, so it spits out scenes in which she laments not being able "to give [Jewelee] a makeover … with a baseball bat!" It’s not bad, exactly, but it’s also not scintillating stuff. She’s the exact average of the Harley that lives in the public imagination, a perfectly adequate portrayal that meets the minimum and goes no further. It could be worse … but it could also be a whole lot better.
Batman: Assault on Arkham is a mixed bag when it comes to Quinn
Set in the universe of the Batman: Arkham video games, Assault on Arkham throws pretty much everything it can into a dark, twisty mix. King Shark? He’s here. Dirty bombs? They’re here. Ill-advised intra-Suicide Squad hookups? They happen. Harley, accordingly, is a patchwork of her most attention-grabbing traits, all of which have been emphasized to the point of absurdity. This isn’t a bad thing, exactly. Any decent portrayal of Harley Quinn needs to involve at least a little absurdity. But at the end of the day, this is a Harley Quinn who bites the ears off her therapists, seduces Deadshot by waiting, naked, in his bed, and slams extendable batons around instead of anything so twee as a mallet.
Does it work? Sort of. Hynden Walch’s performance as Harley is wonderfully nuanced, which goes a long way in sanding down the script’s rough patches. Yet this Harley is so clearly calculated to appeal to the most id-driven, adolescent fans around that she never stops being faintly off-putting and, frankly, exhausting to watch. One wants to take the movie by the shoulders and tell it that it’s okay, everyone takes superheroes seriously now, it doesn’t have to keep throwing around blood and sex like the ickiest possible confetti in order to appeal. There’s fun to be found in Assault on Arkham’s Harley, but one has to run a bloody, sticky gauntlet to get to it.
Gotham has a unique take on an iconic character
Gotham’s Harley isn’t Harley, technically. Instead, she’s Ecco, right-hand woman to Gotham’s Joker-who-isn’t-technically-Joker, Jeremiah Valeska. Like her inspiration, she too began as a professional woman who, in her legitimate work with a devious Mr. J, plummeted into gleeful insanity, deranged devotion, and a whole lot of violence. Like everything in Gotham, she’s the classic character seen through a new prism, at once identifiable and entirely new. What results is strange but largely satisfying.
For the most part, what makes Ecco work as a version of Harley Quinn is what differentiates her from the character as we know her. Harley has always been a tragic figure, as known for her pitiful dependence upon the Joker as for her cheeky one-liners. But Ecco’s story is sharper in its sadness, accelerating Harley’s dedication into literal worship. Ecco shoots herself in the head to prove herself to Jeremiah, leads cults centered around him, and helps him fake being brain dead for years. There’s a quasi-religious edge to Ecco that Harley lacks. She often seems to be more of a supplicant than a desperate lover. It’s an odd take best left outside mainstream DC storytelling, but it’s intriguing to indulge in, within the refracted world of Gotham. Ecco isn’t Harley, but she’s isn’t not Harley, resulting in something that’s more interesting than not.
Batman Beyond features an older and wiser Harley Quinn
Batman Beyond chronicles cantankerous septuagenarian Bruce Wayne’s attempts to pass on his crime-fighting expertise to the teenage Terry McGinnis. For the most part, the old Batman villains are either entirely gone or represented through the effect they had upon Gotham’s underworld. The Joker, for example, is glimpsed mostly through the Jokerz, a street gang that furthers his aesthetic and anarchic ideals. The Dee Dees, twin girls in Raggedy Ann wigs and go-go boots, are among its most famous members and the only ones with an actual connection to the Clown Prince of Crime himself.
Who reveals this? Their "Nana Harley," who bails the girls out jail at the end of the Return of the Joker movie and rails against them for being "rotten little scamps." The implications are tantalizing. Is their grandfather the Joker? Did the Dee Dees turn to crime to emulate or scorn Harley? How did she escape the supervillain life, or is she still part of it, however quietly? Return of the Joker’s plot rests upon a scheme decades in the making, in which Harley very nearly got the chance to play mother alongside Joker’s father to a brainwashed Tim Drake. How might the foiling of that domestic bliss have led to the stout, cardigan-wearing grandma we glimpse at the end of the movie? These are questions with no answers, but the fact that Nana Harley inspires them all is enough to make her appearance memorable.
The Lego Batman Movie’s bad guy is a whole lot of fun
It’s hard to categorize the Lego movies’ take on DC Comics characters according to any typical standard. Sure, Batman, Wonder Woman, and uh, Condiment King, are present, wearing their usual costumes and wielding their usual powers. But this Batman blasts his own dubstep tracks about being super rich and uber-brooding, this Superman boasts about the Phantom Zone having "the sickest baddies," and, well, they’re all Lego minifigures. If these portrayals are comparable to anything, it’s the 1966 Batman show. They entertain precisely because they’re such dramatic departures from the characters as we know them.
How does Harley Quinn fare in this kaleidoscopic landscape of plasticized adventure? Pretty well, really. Voiced by the irrepressible Jenny Slate, the PG-rating allows the character to return to her goofier roots. This Harley poses as an employee of "Phantom’s Own Laundry Service," roller skates her way through the Joker’s lair, and cycles through every comic accent, from the stuffiest English marm to a vocally-fried millennial. She’s genuinely funny, an aspect of the character often buried beneath violence and sex appeal, and actually gets to play the psychologist to a bummed-out Joker. Sure, she’s telling him to decouple his self-worth from Batman’s opinion of him to further his villainous schemes, but still, it’s a more serious incorporation of Harley’s professional past than most versions allow. This Harley might be made of plastic, but she’s all heart.
The Batman’s Harley Quinn isn’t for everyone
Between the now-iconic Batman: The Animated Series and the cheeky Batman: Brave and the Bold, there aired another cartoon dedicated to the Caped Crusader: 2004’s The Batman. A sleek take on the superhero, its details were often unique … and controversial. Fans remain split to this day over the unruly mane of hair The Batman granted this version of the Joker, to say nothing of his shoelessness.
Harley was no exception to this change-making. The Batman debuted her as a psychologist, as in her classic origin, but this Harley hosts a call-in advice show called Heart to Heart with Harley. She’s more diva than doctor, accurately analyzed by an in-universe Dr. Phil parody as dispensing shoddy advice to obscure her own insecurities. Finally axed by her network for ambushing Bruce Wayne with a date he ditched (for Batman-related reasons, of course), she takes to the Joker’s side immediately, becoming the mallet-wielding moll fans adore. It’s not a take for everyone, most especially those who find Harley’s fall from grace all the more affecting for its unlikeliness. Here, The Batman’s version doesn’t have far to travel, given that she was already a huckster for hire with a shady online degree. But The Batman isn’t Batman: The Animated Series, and the change suits its slicker, slightly cynical style. She’s not a Harley for everyone, but she’s worth giving a chance.
Batman and Harley Quinn takes the character back to her roots
Batman and Harley Quinn is a purposeful throwback to Batman: The Animated Series on a whole lot of levels. Its visuals are a wholehearted return to 1992, embracing Bruce Timm’s legendary designs over the blockier look of its DC Animated Original contemporaries. Moreover, Timm co-wrote the story, and BTAS veterans Kevin Conroy and Loren Lester returned to voice Batman and Nightwing, respectively. Harley is no exception to this trend, clad in her original costume and lacking the bloodlust so many 2000s adaptations instilled in her.
The movie itself is middling and prone to the same excess as all the other movies under the DC Animated Original umbrella. Case in point: In an attempt to create a sexy shot, animators accidentally portrayed Harley with two pairs of buttocks and were rightly and roundly mocked by fans of all stripes. Yet beneath this slopped-on sludge of sexuality, there lies a Harley that is, in fact, quite a lot of fun. It’s a real delight to spend time with a Harley who knows how to tell a joke, sings karaoke, and sometimes wants to do the right thing, even if it’s through the wrong means. The movie would unquestionably have been better if it hadn’t allowed its team to indulge every impulse, but if you can deal with that sort of foolishness, you’ll find a refreshing take on Harley to enjoy.
Harley Quinn is having a whole lot of fun in Justice League Action
Every generation gets its Justice League cartoon, and this one’s is a bright-eyed ballista of a series, in which the fights are fierce, the jokes are plentiful, and the priority of the show is made clear in its title — action, action, action. It’s a whole lot of fun, and Harley Quinn is along for the ride.
This is Harley at her most, well, Harley. For example, take her voice. Tara Strong has played Harley before, but here, she cranks her performance up to a bizarro baby doll pitch that works like gangbusters. That more-is-more approach is Justice League Action’s Harley in a nutshell, really, and it’s pretty gosh darn delightful. Yeah, it’s nice to spend time with Margot Robbie’s mafiosa once in a while, but how fun to watch Harley be a cartoon character in the truest sense of those words. She chases down enormous, cybernetically-empowered chimps! She and Poison Ivy take the Justice League’s jet out for joyrides! She somersaults her way around Gotham City because running, while more efficient, is a whole lot less fun! It’s impossible to spend time with this Harley and not end up with a smile on your face and a refreshed love of superheroics in general.
DC Super Hero Girls makes Harley Quinn family-friendly
In an era when Harley Quinn is at her most culturally visible and her least kid-friendly, it’s a feat of serious magnitude to pull off a totally G-rated take. That’s exactly what DC Super Hero Girls does and with serious aplomb at that. Launched alongside a whole host of tie-in comics, dolls, pajamas, and school supplies, DC Super Hero Girls re-imagines the leading ladies of the DC Universe as high school students, looking to make the world a better place while maintaining their GPAs.
Harley is at her energetic best here, underscored by an unexpected willingness on the part of the cartoon to get downright macabre. Yes, she’s a schoolgirl who bonds with childhood bestie Barbara Gordon over getting to go to Gotham-Con, an occasion they celebrate with a lavish dance sequence. But cockroaches tumble around their feet as they do it, and the chalk body outlines of a crime scene join in with a festive jig. This is a Harley you can watch with your kids, as delightful as she is cognizant of the fact that even kids like a bit of black humor now and then. So on the one hand, she calls Barbara everything from "Babsie-Wabsie" to "Babbbly-boo," while on the other hand, she occasionally tries to bash Robin’s brains in with a klieg light. Teen Harley is a new take for sure, but one so natural it’s a wonder she took so long to arrive.
Harley Quinn finally gives the character her very own spotlight
Having conquered video games, movies, and television, Harley Quinn reached truly stratospheric heights in 2019 when she gained her own animated series. Harley Quinn isn’t Batman: The Animated Series, Gotham Girls, or any of the other ensembles she’s been part of. No, Harley Quinn is all her, all the time. The first episode makes this point explicit by having her break up with the Joker, a decision that could’ve sunk the entire enterprise. Sure, she’s had a lot of adventures on her own, but isn’t Harley Quinn defined by her relationship with her dear, demented Puddin’? Can she truly exist without him?
Harley Quinn doesn’t just say yes — it dares you to say no. In kicking Joker to the curb, the show launches its protagonist into the wider wilds of the DC universe and finds that a character as zany and kinetic as she has a lot to bring to all sorts of superheroic tables. This isn’t to say it’s perfect, far from it. At its worst, it’s a middle schooler’s joyride through the DC universe that thinks being crass is the same thing as being interesting. But at its best, it’s the story Harley Quinn always deserved and a triumphant capstone on a breakout character’s long career as a scene-stealer. At least, the scenes are all hers, and she makes the manic most of them.
Gotham Girls allows Harley to be her own woman
Gotham Girls was unprecedented in a lot of ways. For one thing, it was a cartoon created exclusively for the web, which in 2000 was nearly unheard of. For another, it was focused entirely on the women of Gotham, especially Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, and Batgirl. Though its Flash-powered animation looks jerky and flat to modern eyes, it was a revelation at the time, and in today’s superheroic landscape of Wonder Woman movies and girl-centric cartoons like DC Super Hero Girls, it was a true trailblazer.
Harley here is the Harley of Batman: The Animated Series, from her voice acting to her design. She’s a wonderful take on the character, but as Gotham Girls unfolds, the character winds up going in a very different, unique direction. Inhabiting a female-dominated world changes Harley subtly, freeing her (and the other characters) to be weirder, wilder, and generally more interesting. None of them have to be the girlfriend, the sidekick, the femme fatale, or anything else so simple. They can, simply, be — Harley most of all. She’s not the Joker’s pet in Gotham Girls but a villainess in her own right, and if she’s anything to anyone, she’s the clownish counterpoint to Poison Ivy’s composed cool. Watching her get to be a goofball ne’er-do-well sans baggage is a little like a vacation from other Harley portrayals. You’ll go happily back to them eventually, but a break every now and then is a wonderful refreshment.
Suicide Squad features Margot Robbie’s fantastic performance
Forget your problems with Suicide Squad as a whole for a moment and focus on Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. In the midst of characters like Enchantress and Deadshot, scowling and serious about their plans for revenge and absolution, there’s a gleeful, bouncing Robbie, stippled with stick-and-poke tattoos and utterly giddy over the chance to do some property damage. That’s not to say she doesn’t have desires of her own, nor sorrow in her past. Of all the members of the Suicide Squad, she’s the most aligned with emotional goals. She longs for love and stability, most potently glimpsed when Enchantress grants her visions of a home with the Joker, complete with children, dishwashers, and a kiss before the man in the purple Lambo goes off to support his family.
But she can’t ever have this life, of course, and not just because the Joker is the kind of guy who likes to show affection by pushing girlfriends into vats of unknown chemicals. Harley herself is a jigsaw puzzle of a person, her romantic streak at war with her love of chaos. Robbie leans into this contradiction with grinning aplomb, utterly comfortable in this central discomfort. Her Harley lies at the intersection of several ley lines. She’s a girlfriend, a gangster, a psychologist, and a hellraiser. Robbie illuminates certain of these facets more than others, as the story demands, but she never forgets their existence, nor the glittering whole they create.
Batman: The Animated Series is where it all began for Harley Quinn
Decades have passed since the debut of Batman: The Animated Series, but the years have hardly dimmed the legendary series’ luminous reputation. If anything, love for BTAS has only deepened. Adults revisit their favorite episodes and realize, with mature eyes, how much it got right. Lesser Batman adaptations debut and throw BTAS‘ triumphs into sharper contrast. And with every passing year, the series’ unique contributions to the Dark Knight’s mythos only embed themselves more deeply within the medium-spanning DC Universe — most prominently with Harley Quinn.
Initially intended to be a brief walk-on role for Arleen Sorkin, an old friend of series creator Paul Dini’s, Harley Quinn took on a life of her own from the first frame of her appearance in "Joker’s Favor." Many have played the role by this point, but no one has ever captured Harley’s particularly lopsided charm as well as Sorkin, whose Harley plays jump rope with the line between comedy and tragedy. She’s a joyous failure, a cackling cast-off, a psychologist who ran away and joined the circus. Lesser takes on the character demand that Harley forsake this muddled middle ground for something simpler, but BTAS got it right the first time. Harley is, frankly put, a mess, and that’s why she’s one of the most potent characters in the DC universe.