She’s introduced hanging from the top bars in her cell like some demented Cirque de Soleil acrobat, to the retro strains of Aussie singer Grace’s cover of Lesley Gore’s 1963 feminist declaration “You Don’t Own Me.” She is pale, giggly, calculating and off her proverbial rocker. She’s a woman at the mercy of sadistic men, many of them, in fact — some of whom “love” her enough to jump in after her when she dives into a vat of acid (which they’ve coerced her into doing) and others who like watching her seductively lick the bars of her maximum-security home away from home. (Those folks know, however, that given the chance, she’ll put five of them in the hospital.) She’s a Bronx gal who’s handy with a bat. She is Shiva, the bringer of death, in smeared clown make-up.
Her name is Harley Quinn, and you’ve probably seen legions of her admirers skipping around every Halloween. As played by Margot Robbie, she’s the best thing about Suicide Squad, the big DC Universe bring-on-the-bad-guys extravaganza that desperately wants to prove the burgeoning multiverse franchise can do dark and funny. Everything the film wants to be is in that performance. And Harley is, hands down, the single biggest piece of collateral damage involved in this scorched-earth, soul-killing cinema du superhero blockbuster. You can forgive many of its sins. You can’t forgive nearly ruining a complex, iconic character who deserves way better than this.
Yes, Suicide Squad is as bad as you’ve heard. It’s not quite the flaming Hindenberg of tentpole movies or, as some have said, as wretched as last summer’s Fantastic Four. You will see worse superhero movies, to be sure; if you’ve seen big studio projects that rhyme with Schmarcraft and Schmalice Through the Schmooking Schmlass, you’ve endured worse disasters this year. But it’s bad. And the major criticisms against it — that something was compromised and defanged in the name of a PG-13 rating; that it’s attempt to be both revisionist and a rollercoaster ride flatlines; that Jared Leto’s cartel-druglord-chic Joker is barely in it; that it apparently got a Costco-bulk deal for its soundtrack; that its incoherent storytelling resembles a comic-book Burroughs cut-up — are all 100-percent valid. You can petition to shut down Rotten Tomatoes all you want. Maybe redirect that rage to the DC/WB powers that be.
No wonder Harley is a cosplay favourite. She’s the Joker with an XX edge. Robbie gets that.
But the biggest letdown is the way the movie underserves both Harley and the actor playing her, because buried beneath the debris of third-verse-same-as-the-first set pieces is some incredibly interesting, go-for-baroque work that Robbie is doing. Those who know her from the animated Batman series and the best-selling comic books know she’s a complex character, having evolved from nameless Joker’s sidekick to the Clown Prince of Crime’s codependent moll to name-in-the-title heroine who’s, in writer Abraham Riesman’s words, “Jewish, queer, morally questionable, deeply imperfect and beloved by millions.” (You can read a deep-dive into Quinn’s various incarnations here.) It might have been asking a lot to stuff her many painted faces into a movie already burdened with juggling a lot of actors, characters, future movie set-ups and baggage. Robbie knows this, as much as she knows this is the film’s breakout character, the unhinged id of the whole group.
So she goes all in on the crazy, offering up a gloriously anarchic version of Quinn that’s more than the sum of her Daddy’s Lil’ Monster baseball tee, hot pants and fishnets. All that candy-coloured carnage and irreverence we were promised in those stunning trailers — what actually makes it in to the movie comes from her, one grinning bat-to-the-skull at a time. She laces in pathos and empowerment amidst the psychopathy and pining over her green-haired “puddin,'” notably when she’s yelling at another fucked-up Squad cohort with issues: “Own that shit! You own it.” If Harley is indeed a pawn of the Joker and Viola Davis’ predatory patron Amanda Waller, not to mention what Buzzfeed called “damaged dolly jerk-off material,” Robbie’s version is also someone who owns her damage, her weaponised sexuality, her no-holds-barred cuckoo-ness. There’s a sick giddiness to the way she relishes her acting out every violent tendency that pings through her cross-wired cranium, a revelling in her villainy — what every member of DC’s Dirty Half-Dozen should be doing. No wonder Harley is a cosplay favourite. She’s the Joker with an XX edge. Robbie gets that.
Or rather, that’s what the actor channels when she’s allowed to do it. The tragedy is that you can see a great performance peeking through the surface here, a suggestion of the sick joke this movie could have been. There are layers that are being hinted at here, of PTSD and unhealthy push-pull dynamics between lovers, of a cracked person who expresses herself in chaos-reigns broad strokes, of someone who can be sad one second and animalistic the next. (The film’s best moment involves someone trying to pull Quinn from the windshield of an underwater car — and her reaction is to lash/slash out with a blade.) Robbie is clearly trying to inject unpredictability into a movie that keeps swerving into noisy, numbing predictability, while seemingly dropping in peekaboos of fan-favourite iterations: abusee, abuser, sexed-up Venus flytrap, lovesick loose cannon, a feminist avenger who has to jet off to cameo in the Lemonade video … everything but the current Sapphic incarnation. The film keeps slotting her back into blood-specked fetish-object mode, a reduction rather than a reclamation, merely one man’s “fire in my loins, the itch in my crotch.” (That’s a line from the Joker, by the way, and not from a Vanity Fair profile.)
Somewhere out in the world, there’s a cut of Suicide Squad that has all of Robbie’s takes playing off each other like funhouse mirror reflections, and would showcase what could very well be a definitive — or less demeaning — screen version of Harley. That movie is not what you’ll get when you plunk down your cash to soak in the supervillain sound and fury this weekend. Instead, we have to live with a compelling, flawed Clown Princess of Crime and her wisecracks, and what could still be a star-making turn for Robbie if this beached whale of a blockbuster doesn’t sink her career. She’s still the most livewire thing about this endeavour. Give her a solo film and a girlfriend. Explore her contradictions. Pass her some gasoline, a match and let the lady watch the world burn her way.