Cathy Yan And The Harley Quinn We Deserve

The complicated past of Harley Quinn and how a female director on BIRDS OF PREY will shine the right light on her cinematic future.

In 1993 writer Paul Dini and artist Bruce Timm brought the character of Harleen Quinzel into the world, starting with her first appearance in the television show Batman: The Animated Series, and quickly followed up with appearances in various printed comics. As her origin story in the comic book The Adventures of Batman: Mad Love reveals, Harley started out as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum, but was tempted into changing her name at the request of her patient – none other than notorious prankster and Batman arch nemesis, The Joker. Through their counseling sessions, Harley learned that The Joker was tormented as a child by his abusive father, and was actually more of a victim than a villain, doomed to lead a life full of delinquency and ill-gotten gains – or so he tells her. Before she knows it, Harley’s fallen in love with her patient, and will stop at nothing to set him free: even if it means donning a harlequin get-up and busting her puddin’ outta the joint with nothing but a bag full of clown gags and a wooden mallet. Sadly, what starts out as rainbows and grape sodas galore ends up becoming an extremely abusive relationship that hurts Miss Quinn just as much as it hurts the victims of their crimes.

Harley Quinn’s story is a tricky one, because as Paul Dini says himself in the forward to his prolific comic, “I don’t think of Mad Love as a victim’s tale, but a cautionary one about what happens when someone loves recklessly, obsessively, and for too long. Through Harley’s tragicomic experiences, we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a funhouse mirror, distorted and all too willing to play the fool for someone we’d be much better off without. But through that awareness can come change, and that’s a good thing indeed”.

Harley Quinn was never a victim of anything but circumstance. She’s no pushover, and more than once shows up the Joker at his own game, like when she kidnaps Batman and nearly offs him with a tank full of piranhas, only for The Joker to arrive in time and ruin the whole shtick with his own vapid ego. Each time she spouts off a knee-slapper that leaves more patrons in stitches than one of his one-liners, and every time she accidentally does too good a job battling the Bat, The Joker unleashes furious anger down upon Harley’s head. Like a paralysis demon from deep sleep, The Joker sits happily on Harley’s chest, keeping her down, and keeping her under his thumb. She can’t rise above him, but she can’t leave him, either.

In a way, it’s understandable why this deeply tragic concept might get lost in the mix when it comes to a huge Hollywood blockbuster like Suicide Squad. Although it’s exciting to finally see a live action version of Miss Harley Quinn on the silver screen, played by superb actor, producer, and Oscar nominee Margot Robbie, the film as a whole is deeply flawed, and her character suffers for it. This Harleen Quinzel doesn’t choose to become Harley Quinn; it’s forced upon her by the man who drives her mad. The Joker does persuade Harley to sneak him a machine gun, but once he’s got the gun he takes over the asylum and forces Harley to join him as he ties her down and administers electric shocks to her brain until she’s completely insane. It’s actually quite a bothersome sight, and yet, for the rest of the movie, their relationship is treated less like a toxic endeavor, and more like rebellious star-crossed lovers. Like it’s okay what he did to her, because now he would die for her. But there’s just one problem: she didn’t choose to die for him.

That’s where having female director and Sundance award winner Cathy Yan at the helm of Birds of Prey, or whatever the upcoming Harley Quinn solo movie ends up being called, might come in handy. Previously employed at the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, Yan is now the first ever Asian-American woman to direct a superhero movie. At her side is screenwriter Christina Hodson, who is also penning the new Batgirl script, and Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap will also be producing. Already being touted as a “girl gang movie” onscreen, with characters like Huntress and Black Canary expected to make an appearance, Birds of Prey, in many ways, looks as though it will be just as much of a radical female collaboration behind the scenes as it is in front of the camera.

Both sexes are more than capable of depicting female characters, but it’s worth noting that Suicide Squad was written, directed, and produced by mainly male filmmakers. Now, it’s a whole different ball game, and Harley Quinn is the one holding the "Good Night" encrusted bat. Cathy Yan might not be able to change Harley’s warped cinematic backstory, but she can certainly shine a more empathetic light on her future.