The first trailer for Birds of Prey: and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One, Harley Quinn was decidedly a middle finger to the adjacent clown-themed DC flicks.
She’s solo now, our Harley Quinn, breaking free from the grills clad Joker, living the lyrics of Suicide Squad’s “You Don’t Own Me,” track, with the old crew in her rearview. But while the film positioned itself as a self-sufficient take on the new Harley, having broken free from her green-haired beau, it ultimately stands up as the next step in Harley Quinn canon. Harley is on her canon journey of discovering the power of female friendship.
Birds of Prey isn’t the female-fronted antidote to previous iterations, it’s the continuation of the prime iteration. Paying mind to Harley’s character’s past media, Birds of Prey takes her on a journey through her history and forward into the next phase of her evolution. This isn’t a brand-new Harley, this is the Harley, and where she is now.
Birds of Prey starts exactly where Harley began; in a cartoon. Though often viewed as a comic book favourite, Harley was created for Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. For the episode “Joker’s Favour,” HQ was created to be a one-off role, who ultimately became Joker’s love interest. Later, a comics issue tied to TAS, “Mad Love,” told Harleen’s full back story and how she ended up stapled to her red-lipped love.
By the time we get to the events of Suicide Squad, and this iteration of Harley, Dr. Harleen Quinzel has fallen for Joker and transformed herself into Harley Quinn. This lines up with her Mad Love comic book origin story. Though she looks different, the character takes the same general pathway to Joker’s mad girlfriend, even popping by to grab her signature harlequin costume. In Suicide Squad, a similar origin is showcased, this one having Harley taking a dip at Ace Chemicals, like her beau had done, depending on what you accept as canon, of course.
Birds of Prey showcases all of this, starting her not just as a cartoon, but in her Suicide Squad costume, though placed beside a very comic book familiar version of the Joker. In doing so, the film is paying mind to Harley past, Harley present, and BoP, Harley’s future.
In her narrated opening sequence, Harley takes us on her canon journey. She refers to Ace Chemicals as important to her and Mr. J, she wields her famous bat, still has her black and red corset, and nods to her old friend, Killer Croc. Reference is made to her failed romantic relationships with men and women, which wasn’t a progressive take jammed into the girl movie, but a nod to vintage HQ whose bisexuality was hinted at in TAS and confirmed later in comics. Harley Quinn lives in Gotham, she has a PhD (mother f***), and she’s a gangster in every way; a career criminal untouchable by law enforcement because of her ties to powerful gangs. If that’s not a prime iteration of a Gotham city villain, I don’t know what is.
Through Birds of Prey, the Harley we know and love is transformed. After being let down by the men in her life, Harley considers going at it alone, willing to sell out Cass, the closest thing she’s had to a loyal companion. By now, she’s been let down by the man of her dreams for whom she upended her entire life, and a slew of men she had expected to protect her or at least show some loyalty. So, much like comics canon Harley Quinn, she learns the importance of female friendship, and what companionship, loyalty and teamwork can truly mean. Classic Harley.
In Countdown to Final Crisis, Harley finds solace in an Amazonian run shelter for women. Gotham City Sirens Harley has her move in with Ivy and Catwoman, the women working together to protect each other from their respective enemies. In New 52 comic canon Harley commits to the roller derby, still sulks over her breakup, and forms crime-fighting team made up of women and a gay man, and Harley learns the value of human life. Comics Harley and film Harley learn to value the good when they discover the power of female friendships.
So who is Harley at the end of Birds of Prey? She’s left in the dirt, attacked, chased, exploited, and sold out by almost all the men she encounters, proving a difficult lesson for a character whose very origin is about abuse and exploitation by a man she loves. She’s tried to go at it alone, willing to sell out Cass, but she realizes something incredibly important; the power of female friendship and how she can find her own strength. She teams up with those she has almost no reason to trust, sharing melee weapons and hair ties, learning she can rely on some people, just maybe not smiling men who cover their faces. Then she leaves them all in the dust, because the real Harley Quinn is an asshole.