by Andrew Wyatt on Aug 12, 2021

Despite her phenomenal popularity among both casual and diehard comics fans, supervillain-turned-antihero Harley Quinn (aka Dr. Harleen Quinzel) has often been relegated to a supporting role in small- and big-screen adaptations of the DC Comics universe. Harley is a ubiquitous presence in DC’s innumerable shows, films, games, and collectible merchandise, but Cathy Yan’s 2020 feature Birds of Prey remains one of the few instances in which Joker’s former moll was permitted to take a leading role. In that film, she was the unequivocal star, but also an outsider, narratively speaking: She personified and catalyzed the upheavals in the Gotham City underworld that led to the titular female supergroup’s formation, but by the time the credits rolled, she was gleefully speeding away on her own eccentric trajectory.

There was always something a bit perverse about DC’s apparent reluctance to treat Harley – a fan-favorite character long defined by her co-dependent relationship with an A-list supervillain – as the focus of her own story. Warner Bros. Animation’s ongoing series Harley Quinn serves as an overdue correction to this dearth of Harley-centric narratives. Created by Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker, and Dean Lorey, this blackly humorous (and very R-rated) show draws from numerous comic book, television, and film iterations of the character. In terms of Harley’s design and characterization, however, the show’s primary inspiration is the pivotal comic series Harley Quinn (2014-16) written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti – an influence most apparent in Harley’s roller-derby-flavored costume and in the show’s overall emphasis on the close (but complicated) relationship between Harley and fellow Batman nemesis Poison Ivy.

The series premiere elegantly sets up the arc of the first season: During a typically outré heist targeting the Gotham City elite, the Joker (Alan Tudyk) nonchalantly abandons Harley (Kelly Cuoco) to buy himself time to escape Batman (Diedrich Bader). After she spends a year languishing in Arkham Asylum, the lovesick Harley begins to concur with Poison Ivy’s (Lake Bell) insistence that the Joker has no intention of coming to her rescue, and that she is better off without him. Both women eventually escape together, and after some tough-love conversations with Ivy and a predictably dismal attempt to reconcile with the Joker, Harley dramatically severs her relationship with the Clown Prince of Crime. What’s more, she resolves to become a criminal power in her own right, setting her sights on membership in the supervillainous Legion of Doom.

So begins a season-long post-breakup reinvention, as Harley and Ivy settle into a sweet-and-salty relationship and the former sets about recruiting a crew of third-string supervillains who also find themselves shut out of the Legion. These include the diminutive (and compulsively misogynistic) telepath Doctor Psycho (Tony Hale); sentient mud-man and wannabe thespian Clayface (Tudyk); and King Shark (Ron Funches), a good-natured anthropomorphic great white brought onboard primarily for his social-media skills. Later the Quinn crew also absorbs Ivy’s landlord, Sy Borgman (Jason Alexander), a dyspeptic cybernetic retiree who just happens to be a former black-ops agent. There is also a talking carnivorous plant named Frank (J.B. Smoove).

As in Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn concerns itself with its anti-heroine’s post-Joker struggle to assert her own identity, which proves to be a challenge in terms of villainous politics and criminal logistics, but also in a more existential sense. Who is Harley Quinn without her “Puddin’”? What drives and desires has she stifled due to her infatuation with the Joker? The fifth episode of the first season vividly explores these questions as the characters take a metaphorical tour of Harley’s demented psyche, searching through a nightmarish memory palace of childhood terrors, psycho-sexual obsessions, and repressed traumas. That Harley herself is one of the characters poking around in her own mind underlines an oft-overlooked biographical fact: Dr. Harleen Quinzel is a gifted psychiatrist, and much of Harley Quinn’s first season concerns the character coming to grips with the hard truths that her pre-acid-bath self would have easily intuited.

However, what makes Harley Quinn distinctive, character-wise, is not its armchair psychoanalysis – which is well executed but not especially revelatory – but rather its warm, witty, and foul-mouthed depiction of Harley and Ivy’s friendship. The show’s strong, lively writing and Cuoco and Bell’s superb performances immediately cement their dynamic among iconic female friendships like Parks and Recreations’ Leslie and Ann, Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana, and Insecure’s Issa and Molly. Although the series’ action is appropriately cartoonish, even absurd, its drama is surprisingly heartfelt, and often revolves around the ups and downs of the Harley-Ivy relationship. On paper, Harley’s manic, unruly personality should clash with Ivy’s cynical, independent demeanor – Bell often seems to be channeling the titular character from Daria (1997-2002) – but they splendidly harmonize with one another. Readers who are familiar with Connor and Palmiotti’s take on the characters might be tempted to regard the show’s ambiguous depiction of Harley and Ivy’s bond as queerbaiting, but by the conclusion of the second season, it is obvious that the relationship is complicated but definitely no longer platonic. (The creators, to their credit, have reportedly added several LGBTQ writers for the third season, now that the show’s lesbian subtext has become text.)

The most remarkable thing about Harley Quinn is that it manages to foreground Harley’s character and her relationship with Ivy in a relatively sincere manner, while also being a cheeky, even downright caustic skewering of the superhero genre and of DC’s Batman-related mythology specifically. Although produced by Warner Bros. Animation, the show is not a “straight” superhero adventure show aimed at the same young viewers as Batman: The Animated Series (1992-95) and Justice League Unlimited (2004-06). Rather, it is a self-aware satire in the same vein as Adult Swim’s Johnny Quest riff The Venture Bros. (2004-18) and FX’s genre-hopping James Bond parody Archer (2009-). The original 1984-93 comic version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles also seems to be a point of inspiration, back when Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s stories still had some indie-comic teeth.

At the most superficial level, this not-for-kids approach to the material allows Harley Quinn to giddily embrace the copious profanity and gruesome ultra-violence not normally permitted in Warner Bros. Animation outings. (The show also adds some amusing in-universe boundaries: Batman very rarely swears, for example.) More crucially, however, the creators seem to have been given free rein to mock, spoof, and humiliate the iconic characters of Gotham City, and the DC Comics universe more broadly. Batman’s infamous rogue’s gallery is re-imagined as a hapless assemblage of easily distracted dimwits, image-obsessed sellouts, and one-joke walking disasters. The show’s scene stealer is James Adomian’s Bane, who wanders around the Legion of Doom HQ, cappuccino in hand, muttering in a sublime exaggeration of Tom Hardy’s marble-mouthed performance in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). Other highlights include the Queen of Fables (Wanda Sykes), a fairy-tale-based villain whose sociopathic bloodlust puts the Joker to shame, and D-list himbo Kite Man (Matt Oberg), with whom Ivy strikes up a self-loathing friends-with-benefits arrangement.

Of course, the setting’s ostensible heroes don’t look so great, either. Batman is a tiresome, standoffish misanthrope, Robin (Jacob Tremblay) is an insufferably precocious little shit, and Commissioner Gordon (Christopher Meloni) has been reduced to a frazzled, fascistic shell of a man, equally hungry to reap Batman’s approval and deploy Gotham PD’s militarized arsenal. While a few of the film’s baddies feel genuinely dangerous – particularly Joker, Scarecrow (Rahul Kohli), and the perpetually unruffled Lex Luthor (Giancarlo Esposito) – in general, Harley is surrounded by a horde of nitwits, both heroic and villainous. This, of course, makes the glass ceiling she encounters during her climb out of the Joker’s shadow even more galling, as her rivals are mostly coasting on name recognition and boys’-club back-scratching.

The second season of Harley Quinn dismantles this old order by effectively reducing Gotham City to a kleptocratic free state, loosely inspired by the influential “No Man’s Land” storyline that spanned various Batman comics in 1999. (Said crossover was also an inspiration for The Dark Knight Rises and later seasons of Fox’s 2014-19 prequel series, Gotham.) The creators dial back the show’s more outrageous humor and embrace a more plot-centered focus on villainous schemes. With both Batman and the Joker missing, the Legion steps into the power vacuum and carves up the city into petty fiefdoms. Harley again finds herself shut out by the criminal patriarchy, sparking an extended, often surreal gang war against the likes of the Penguin (Wayne Knight), the Riddler (Jim Rash), and Mr. Freeze (Alfred Molina). Weathering this political realignment, a bitter betrayal, and assorted relationship drama – a bachelorette party with the Amazons in Themyscira gets a little out of hand – Harley and Ivy both emerge at the conclusion of the season with a clear sense of what they want. Heading into the third season, the new direction of the series’ story might be a bit uncertain, but assuming the show maintains the same level of sharp writing and fantastic voice-acting, Harley Quinn will continue to be a sneaky, must-see highlight in an increasingly overstuffed landscape of superhero entertainment.

Rating: B

Further Viewing: The Venture Bros. (2004-18), Archer (2009-), Broad City (2014-19), Insecure (2016-), GLOW (2017-19), Dollface (2019-), Doom Patrol (2019-), The Umbrella Academy (2019-), Invincible (2021-), M.O.D.O.K. (2021).

The first two seasons of Harley Quinn are now available to stream from HBO Max. The third season will premiere in late 2021 or early 2022.