Is Harley Quinn actually a villain? Digging deeper into ‘Birds of Prey’

It’s fair to say that the DC Extended Universe has had its ups and downs over the years. You’ve had critical and commercial successes like the “Wonder Woman” movie, contrasted with poorly-reviewed box office under-performers like “Justice League.”

As for where the newest DCEU movie — “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” — falls on that spectrum…well, it’s a little complicated. I’ve seen some really enthusiastic buzz on social media about this movie, contrasted with others whose response is much more “meh.” The film also performed much lower than expected at the box office, only bringing in about $33 million domestically its opening weekend.

Ultimately, the film felt a lot like eating cotton candy to me; it was fun and I enjoyed the experience of watching it, but there wasn’t much there to hang onto or think about as I was walking out of the theater.

Which is really a shame, because movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy” have proved that you can have films with wacky characters and over-the-top comedy that also offer a powerful emotional experience for viewers, with deeper themes to dig into.

Unfortunately, “Birds of Prey” doesn’t challenge its viewers as much as it could have. Here are some of the topics I wish the movie had explored in much greater depth:

The emancipation of Harley Quinn

I’m starting to get more into comics, but so far I’ve stuck mainly to Star Wars titles. So I don’t have a lot of background when it comes to the history of characters like Harley Quinn.

She definitely seems like one of the more popular DC Comics quasi-villains (we’ll take a look at whether Harley is actually a villain a bit later on), but she’s not necessarily a character who really speaks to me personally. I was mainly interested in the character because Margot Robbie gave such a great performance in 2016’s “Suicide Squad” (despite the fact I wasn’t really a fan of that movie overall).

I think Harley Quinn fascinates fans in the same way a character like Deadpool does. She’s unhinged and over-the-top, saying and doing stuff most of us could never get away with in real life. I did appreciate that “Birds of Prey” allowed Harley to be her quirky, authentic self, without sexualizing or objectifying her.

The movie also makes the wise choice to begin with Harley’s breakup with the Joker. The Harley/Joker romance is a textbook example of a toxic relationship, and you have to be very careful portraying a relationship like this in fiction. You don’t want to glorify it or normalize it.

Thankfully, “Birds of Prey” really is all about Harley’s emancipation from the Joker’s influence, and she realizes that she never did — and never will — need him. She can be her own person and make her own choices. In “Birds of Prey,” she truly learns to love herself.

That being said, “Birds of Prey” does miss an opportunity to dig really deep into Harley’s psychology and her journey of self-discovery; unfortunately, the film really only examines its characters on a surface level.

A couple weeks ago, I got a chance to talk with the Earth Station One podcast crew about “Birds of Prey,” and one of the points someone brought up is that the villain — Roman Sionis, a.k.a. Black Mask — could have been used as a great comparison/contrast to the Joker.

Harley ends up working for Roman, even though he has some of the same traits as the Joker. He’s charismatic in certain moments but also unstable and sadistic. However, Harley eventually breaks free of him too.

Ewan McGregor is having a great time hamming it up as Roman Sionis, but ultimately this film’s take on the Black Mask isn’t all that memorable. While “Birds of Prey” is definitely a fun time at the movies, it’s hard not to feel frustrated that the script is too slight.

Is Harley Quinn a villain?

Even though I wanted to love “Birds of Prey” more than I did, as a showcase of Margot Robbie’s transformation into the character of Harley Quinn, it’s a home run. She IS Harley Quinn, in the same way Ryan Reynolds IS Deadpool, and Hugh Jackman IS Wolverine.

However, a trickier question to answer is: is Robbie’s version of Harley an antihero, a villain, or something much harder to classify?

I personally lean towards the latter option. She’s not an antihero in the same way the Punisher is; he’s doing things that are wrong but he does have his own (deeply flawed) moral code. She’s also not a villain like the Joker, who has no moral code to speak of.

Harley is a flawed, complicated character who still has plenty of heart (which we see when she changes her mind and decides to save Cassandra Cain in “Birds of Prey”). Sometimes she makes choices that are entirely self-serving, but that doesn’t happen 100% of the time.

I’m actually really excited to see Harley in James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad,” because as mentioned earlier, Gunn does a great job writing eccentric characters with emotional depth. Maybe the best version of Harley Quinn is one we haven’t even seen yet!

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The Story Geeks blogger Ashley Pauls responds with an additional perspective to the Story Geeks podcast. [Listen Here: AppleStitcherPodbean]