Remember back in May when I wrote that piece examining Harley Quinn’s two origins and the Joker’s and how they related to their agency in becoming super villains and the discussion my friend Joe and I had about it? Well, as it turns out, my memory sucks because that was only half the discussion. What I failed to remember about that conversation was that the Joker origin we were discussing was ‘The Killing Joke’, the most popular origin story for the Joker and one of the most well known Batman stories of all time. I’ve gone into my thoughts on the story itself before so for this I’ll just look at its take on Joker’s origin.
In that story, created by Alan Moore in 1988, the Joker is a former engineer turned failed comedian with a very pregnant wife who teams up with members of the Red Hood gang in order to get money to pay to get his wife and child somewhere better. When his wife and unborn child are killed in a random household accident, he’s forced to continue with the job, dressed as the titular Red Hood, which ends in disaster with the two goons dead, after claiming he was the mastermind, and him being confronted by Batman. To escape, he jumps into a vat of toxic waste (I don’t care what the movie showed, he jumped in) and, upon seeing his newly deformed appearance, the resulting trauma combined with that of losing his wife and child causes him to snap, giving rise to the criminal known only as The Joker.
This origin is a bit more complicated to examine in terms of agency compared to ‘Batman: Zero Year’. In ‘Killing Joke’, Joker isn’t a bad guy. He’s just down on his luck trying to do right by his wife and kid. He goes about it the wrong way, but his heart is in the right place. As I said in my Batman: The Killing Joke review, I am not an authority on mental health so I can’t say why or how someone would snap like that or that it was against their will or not. Comics books, DC in particular, take a lot of liberties with mental health in order to justify why the villains act like they do, or maybe that’s just Batman’s rogues gallery. I don’t know. I don’t read DC comics. As far as I know though, pretty much all of Marvel’s super villains end up in some sort of prison, not a mental institution. Or they die, but that’s another topic.
What I can say about the Joker and agency is that he does choose to jump into the chemical vat to escape Batman. Batman didn’t push him (he actually tries to stop him) and he didn’t fall in, he jumped. Admittedly, that also gets into some issues about choices made under duress and not thinking clearly because…well, it’s Batman and criminals, even first time ones, are a superstitious and cowardly lot. However, here’s the main difference I see between Harley falling into the vat and Joker: Joker and Batman weren’t in a sexual/ romantic relationship at the time (or ever). You can read a lot of foe yay into their relationship, I guess, though that’s mainly on the Joker’s side (and only after he falls into the vat), but they’ve never been in a relationship where one has had an emotional hold over the other. That’s always been more Batman and Catwoman’s thing though healthier than Joker and Harley. Joker pushed Harley in while he already had an emotional hold over her and, by pushing her into the chemical vat, he distorted her mind so much that she came to rely on him as her only anchor. Batman wasn’t that to Joker. He didn’t control him like Joker did Harley. Nobody controls Joker.
That’s why I say that Harley had less agency in becoming a supervillain than the Joker. Joker snapped, yes, but he didn’t have to become a supervillain. That was his choice. Not all mentally insane people are criminals. Some just need help. Joker didn’t pursue that. He pursued a life of crime, something he was technically already on his way to doing, even if it was only one job, before Batman showed up and while he was still in his right mind. Harley, when she was pushed into the vat, was continually manipulated by the Joker into being a villain because he was the only anchor she had in her new world view. While she loved Joker, she didn’t want to be insane and she didn’t want to be a villain. After killing the guard, she still felt guilty about and thought about turning herself in before she was tossed into the vat. Angry and in love with him as she was, she was still a good person. Joker hadn’t felt guilt about breaking into the plant, only that his reason for doing it was gone. He snapped and chose a life of crime. Harley snapped and followed what her ‘Puddin’’ told her to do when she wasn’t able to herself.
As I’ve stated, Harley’s in a better place now with her own solo series and while Suicide Squad wasn’t a good movie, by a long run, it did do a few things right. Specifically, Harley Quinn is to Suicide Squad what Wonder Woman was to Batman v Superman, though probably better as she’s a main character instead of a glorified cameo. I’ve mentioned before that one of my hang ups with seeing the film was the fact that trailers hinted that they would be using the New 52 origin for Harley, the one where Joker tosses her into the vat. As it turns out, that was actually one of the better things about the movie.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOR SUICIDE SQUAD (Possibly. I haven’t seen the film)
Apparently, Harley’s origin in Suicide Squad is an odd mixture of her two origins. By the time Joker starts subjecting her to things like shock therapy, she’s already in love with him of her own free will and is willing to do it. By the time he brings her to the chemical vat, she’s in love with him so much that she jumps into the vat on her own. He doesn’t tell her to. Joker actually attempts to leave her to her fate before diving in after her to get her out. Again, this is all second hand information so I could be completely wrong about this, but if this is the case, while I don’t like this as much as her original origin, there are more advantages for her to not have dyed pale skin than otherwise and the argument can be made that with the electroshock therapy Joker had manipulated Harley enough to make her jump in on her own (though he apparently intended to kill her when she helped him escape), it far exceeds her New 52 origin.
I’ve been asked why I don’t give bad movies a chance and don’t form an objective opinion on them for myself instead of letting other critics decide for me. Well, there are a number of reasons for this, first of which being a money issues. I don’t currently have a paying job (as much as I love writing this blog, it doesn’t pay the bills) and can’t afford to go to the movies every week so if I’m going to see something, I want to see something I’ll enjoy. This is mainly limited to Marvel with some exceptions. The second reason is a logical one, for me. I don’t want to give bad movies money and thus encourage studios to make more bad movies. I don’t want them to make more DCEU movies (outside of Wonder Woman, but her solo film is about forty years over due anyway) because their track record so far has not given me any reason to believe that they’ll do right by these characters and their stories (except for Batman). Marvel has a proven track record by now that even when we don’t think a movie is good, we acknowledge that the movie isn’t bad. At worst, they’re decent and are only bad by Marvel standards.
A reason for this, I think, is that Marvel is actually the one making these movies and they get to control their own characters and have control over how they make them accessible to the general public. How else do you explain all the money The Avengers made? DC’s movies, on the other hand, are made by Warner Bros., the studio that owns the film rights to DC’s characters and is a fellow subsidiary of Time Warner Inc. which owns both companies. DC has little to no control over how their characters are portrayed and the studio is basically allowed to do whatever they want with the characters. While DC seems to have a better relationship with Warner Bros. Animation, who make the animated movies and TV shows, they don’t get the mainstream attention the live action films do and are ignored by the public for the most part. Disney owns Marvel, yes, but they rarely interfere in Marvel’s productions and pretty much let them do what they want. They’ve got the same arrangement with Star Wars and LucasFilm. DC’s recently gotten one of its long time writers, Geoff Johns (the man behind a lot of the Green Lantern mythos), to be the creative consultant for future films since the disappointment of Batman v Superman, so it seems they may have a bit more creative control than in previous years, but time will tell if it makes any difference. This also makes me nervous for a few reasons, the least of which being that he’s proven in the past that he has no idea how to do anything with Wonder Woman which could potentially impact negatively on the film.
The point I’m trying to make with that little spiel is that, while I don’t want a Suicide Squad sequel, I would love a Harley Quinn movie. They’ve proven they can do right by the character and Margot Robbie has proven she can play the part. I would say recast the Joker, but we can only hope for so much from DC and Warner Bros. and the Harley Quinn film is already up for consideration. Then again, so has a Black Widow movie and four years later, we’re still waiting. Plus, who knows how long it’ll be before Hollywood deems Scarlett Johansson “too old” while still holding on to Robert Downey Jr. at 64. …He could pull it off.
Maybe we have Johns to thank for the better Harley origin, maybe it was there from the start. We may never know. The point of all this is, for all the film’s flaws, it did manage to do something somewhat right. It returned some agency to a beloved character who had had it cruelly taken away from her in the disaster that has been the New 52. DC has recently been trying to fix what they’ve done and we’ll have to see where they go from there. I’m still not gonna read much beyond Batgirl, but Harley will definitely be on my list.
See you next week.
(Photo via Warner Bros. Pictures)