Margot Robbie’s recent performances as Harley Quinn have made a lot of noise. But the best production about the clown princess of crime is an animated series now streaming on Prime Video, says critic Travis Johnson.
Colourful clown princess of crime Harley Quinn is enjoying a massive boost in visibility at the moment, thanks to being played by Australia’s own Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad (2016) and Birds of Prey (2020). Whatever your opinion of those two films (for the record, BoP is a good time; SS is a war crime), it’s clear that the woman born, improbably, Harleen Quinzel has struck a chord with fandom.
You only have to clock the cosplayers to understand that Harley is a huge hit. However, Ms. Margot’s turn as Harley, while an absolute blast, isn’t the best iteration of the character currently doing the rounds. No: for that we have to turn our attention to the recent Harley Quinn animated series that just quietly slipped onto Prime Video here in Australia.
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The gist: it’s a superhero adult comedy
Like Birds of Prey, Harley Quinn kicks off with the domino-masked mischief maker (perfectly voiced by Kaley Cuoco) finally giving her abusive BF, The Joker (Alan Tudyk) the flick and setting out on to prove herself as a formidable villain. Teaming up with Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), shapeshifting aspiring actor Clayface (Tudyk again), amiable aquatic terror King Shark (Ron Funches) and creepy psychic Dr. Psycho (Tony Hale), she pulls off a string of high profile heists in order to impress The Legion of Doom, the DC Universe’s chief team of villains. And that’s your lot of plot.
This isn’t pitched as high stakes superhero melodrama but a foul-mouthed, hilarious, super-violent farce. This series is—and I cannot stress this enough—not for kids; in the series’ opening scene Joker puppeteers a hapless victim’s severed face. At another point, Dr. Psycho, a truly horrible littler homunculus of a man, straight up calls Wonder Woman the C-word. Harley Quinn takes all the outré, bombastic silliness of comic books and cranks it up to 11.
The cast is killer
Bringing all this to life is a Rogues Gallery more impressive than Batman’s (here voiced by Diedrich Bader, who did the same job on the wonderful Batman: The Brave and the Bold). Cuoco and Bell are simply fantastic as Harley and Ivy, the former’s manic enthusiasm balanced by the latter’s dry, world weary sarcasm (look to Broad City for a clear influence on this dynamic). There’s plenty of other highlights, from Wayne Knight as the Penguin to internet daddy Christopher Meloni as Commissioner Gordon, reimagined as a needy alcoholic.
It’s a great line-up, demonstrating that—aside from comics—animation is a far more natural home for high-stepping superheroics than live action (remember, Harley debuted in the classic 1992 Batman: The Animated Series, still the best onscreen incarnation of the Dark Knight). Yes, everyone loves the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that’s pretty much a once in a lifetime phenomenon. Here, thanks to the ease of recording vocal contributions separately and the fact creating vast comic book vistas is always going to be cheaper in pen and ink, we get an amazing cast coming together for a deep dive into the sillier recesses of the DC Universe.
The Venture Bros. was a clear inspiration
A sympathetic treatment of ludicrous losers? Empathy for a panoply of powered profligates? A decidedly adult take on children’s characters (I don’t care how much you like the Nolan flicks, these things are, at base, for kids)? Does any of that sound familiar? Then you might be across The Venture Bros., the cult classic but sadly intermittent Adult Swim animated series from Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick.
Launched in 2003, The Venture Bros. created a whole weird universe of super-science explorers, warring covert organisations, ridiculous superheroes and more. It’s an absolute blast, and clearly the most direct influence on Harley Quinn. The advantage Harley Quinn has is access to all those recognizable DC characters.
But it’s not actually the famous faces that get most of the series’ attention and affection. Harley and Poison Ivy aside (remember, Uma Thurman played her once), our ‘heroes’ are a cavalcade of losers and freaks, some cheerful in their outsider status (Kite Man, King Shark), some bitterly resentful (Dr. Psycho, basically the supervillain equivalent of George Costanza). Harley Quinn steadfastly champions these rejects.
It’s gleefully gross and laugh-out-loud funny
But Harley Quinn goes deeper, recognizing the character’s current position as a feminist hero and her background as a victim of an abusive partner. Whereas Original Recipe Harley was content to be Joker’s paramour and occasional punching bag (some of those old stories have aged terribly, fam), the current version is about someone trying to process that history and stand on her own two feet.
In addition to that it’s gleefully gross and laugh-out-loud funny, offering up a pretty good take on both repressed trauma (Harley’s memories of certain key events may not jibe with what actually happened) and systemic misogyny which is, at the end of the day, what’s keeping our girl out of the Legion of Doom. We also get the queer content that a couple of generations of ‘shippers have (accurately, to my mind) read into the Harley/Ivy dynamic, in a way that feels neither forced nor superficial.
All this makes Harley Quinn must-see superhero TV, and easily the most enjoyable and creative of the genre example currently doing the rounds (yes, I said it, Umbrella Academy Fans). This is big, brassy, ballsy and hilarious stuff, but still manages to pay attention to character and theme—which in this genre is getting rarer by the second. Make time for Harley Quinn, folks; you won’t regret it.