Is the DCEU’s Harley Quinn an Antihero or Superhero?

While Harley Quinn is often framed as an antihero in the comics, she most certainly isn’t.  She is as much a superhero as anyone in the DC Universe and, being a survivor of abuse, she is stronger than just about any hero DC has, too.  Since falling in love with her character (thanks Harley Quinn on HBO Max!) I’ve read every Harley comic from 2013 to the present and she’s not done anything remotely antihero-ish in any of them.  Yes, Harley’s wild, a little chaotic, and has an impulse control problem (all of which she admits) but being a free spirit isn’t the same as being morally ambivalent.  Her actions in the comics, again and again, are remarkably heroic.  And I will die on this hill ;D.  Since seeing The Suicide Squad I’ve been wondering if the same holds true in the movies.  In the comics, Harley Quinn is a true superhero and the type of character we should all aspire to be like – as compassionate, loving, and open as she is brave.  But what about the DCEU (DC Extended Universe)?  Is Harley an antihero in the films or, like the comics, is she a superhero lacking the recognition she deserves?

Admittedly, the films give us less material.  When I wrote of my preconceived notions of Harley Quinn, including her being an antihero, I’d read the 100 comics in Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s character-defining run, going from November of 2013 through December of 2018.  Who Harley was in their first issue, on her motorcycle ride to Coney Island after just having left the Joker, is a world away from who she was with Ivy in Florida at the end of their last issue.  Harley’s growth as a character is a big piece of why the Conner/Palmiotti run so iconic.  Comparatively, we’ve only seen Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (2016), Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020), and James Gunn’s new The Suicide Squad (2021 (obvs.)).

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Harley heads into battle with the Suicide Squad. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros.’ The Suicide Squad

Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is widely recognized as one of the best parts of the DCEU.  Her casting as the Clown Princess of Coney Island is one of those so-perfect-its-lightning-in-a-bottle bits of comic book casting, right up there with Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man or Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool.  But is her Harley Quinn a superhero or an antihero?  Utilizing the same definition from my previous piece, in A Glossary of Literary Terms, M.H. Abrams defines an antihero as:

a person who, instead of manifesting largess, dignity, power, and heroism in the face of fate, is petty, ignominious, ineffectual, or passive.  Extreme instances are the characters who people the world stripped of certainties, values, or even meaning, in Samuel Beckett’s dramas – the tramps Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, or the blind and paralyzed old man, Hamm, who is the protagonist in Endgame.  In some recent works, tragic effect involve elements that traditionally belonged to the genre of farce; see literature of the absurd and black comedy.[1]

Comics often ignore the full academic definition and place the “antihero” label on any soft villain character leaving a trail of blood in their wake while doing morally grey things (the Punisher, Venom, Wolverine (‘90s and on), Deadpool, etc.) to sell super violent characters fans can champion without feeling morally compromised. 

So, given what we see of Harley in Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey, and The Suicide Squad, does she fit the category of antihero?  Or should we be giving her superhero credit?  Let’s look at each film in turn.  The plot of each will be discussed in detail but a big, ol’ spoiler warning will proceed anything from the new film :).

Suicide Squad (2016)

Of the three films, this is the darkest Harley we see.  Arrested by the Batman, she’s in Belle Reve Federal Penitentiary when Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) selects her for her new black ops team.  Harley is still in her relationship with the Joker (Jared Leto) and he’s searching for a way to break her out.  When Waller pitches the idea of Task Force X to members of the senate and military the Harley bio she offers is, “Before she ran off and joined the circus she was Dr. Harleen Quinzel.  Psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum.  She was assigned to the Clown himself.  She thought she was curing him but she was falling in love.  Talk about a workplace romance gone wrong.  They became the King and Queen of Gotham City – and God help anybody who disrespected the Queen.  And that was just the beginning.  She’s crazier than him and more fearless.”  

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Harley on her first mission with the Suicide Squad / Photo Credit – Warner Bros.’ Suicide Squad

Note, Waller doesn’t describe Harley as “meaner,” “more dangerous,” “more vicious,” or “more evil” than the Joker.  She’s crazy and fearless, the Suicide Squad’s “Total Wild Card.”  Dubbing her their wild card means they can’t be sure how she’ll react in any given situation either so her villainous nature is in question from the beginning.

Yet this doesn’t mean Harley – or the rest of the Suicide Squad – sees herself as anything other than a villain.  When they first hit Midway City on their inaugural mission and Deadshot (Will Smith) begins to plan their escape, Harley tells him she’s in.  He replies, “Stay evil doll face.”  As they move through the city, the team partakes in a little looting.  Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) asks, “What the hell is wrong with you people?”  Harley replies, “We’re bad guys.  It’s what we do.”  And as they drink together at an abandoned bar Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) tells her, “You know, on the outside you’re amazing.  But on the inside, you’re ugly.”

Now Griggs (Ike Barinholtz), one of the guards at Belle Reve, does point out Harley “put five of my guys in the hospital” and we see flashbacks of her time with the Joker.  While we don’t see many of their criminal actions in the film, we know she was far from an innocent bystander.  With the guards, it’s clear they are far from innocent themselves.  A flashback shows Griggs and his men taunting and torturing Harley for fun, taking selfies with her as they do.  When it comes to her actions since meeting the Joker, we must consider the very complex nature of trauma, abusive relationships, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

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Harleen with the Joker moments before he urges her to “live for him” by jumping into a vat of chemicals to bleach her skin like his. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros.’ Suicide Squad

While a comprehensive analysis of these themes is far beyond the scope of this piece and my academic knowledge, a few points are important to consider in our understanding of Harley Quinn and her actions. 

The fact that Harley was a victim of chronic emotional, physical, and sexual abuse while she was with the Joker is one of the most explored pieces of her character.  An abusive relationship is a deeply intimate form of trauma and in the wake of trauma we can experience PTSD.  Our responses to trauma, in the midst of it and after, are as varied and unique as we are.  Symptoms of PTSD can include anxiety, anger, aggression,[2] rage,[3] emotional numbing,[4] suicidal behavior, an impaired ability to regulate behavior, hyper-vigilance to perceived threats, explosive behavior, violent acts, and an indifference towards death.[5]  These symptoms may be chronic and severe.[6]  Those living within an abusive relationship can experience PTSD while still within the relationship as PTSD can follow the trauma of each instance of abuse.[7]  Within this framework we see Harley’s violence, her aggression and rage, as the product of the very real, very deep trauma she experiences at the hands of the Joker.  To categorize her as a villain for natural responses to the trauma of being a victim of abuse is irresponsible.  The real question is why Harley would even be in a place like Belle Reve in the first place as opposed to getting the care she needs.  Yes, Harley Quinn has certainly done some terrible things but she didn’t do anything terrible until after she entered into her abusive relationship with the Joker and all those actions fit the clearly defined responses we can have to trauma.  Harley Quinn isn’t a villain but the justice system certainly is for how gravely it’s failed her.

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Harley in her cell at Belle Reve. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros.’ Suicide Squad

Moving beyond her past, look at how Harley conducts herself on the mission.  The Joker deactivates the bomb implanted in her neck and frees her from Waller’s control in the middle of the mission.  But after Harley gets thrown from the helicopter and presumes the Joker dead, she rejoins the team.  She could’ve left!  She could’ve went anywhere and did anything!  Neither Waller nor Flag could’ve stopped her.  But in her heartache and despair, she chose to return to the Suicide Squad and stand with them as they try to save the world.  When the team finally encounters the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and her brother Incubus (Alain Chanoine), Harley faces demigods with nothing but her bat without hesitation.  She won’t let Incubus hit Diablo while he’s down.  She is swatted away effortlessly but she’s there fighting all the same.  The same happens when she attacks the Enchantress.  Harley has no powers of any kind but there’s not a hint of her backing down.  And when the Enchantress offers what she wants more than anything else – a normal life, with two kids, married to a very normal Joker – Harley’s response is telling.

Harley – “I’m not much of a joiner but maybe she’s got a point.”

Deadshot – “She’s trying to destroy the world.”

Harley – “So?  What’s the world ever done for us anyway?  It hates us.”

Deadshot – “Harley!”

Harley – “Hey, lady?  I lost my Puddin’.  But you can get him back, right?”

Enchantress – “I can my dear.  Anything you want.”

Harley – “You promise?”

Enchantress – “Yes, child.  You need only bow and serve beneath my feet.”

Harley – “I like what you’re sellin’ lady.  There’s just one teeny problem – you messed with my friends.”

Then in one fluid motion Harley takes Katana’s blade and cuts out the Enchantress’ heart.  What’s the world ever done for us anyway?  It hates us.  But Harley gives up her deepest desire to stand by her friends and save the world anyway.  This certainly isn’t villainous nor is it the ineffectual, passive action lacking in certainty and meaning which characterizes an antihero.  This is a heroic act.  The film ends with the Joker breaking Harley out of Belle Reve.

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (2020)

This film opens with the Joker throwing Harley out.  It is not a mutual break-up.  As she mourns her relationship she gets a new place, doctors the tattoos she had about him, impulsively cuts off her hair, and gets a pet hyena – you know, all the usual break-up coping strategies.  While she realizes, “I had to find a new identity.  A new me,” she hesitates to tell people because, “Being Joker’s girl gave me immunity.  I could do whatever I wanted to whoever I wanted and no one ever dared to object.”  And she held on to that protection…until she drunkenly drove a gasoline tanker truck into Ajax Chemicals, destroying the place where she officially became his Harley Quinn.  So begins Harley’s journey of self-exploration – “It was a fresh start.  The closure I needed.  A chance to be my own woman.”

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Harley chops off her ponytails before adding some stress bangs on her journey of self-exploration. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros.’ Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Six hours after announcing her break-up with the Joker, people start coming for her.  Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) is trying to arrest her.  A roller derby player whose nose she broke tries to smash her with an A/C unit.  The brother of the pet store owner she fed to her hyena (after he grossly came on to her (a murder but not purely malicious)) tries to run her down.  Harley observes, “Turns out, I wronged a lot of people.”  Most of all though, this puts Harley in the crosshairs of Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), a Gotham crime lord who’s always hated Harley but never did anything to her for fear of reprisal from the Joker.

To save her life, Harley makes a deal with Sionis.  She’ll track down the Bertinelli diamond (which holds the key to unlocking the now-deceased Bertinelli family’s massive fortune) for him if he agrees to spare her.  Sionis agrees and Harley’s off looking for Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco) who pick-pocketed (and then swallowed :8) the diamond and finds herself entangled with Montoya (who is looking for Cass to bring down Sionis), Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett (who drives Sionis, offers tips to Montoya, and looks out for Cass)), and Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead (the only surviving member of the Bertinelli family who’s returned to Gotham to find and execute the people who murdered her family)).

Looking at where this film places Harley on the hero/antihero scale, it’s important to note she only ends up mixed up with Sionis because he comes looking for her.  And Harley cuts a deal to try and save her life which anyone would do in her situation.  Once again, looking at her actions, we certainly don’t see a villain nor is she really playing the part of an antihero.

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Harley with the “Fun Gun” she uses to liberate Cass / Photo Credit – Warner Bros.’ Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

When Harley enters the police station to find and free Cass she is decidedly nonlethal in her means.  Her gun – with the name “Fun Gun” – fires beanbags, gas bombs, and paintballs.  She tosses those cops around but she goes out of her way not to kill anyone when it would’ve been easier to go in there, guns blazing, and leave a bunch of bodies in her wake.  As soon as a police officer tells her where Cass is she completely stops her assault.  Once Harley gets Cass out, she explains Sionis wants the diamond.  Cass can give it to Harley or Sionis will cut it out of her.  Cass agrees to stay with Harley because she understands she’s safer with her…and they start stockpiling laxatives.  Far from a hostage situation, they bond.  Cass sees Harley as a role model and Harley warms to Cass, too, narrating, “I’m not goin’ soft or nothin’ but I gotta admit it’s kinda nice havin’ the kid around.”

Despite her plan to keep Cass safe from Sionis, once her landlord Doc (Dana Lee) sells her out, Harley calls Sionis to tell him she’ll turn the girl over.  Doc, the only person Harley had in Gotham who was looking out for her, the only natural support she had left, betrayed her.  As they wait for Sionis, Cass screams, “I thought we were friends.”  Harley says, “You saw what it was like for me out there.  I didn’t have a choice.  And if you go before he gets here you’ll be fine.”  As she closes the door she apologizes, “I’m sorry kid.  I am.”  Montoya, Dinah, and Helena all converge on the meeting point before Sionis and his men arrive.  Once Dinah’s freed Cass she yells at Harley, “You!  I thought you were different.”  Harley looks at her and says, “I’m sorry kid.  I’m just a terrible person I guess.”

All of Harley’s actions with Cass as well as with Montoya, Dinah, and Helena (she keeps them at arm’s length through the whole film and cuts out on them at the end), as well as her view of herself, match the symptoms often seen in someone suffering PTSD from an abusive relationship.  Harley isolates herself and suffers extreme negative feelings towards herself including shame, guilt, and self-blame.  She struggles to trust.  She doesn’t believe she is worthy of healthy, strong relationships.  And she has feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and despair.[8]

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Harley with Montoya, Helena, Cass, and Dinah, the new relationships she’s trying to navigate / Photo Credit – Warner Bros.’ Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Regardless of all the guilt, shame, and self-blame Harley feels, when Sionis’ army is at the gates she is the one who rallies Montoya, Dinah, and Helena into fighting together to protect Cass, save themselves, and defeat Sionis.  Right before the battle begins Harley asks, “Are we ready?  Bad guys just outside.”  Look at her framing!  All through Suicide Squad Harley was identifying Task Force X, herself chief among them, as the “bad guys.”  Now, moments after declaring herself “a terrible person I guess,” she’s pulling everyone together and noting the “bad guys” are Sionis’ men.

When Sionis taunts Harley in their final battle, saying she can’t stand on her own and needs his protection, Harley tells him, “Here’s the thing, Romy baby, your protection is based on the fact that people are scared a you, just like they’re scared a Mistah J.  But here’s the thing.  I’m the one they should be scared of.  Not you.  Not Mistah J.  ‘Cause I’m Harley Fuckin’ Quinn.”  What’s interesting is, as the movie’s played out, we’ve seen the people Joker has protected Harley from is the criminal element.  Sure, the cops know arresting her may bring the Joker down on them but it hasn’t stopped them.  Harley ended up on the Suicide Squad because Batman arrested her.  So while this line can be read as a proclamation of her villainous nature independent of the Joker, I don’t think that fits, especially when read in the context of her actions in this film.  Those who should be scared of Harley Quinn are all those who seek to use or abuse her, especially Gotham’s criminal element.

They defeat Sionis and his army.  Harley doesn’t steal the diamond.  Helena gets her family fortune back (which she uses to officially begin the Birds of Prey with Dinah and Montoya) and Harley takes Cass on as her apprentice, pawning the diamond after Helena was done with it for the money to begin her own little start-up.  As they all enjoy celebratory tacos after their win, Montoya tells Harley, “I owe you an apology.  I underestimated you and I’m sorry.”  Harley shrugs and says, “I’m used to it.”  But you can tell she sincerely appreciates what Montoya’s said.

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Dinah and Harley at their celebratory taco breakfast / Photo Credit – Warner Bros.’ Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Is there anything villainous here?  Is there anything petty, ignominious, ineffectual, or passive in Harley’s actions?  No.  Harley protects her own life, defends Cass, fights Gotham’s criminal underworld alongside the Birds of Prey, and does it all while dealing with and trying to heal from her trauma.  That seems pretty heroic to me.

Harley offers Cass another apology saying, “I’m sorry kid.  I’m sorry I tried to sell ya, that was a dick move.  For what it’s worth, you made me wanna be a less terrible person.”  We see this in her actions in The Suicide Squad, too!

The Suicide Squad (2021)

As the last two sections should make clear, MASSIVE SPOILERS for The Suicide Squad will follow so read or don’t read based on your comfort with all that.  If you want to skip the spoilers, you can read the last three paragraphs of the piece to see how it all comes together :).

In a brilliant ode to her independence, Harley’s wearing a jacket that says, “Live Fast, Die Clown.”  As Harley boards the plane for the Suicide Squad’s mission she tells Boomer “road rage robbin’ a bank” landed her back in prison.  But a brilliant catch by Jasmine Gallup in a piece on Screen Rant adds far more context to Harley’s return to Belle Reve:

Harley’s rap sheet, which lists “vigilantism” as the first offense…suggests she has become a Batman-like vigilante in her own right…beating down bad guys when it suits her…[and breaking] rules in service of others rather than pursuing her own agenda.…Other charges on Harley’s rap sheet are kidnapping, extortion, destruction of property, attempted homicide, and possession of illegal weapons — all crimes she could have committed in pursuit of her own form of justice or while working toward her own ends.  But the fact that the most recent charge shown is “vigilantism” suggests Harley is now more like Batman or ex-Detective Montoya.[9]

Given her history, it would not be surprising for Harley to be arrested for the same sort of actions found acceptable for Batman or the Birds of Prey.  Harley doesn’t seem resentful to be back in prison.  She is genuinely happy to see her friends and protective of the newbies, too.  Her trust and connection with others is growing.

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Harley enthusiastically boards the plane for the Suicide Squad’s next mission. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros.’ The Suicide Squad

As Boomer’s teasing the newbies, calling them dead meat hanging on a hook, Harley says, “Leave ‘em alone Boomer.”  And when they are decimated by the Corto Maltesian army on the beach, Harley mourns Boomer’s death.  She’s the only one on the beach/team to react but she sees him as a human being and friend.  While the scene is played for a laugh (and is hilariously orchestrated), Harley is also genuinely concerned she honor Javelin (Flula Borg)’s last request in carrying his javelin.  When the army moves in to arrest her, Harley’s only worry is, “This is so frustrating!  He just told me I had to carry this javelin for a reason but he didn’t say why!”  Even though they just met, Harley sees Javelin as she sees Boomer – a human being and new friend, deserving of respect and having his last request honored.

Separated from the Suicide Squad, Harley is taken to see Presidente General Silvio Luna (Juan Diego Botto) who tells a shocked Harley she is a hero to him as well as his people.  Despite all she’s done, Harley still has trouble seeing herself as a hero (even if Luna himself is a less than noble character).  He tells Harley, “My people say you would make the perfect wife, because you symbolize anti-American fervor.”  Harley’s flattered and they enjoy wildly passionate sex.  After, Harley says, “‘Harley Luna,’ I like the ring a that,” before asking Luna about Jotunheim, the object of their mission in Corto Maltese.  The scene that follows is so important in regard to her character growth. 

Luna – “I have recently learned these were not rumors.  They were murdering thousands with this creature.”

Harley – “Well it must be a big relief they got it in your hands now, huh?”

Luna – “Absolutely.  Now it is our enemies who shall be fearful.  If anyone dares to say a negative word about their new president today – their parents, their children, and anyone they ever loved will be sent to Jotunheim to feed the beast.”

…and Harley abruptly shoots Luna in the stomach with a gun he has on display in the room.  As he dies she says, “I’m sorry.  Recently I made a promise to myself that the next time I got a boyfriend I’d be on the lookout for red flags and if I saw anything I would do the healthy thing, and I would murder him.  And killing kids, that’s kind of a red flag.  I know, I know!  You’d say, ‘Harley, why don’t you just leave?!’  And I’d say, ‘Why are you screaming at me??  I’m right here!’  But when your taste in men is as bad as mine, they don’t just go away quietly.  They slash your tires and kill your dogs and tell you that the kinda music you like ain’t real music at all.  And all the cruelty…tears you apart after a while. [Luna dies] You were real pretty and all and R.I.P. to that absolutely beautiful monster between your legs but, all in all, I think you’re more pretty like this.  With all those rotten thoughts emptied from your head. [looking at the gun she picked up] I can’t believe this thing had a bullet.”

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Harley with the gun she used to shoot Luna. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros.’ The Suicide Squad

Harley’s healing!  Another effect of living with PTSD from an abusive relationship is being unconsciously drawn to unhealthy dynamics and ending up in other abusive relationships.[10]  Harley looked for red flags, recognized them, and then protected herself by avoiding the relationship.  Yes, she kills Luna but we’ve already addressed how violence, aggression, and a hyper-sensitive response to threats are effects of trauma.  Harley still has healing to do but it’s beginning.  Which means she’s doing the work!  Healing doesn’t happen magically.  GO HARLEY!

Naturally Harley’s arrested again for killing Luna.  Swinging in the new President General Mateo Suarez (Joaquin Cosio)’s cell, Harley sings, “I ain’t got nobody, nobody cares for me.”  She doesn’t complain or fight about going on missions with the Suicide Squad.  She’s happy to see Boomer and Flag.  She sees the Squad as her friends and she mourns them when they die…but she still struggles with those negative feelings towards herself.  She doesn’t see herself as worthy of healthy relationships.  She feels very much on the outside.  From her point of view, she is alone.

Despite believing she’s alone and left for dead, Harley endures the torture.  She doesn’t give up the team or their mission.  She breaks herself out on her own – all very superhero-y sorts of things.  And she is shocked when she sees Flag and Bloodsport (Idris Elba) arrive after she’s freed herself from Suarez’ cell and cut her way through his army. 

Harley – “What are you guys doing?”

Flag – “Well, uh…I…you.  We’re here to save you.”

Harley – “You were gonna save me?”

Flag – “It was a really good plan, too.”

Harley – “Well I can go back inside and you can still do it.”

Bloodsport – “That’s patronizing.”

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Harley as she realizes they came to rescue her. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros.’ The Suicide Squad

But it isn’t!  Harley doesn’t mean it that way!  Her offer is sincere because she is so touched they came for her.  There are real tears in her eyes when Flag tells her they’re there for her and she gives Flag such a long, tight hug.  The smiles Harley and Flag exchange on their walk into Jotunheim are so sweet, too.  They’ve become real friends over the years and now Harley knows he feels the same for her.  It’s beautiful!

During the battle, Harley saves Polka-Dot Man from the explosion inside Jotunheim.  She saves him from the flood and pulls Bloodsport back inside as he hangs out the side of the building.  And it’s Harley who rips open Starro’s eye so all the rats can get in and kill the creature.  Each of these actions are done at great personal risk to her own life and done solely to save the lives of others.  That’s Superhero 101. 

The news reports a group of “escaped convicts” saved a city of millions.  Sol Soria (Alice Braga), the leader of the resistance on Corto Maltese, tells the media, “Because of these people Corto Maltese will have free elections for the first time in nineteen years.”  So there’s no question they were the heroes of the story.  There’s not even a question as to the heroic motives in what they did.  In the first film, the Suicide Squad were heroes for completing their mission.  Here they went off mission, defying Amanda Waller and the obviously corrupt governmental aims she represents, and risked their own lives to save the day.

There isn’t a hint of antihero tendencies in Harley Quinn in any of these films and, by The Suicide Squad, she is as clearly defined a superhero as she’s been yet.  So why do we always frame Harley as an antihero?  I don’t know. But I do think we have a weird cultural fixation with how “cool” we think villains are.  Why we do would take an exhaustive sociological study well beyond the scope of this piece.  But from Breaking Bad to The Godfather to Dexter to Todd Philip’s Joker to Hannibal to all the Sith Lords and beyond, we love to cheer on bad people who do bad things.  This is different from being fascinated by the villain as a character or examining the “monstrous” to see what it teaches us about ourselves and our culture and/or using both to consider the nature of evil.  I’m talking about our desire to root for a villain to succeed in their villainous ways.  I’d go so far as to say we fetishize the villain in American culture.  While I don’t know why, I wonder if this is why we force the antihero label on someone like Harley Quinn despite all the evidence to the contrary.  I mean, she dated the Joker so she has to be evil, right?  No.  Not if we look at her character but this way we can feel “cool” and get that cultural high by liking “the bad guy.”

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Harley fights to save Corto Maltese alongside Ratcatcher, Bloodsport, King Shark, and Polka-Dot Man. / Photo Credit – Warner Bros.’ The Suicide Squad

If that’s what someone wants, a villain or antihero to root for, than they should pick a different character than Harley Quinn.  Sure, she’s robbed a bank here or there and she’s robbed a grocery store but we need to understand those actions within the real effects of trauma and her journey to healing.  From choosing to stand with her friends in Suicide Squad to tentatively building a community in Birds of Prey to seeing the relationships she is worthy of with her teammates in The Suicide Squad, Harley’s entire journey in the DCEU has been about learning to see she’s worthy of love, learning to see what she has to offer, and learning to let others in while healing from the trauma of her abusive relationship with the Joker.  And she does all this while SAVING THE WORLD twice and protecting a young girl whose own foster parents don’t seem to notice or care she was gone for days on end.  If that isn’t the résumé of a hero, what is? 

Harley Quinn’s external actions across her three appearances in the DCEU are as heroic as anything the members of the Justice League have done and her inner journey is more heroic and takes more strength than anything else we’ve yet to see in the DCEU.  At their core, superheroes are supposed to be larger-than-life characters who show us all we’re capable of.  They point us towards our highest potential.  Harley Quinn is a beautifully inspiring character who has demonstrated more strength than Superman ever has. If we don’t recognize a character like Harley as a superhero then we may need to seriously reconsider our definitions.

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Photo Credit – Warner Bros.’ The Suicide Squad


[1] M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms: Sixth Edition (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993), 214.

[2] American Psychological Association, “Facts About Women and Trauma,” APA.org.  Published August 2017.  Accessed August 12, 2021.  https://www.apa.org/advocacy/interpersonal-violence/women-trauma

[3] PTSD: National Center for PTSD, “Anger and Trauma,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.  Accessed August 12, 2021.  https://vpc.org/studies/trauma17.pdf

[4] Mental Health Foundation, “The impact of traumatic events on mental health,” MentalHealth.org.uk, 10.  Accessed August 12, 2021.  https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/impact-traumatic-events-mental-health

[5] Violence Policy Center, “The Relationship Between Community Violence and Trauma: How violence affects learning, health, and behavior,” VPC.org.  Published July 2017.  Accessed August 12, 2021. https://vpc.org/studies/trauma17.pdf

[6] APA.

[7] “Relationship PTSD Is Real – Here’s How Experts Explain It,” Health.com.  Published February 4, 2021.  Accessed August 12, 2021.  https://www.health.com/condition/ptsd/relationship-ptsd

[8] Crystal Raypole, “How to Recognize and Heal from Relationship PTSD,” Heathline.  Published April 29, 2021.  Accessed August 12, 2021.  https://www.healthline.com/health/relationships/relationship-ptsd

[9] Jasmine Gallup, “The Suicide Squad Just Secretly Made DCEU More Like Batman,” Screen Rant.  Published May 3, 2021.  Accessed August 14, 2021.  https://screenrant.com/suicide-squad-2-harley-quinn-vigilante-batman/

[10] Raypole.

6 thoughts on “Is the DCEU’s Harley Quinn an Antihero or Superhero?

  1. I can’t remember but in the original Suicide Squad does her rap sheet say she killed Robin? Or her and the Joker together? Either way I think it makes sense in that movie a lot of people within the world would see her as the villain.

    It’s interesting though that in a lot of material Batman does make peace with her and seemingly wants to see her find peace of mind herself.

    I loved, loved her reaction to Flag and the others coming to save her and then of course she loses many of them as well. I’d put her in the survivor camp and a superhero because despite everything she never seems to have lost her heart. Well after she got it back from Joker of course.

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    1. I couldn’t remember whether it was Harley or Harley and the Joker credited with killing Robin either so I just did a quick Google search. It said she and the Joker were both part of Robin’s murder. AND I saw a brilliant post about Harley’s rap sheet in ‘The Suicide Squad’ that made me have to go update this piece!

      This article by Jasmine Gallup on Screen Rant points out that the first charge on her rap sheet in the new film is “vigilantism” which she infers points to Harley doing her own superhero vigilante thing after ‘Birds of Prey’. I have no idea how she caught that but I’m so happy she did because it adds a whole new piece to this post! So I owe you for asking about the Robin thing ;). Thank you!

      Her connection to Batman and his making peace with her seems SO important to her place on the hero scale to me, too. I mean, this is a guy who has secret plans to kill all his friends should they “go rogue” so the fact that he can make peace with her, endorse her work (in many if not all of the comics) and want her to find peace herself seems to say so much about her character.

      I LOVE how you just framed her, too! To look at her as a superhero because she’s a survivor and because she took her heart back from the Joker and has kept her heart since then is just…it’s perfect! What a beautiful way to frame Harley Quinn and I think it’s spot on.

      Oh, and if you’re interested/to give credit where credit is due, here’s that Screen Rant piece about Harley’s rap sheet: https://screenrant.com/suicide-squad-2-harley-quinn-vigilante-batman/

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  2. I will definitely look into the vigilantism it seemed to allude to that at the end of Birds of Prey but we do tend to lose a lot with the movies. Now that would be a great series! Harley despite her best good-hearted intentions does seem to have things go awry and actually not a bad idea if they ever get around to Gotham City Sirens since Ivy does tend to be seen as an environmental vigilante of sorts. They could do so much more with Harley (and many of their other characters) but Warner seems to be in such a state and where they are doing it so well in the series doesn’t seem to be able to capture the attention even with two great seasons that the Marvel series can command out of the gate.

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    1. The Marvel vs. DC thing is fascinating to me. In the beginning it made sense. I think jumping right into Justice League did leave viewers a little shaken and tonally they’ve been all over the place. BUT that could be an advantage for Warner Bros. and DC! Why play catch-up in Marvel’s game? Create a comic book cinematic universe that’s very tonally different depending on the character and area of the universe you’re in. That’s how comics work! Their movies and shows are that way and they could lean into it. But they seem to lack a vision in promoting certain things (like the Harley Quinn show which is, hands down, one of the single greatest comic adaptations I’ve ever seen anywhere) or even developing areas where its working.

      I don’t know. I don’t know how they’d do it but I think DC’s characters are every bit as exciting as Marvel’s and I think many of their movies and shows can stand alongside Marvel’s – and some are better than much (or all, as far as I’m concerned, in the case of the original Wonder Woman) of what Marvel’s done. I don’t know why DC’s failed to capture the public imagination in a broad way like Marvel has. Because the stories they are telling deserve to!

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  3. I agree. But I have no idea what DC’s problem is I mean they are capable of doing it as you said they made a billion off the R-rated Joker and Aquaman which I remember once upon a time no one thought would ever work.

    They can’t seem to find a balance otherwise. But overall behind the scenes neither DC or Warner Brothers has the kind of stability Marvel Disney has had and I’m sure that’s played as big a part as anything else. It will be interesting though going forward to see if Marvel keeps it up now that they have multiple shows and movies yearly it seems.

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    1. Do we want to just call it now? So we can look back at this comment thread and say “We knew it!” when it actually happens? Because there’s no way Marvel can keep up the string of brilliance it’s had with the quality they always produce as they turn out more and more movies and shows every year. First, the public is always fickle. Tastes change. Second, it becomes too much to manage and maintain that quality. While it’s too soon to forecast, “The end is nigh!” I feel I see small signs of it unravelling already. And they can rebound! But I worry they are pulling themselves into the pit Star Wars is in with too much content that can’t match up. Granted, Marvel has Disney money and Disney advertising so that helps with its stability. But it feels like after a decade of a steady build of brilliance they are now running *so fast* and I just can’t foresee that not coming back to bite them.

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