From the moment Suicide Squad premiered, it was clear the face of DC Films had been changed -- for better or worse. Fans of the movie glommed on to their favorite characters, but none were so much of a breakout star as Margot Robbie, who seemed to breathe new life into the character of Harley Quinn. One didn't have to look very far to find female cosplayers dressed as Suicide Squad Harley -- I was practically tripping over them at last year's New York Comic Con -- and so it seemed only a matter of time before the character would get her own movie.
The news recently broke that a Harley Quinn solo film would be moving forward -- with Robbie herself both starring and acting as executive producer, as well as Suicide Squad director David Ayer returning to the helm. Ayer's attachment to Gotham City Sirens has left some fans concerned -- a response I didn't fully share until I recently sat down and watched Suicide Squad for the first time.
It was disjointed, messy and uneven. Some characters weren't given nearly enough exposition and backstory (Katana), while some were afforded way too much (the Joker). And although there were plenty of female characters for audiences to pick and choose from, their treatment was ... less than ideal.
In one scene, Squad member Slipknot smacks a woman across the face, justifying his actions because "she had a mouth." Later, Deadshot offers his own encouragement to Rick Flag in dealing with his girlfriend Dr. June Moone, who's currently being possessed by the entity Enchantress: "Get up there, smack on her ass, tell her knock this sh-t off." Presumably, these scenes are to remind us these characters are Bad Guys, but the only thing the undercurrent of misogyny served to do was make me uncomfortable.
As for Harley Quinn, she's had more agency in other stories. In one comics incarnation, she finally breaks up with the Joker; in another, she and longtime partner-in-crime Poison Ivy become a couple. Over the years Harley has grown and evolved as a character who doesn't have to be linked to the Joker to be recognized; she's now achieved the moniker of DC's most popular female character. But she's also a woman who deserves better than to stay in a toxic -- and at times, abusive -- relationship.
A large part of Harley's backstory plot in Suicide Squad was reduced to her being on the Joker's arm; some later moments felt akin to a Disney princess waiting around for her prince to come and rescue her. And yet as we see when Enchantress uses her magic to induce happy fantasies in some of the Squad members, a part of her, however small, wishes for a normal version of the life she's had with this man. It's a twisted fantasy not merely because Harley's brain has been warped after being subjected to electroshock treatments at the hands of the Joker himself, but also because of what it reduces Harley to in the moment: a woman who secretly craves domesticity with the one who's abused her. Ultimately, it felt like a disservice to a character with such a rich and complicated comics history.
I have no qualms about Robbie's involvement with the spinoff project, in spite of any lingering mixed feelings I have regarding her acting in the role; she's demonstrated that she has a passion and respect for Harley Quinn. My uneasy feelings lie with Ayer, who's now attached to the project as director. Given the violence Suicide Squad frequently directed toward its fictional women -- often less-than-deserved -- the question becomes whether some of that and some of the more troublesome undertones would find their way into this spinoff movie.
There is a woman currently working on the script -- Geneva Robertson-Dworet has written the screenplay for the upcoming Tomb Raider remake and also worked on Sherlock Holmes 3 (release date ETA) -- but when it comes to comic book properties being adapted for the silver screen, there's often a very large disconnect between what's written on the page and what winds up in the finished film. Sometimes, screenwriters' efforts are diminished or overwritten completely. (On the Marvel side of things, James Gunn fought to eliminate Nicole Perlman's writing credit on Guardians of the Galaxy, and then later tried to minimize her contributions.) Robertson-Dworet might be writing the best, most empowering Harley Quinn movie we could ever hope to see, but there's no guarantee Ayer won't pick and choose what gets to come through in his own vision.
In the larger scheme of things, both DC and Marvel's film divisions have to do a better job of diversifying their directing pool. When DC tapped Patty Jenkins to direct the upcoming Wonder Woman solo film, it felt like a small victory -- but the truth is that a woman directing a major comic book franchise film should have happened long before this, and not simply because it has a female lead, either. The planned Gotham City Sirens spinoff will potentially have not just one female lead, but three; the comics depict Poison Ivy and Catwoman in league with Harley as well.
Imagine how powerful it would be to not only have a woman putting her vision down on the page but another helping to bring that to life through the lens. We can only hope that there will be plenty of other women working both behind and in front of the camera to counter this missed opportunity. (And if DC does decide they want to hire a female director after all: there are plenty out there for them to choose from.)