Everything You Need to Know About Harley Quinn, From Breakout Batman Villain to ‘Suicide Squad’
Ever since WB released the first teaser for Suicide Squad, one thing has been abundantly clear: Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is the star of David Ayer’s DC super-villain ensemble piece. But for those unfamiliar with The Joker’s occasional sidekick and love interest, the beautifully bonkers and charmingly crazy villain is a bit of a mystery. To help you out, we’ve created a brief primer for The Dark Knight’s most delightful baddie, revisiting some of the character’s most notable moments and tracing her history from breakout Batman villain to Suicide Squad.
Harley Quinn is arguably one of the most interesting characters in the realm of Batman — her irrational, unwavering devotion to The Joker offers a compelling look inside the mind of someone who has been repeatedly manipulated, used and abused; someone who (mis)directs all of her energy into a toxic relationship with a person who will never love her back. Through all of her comedic and endearingly psychotic moments, Harley Quinn’s story is tragic and — although extremely heightened — relatable for many people.
In addition to her startling depth, Harley Quinn is just fun. Though her depiction has evolved throughout the years to include a costume that’s (unfortunately) more in keeping with the traditional scantily-clad depictions of women in comics, Harley never feels like an overtly sexual character. She operates on a superficially primitive level that helps her avoid all that pesky soul-searching that would no-doubt lead her to realize that The Joker is, for lack of a better word, a total a—hole (though she occasionally has moments of clarity). She’s feminine and cute but also deranged. Her choices aren’t based on what men want, just what she thinks The Joker wants; she’s the ultimate cautionary tale of a woman who betrays herself for the sake of some jerk who doesn’t deserve her.
And while she sometimes represents the absolute worst choices, she’s kind of the best.
Batman: The Animated Series
Harley Quinn made her debut not in the pages of Batman comics, but in Batman: The Animated Series. Created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Harley was first introduced as The Joker’s sidekick in the 1992 episode “Joker’s Favor.” Though her part was small, Harley became an instant favorite and subsequent episodes gave the character an expanded role — like the 1993 girl-power episode “Harley and Ivy,” which sees Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy joining forces to become the new “queens of crime,” much to Batman and The Joker’s chagrin.
As depicted in the series, Harley Quinn is hopelessly devoted to The Joker and often oblivious to his dismissive and occasionally cruel attitude toward her. Despite Harley’s unwavering commitment to the nefarious Clown Prince, he never gives her the respect or consideration she deserves.
Harley Quinn was partially inspired by Arleen Sorkin, Paul Dini’s former roommate who went on to star in Days of Our Lives (an episode of the classic soap featured a dream sequence in which Sorkin wore a jester’s costume). Not only does Harley incorporate real aspects of Sorkin’s personality, but Dini actually got his old friend to voice the character on the animated series.
Harley Quinn’s origins were explored in the 1994 graphic novel written and illustrated by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. Using an aesthetic similar to Batman: The Animated Series, the slightly darker comic finds Harley recalling how she first met The Joker in Arkham Asylum. Via flashback, we meet Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, a psychiatrist who goes to work at the famous institution. Through a series of interviews, Harleen learns that The Joker was abused as a child and decides that Batman is to blame for most of his mental anguish. She also finds herself falling in love with the Clown Prince, and tries to win him over by helping him escape the asylum and becoming his most devoted accomplice.
In an effort to impress The Joker and have her love reciprocated, Harley kidnaps Batman and tries to kill him by herself. She becomes distracted when Batman tells her that The Joker has been playing her and that all those sob stories about his traumatic childhood were fabricated to manipulate Harley into helping him escape. Harley doesn’t believe him, so Batman convinces her to stage his murder to see how The Joker will react; instead of fawning over her accomplishment, The Joker becomes enraged and tosses her out of a window.
Not long after, Harley finds herself locked up in Arkham, injured and heartbroken and convinced that she’s done with The Joker — until she finds a bouquet of flowers with a “get well soon” note written in his handwriting.
Although thought to be too dark for Batman: The Animated Series, the story was eventually adapted into an episode of The New Batman Adventures with only minor changes.
In addition to her television appearances, Harley Quinn was also one of the female characters featured in the animated web series Gotham Girls. The series ran for three seasons and offered short stories about Harley, Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Batgirl and Zatanna, and inspired a five-issue comic book series in 2003.
Elsewhere in the Comics…
Harley became so popular that she was officially incorporated into Batman comic book canon with her own one-shot in Batman: No Man’s Land, a crossover comic published in 1999. The one-shot further develops her enduring relationship with Poison Ivy, who listens as Harley recounts her origin story. But this time around we learn that The Joker does reciprocate the affections of his sidekick — so much so that it makes him uncomfortable to the point where he traps her in a rocket and tries to launch her off into space.
Later, in Batman #663, Harley helps Joker with his plan to murder all of his henchmen, but when she finds out that his last order of business (or his “punchline”) is to kill her, she shoots him in the shoulder and runs away.
Harley was also occasionally involved in her own plots: In Birds of Prey #105, she joins up with the Secret Six, a covert group of operatives similar to Task Force X. By issue #108, Harley quits the team when Oracle reveals footage of Deadshot murdering the Six’s mysterious employer.
Birds of Prey
Back in 2002, The WB (now The CW) premiered a live-action DC series based on the Birds of Prey comic book series. The show is set in a version of Gotham City that has been abandoned by Batman, with Oracle (aka Barbara Gordon) and Huntress continuing his pursuit of justice with the help of Alfred Pennyworth and a telepath named Dinah. Harleen Quinzel / Harley Quinn also has a role in the short-lived series, in which she uses the criminal connections she makes while working as a psychiatrist to seek revenge on the people who destroyed the love of her life.
Harley was played by Twin Peaks vet Sherilyn Fenn in the unaired Birds of Prey pilot, but was later replaced by Mia Sara, the star of ’80s classics like Legend and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Gotham City Sirens
First published in 2009, the series follows Harley as she moves into an apartment with Catwoman and Poison Ivy (which is basically like the best TV sitcom never made). In issue #7, Harley’s origins are further explored as we learn that she was born in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn to a Jewish-Catholic family. Her father was a con-man who is still serving time, her brother is an underachieving slacker with dreams of being a rockstar, and Harley’s mom constantly belittles her daughter’s dreams — all of which inspires her to become a psychiatrist.
What follows is a slightly convoluted story of double-double-crossing as Harley’s plan to kill The Joker and sever their ties for good is foiled when he convinces her to participate in his hostile takeover of Arkham. Catwoman, Harley and Ivy all double-cross each other at various points, but girl power and a mutual hatred of Batman ultimately wins out.
When DC Comics relaunched their properties in 2011, Harley Quinn was given a makeover (with a more revealing and divisive costume) and a slightly altered origin story — one that seems to have influenced Suicide Squad. It’s revealed that Harley Quinn doesn’t wear makeup; instead, her bleached skin is the result of The Joker throwing her into a vat of acid, echoing his own origin story. A falling out with The Joker sends Harley on a murder-spree and into the orbit of Amanda Waller, who forces her to join the Suicide Squad.
Believing The Joker to be dead, Harley turns her intense affections to Deadshot, who is similarly distant and dismissive. Things take a dark turn when Harley hatches a plan to break into the Gotham police department to retrieve The Joker’s face, which was supposedly skinned from his body. When she acquires the, uh, object, Harley captures Deadshot and…well, in the parlance of the internet, you won’t believe what happens next.
In 2013, Harley Quinn finally got her own standalone comic book series. Written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, the series basically ignores Batman and The Joker and depicts Harley as an anti-hero instead of a villain. By day, Harley is the landlord at Coney Island, a member of a local roller derby team and works as a psychiatrist. Like Batman, Harley is a vigilante of sorts, and her crime-fighting endeavors feature characters like the Clock King, Power Girl and Poison Ivy — the latter of whom forms a non-monogamous romantic relationship with Harley, as confirmed by the writers of the series (DC execs wouldn’t comment on this development).