Why So Serious, Harley?
The first game in Rocksteady’s Arkham series, Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) uses the same voice cast as Batman: The Animated Series (including Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn) and was written by Paul Dini, but this Harley is different to those that have come before her. Where the Animated Harley was content to wear a onesie, this one wears a leather corset. Where the Classic Harley was happy to wear a jester’s cap, this one has pig-tailed blonde hair and wears a choker. Where the Traditional Harley exuded a cheeky noir-derived sexuality, this one has ample cleavage and a bare mid-riff. Yet, this is still Harley Quinn: a red and dark-blue jester with a penchant for crime and a love of The Joker, only she’s now grubbier and dressed like a ’90s Britney Spears at a Bachelorette party.
Given her credentials as a former white-coat psychiatrist with a bona fide Ph.D. — which we see a little of in Batman: Arkham Origins (2013) when she is first seduced by a captive/captivating Joker while he is actually talking about his “special connection” with Batman — the more extravagant costumes still reflect the playful cosplay nature we’ve seen before in Harley, only they are more self-consciously sexual, presumably for the voyeuristic enjoyment of the contemporary player-base. The look has elsewhere been described as “porn star.” Even Arkham Harley is aware of this amplified-to-eleven attitude adjustment, first appearing in Asylum with a nurse’s uniform over the top of her figure-hugging particulars: “How do you like my new uniform? Pretty hot, huh?”
Even with the introduction and subsequent foregrounding of more adult themes in Asylum, like a rollercoaster at a fairground, Harley is still following the same patterns we’ve seen countless times. She may now run the asylum, but she’s still beholden to one of its patients. Asylum Harley sets off bombs, creates Saw-like traps with hostages (which to be fair, are now more malicious than they seem to have ever been with Classic Harley), and she still performs acrobatic acts to elude capture – all while taunting the impotencies of The Bat. Harley also reprises her role as the fan-fare narrator of the unfolding events, appearing in several safe spaces (behind bullet-proof glass, behind a force field, on a TV screen), but further two items are absolutely inescapable: first, when she seriously displeases The Joker, Harley is still left out in the cold, off the “party list”; secondly, when Batman catches up with her, she is always incapacitated within mere moments with barely a struggle.
In the sequel Batman: Arkham City (2011), this pattern of expositional hench-lady seems destined to continue with Batman consoling a worried Alfred that “Quinn never was too smart”, before she gets one-punch knocked down again. It’s not that Arkham Batman doesn’t want you to fight Harley, you understand, it’s that Batman is too much of a gentleman to make his fights with women protracted, so they’re over too quickly to be worth taking control of. City Harley loves her announcements and she loves siccing her goons on Batman from a point of elevated safety. She also carries this trait on in Batman: Arkham City Lockdown (2011), being eventually defeated, and one would imagine greatly embarrassed, by a slow-moving, remote-controlled, wonky batarang. City Harley is also enamored with her slightly more muted, new outfit (this time with the tips of her bunches dyed black and red): “It would be a shame to get blood all over my nice new outfit. What do you think bat-brain? Like it? What am I saying, ‘course you do. Who wouldn’t?” You can put your hand down at the back; this part of the game is rhetorical.
Harley also takes part in another fake death of The Joker (as we also saw in Vengeance with Classic Harley), and continues her fantastic habit of pushing the narrative along with her own verbal incontinence, telling Batman that “I’m not going to tell you about the crap Joker took from Freeze and locked up in the boiler room”: a strange trait transposed from the expositional comic format, which is also shared with her appearance within Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure (2013) where Harley tells Robin The Joker’s nefarious plan, following it up with “I really shouldn’t have told you that!”
By this point in the series, Arkham Harley is spunkier and punkier than Classic Harley, but not necessarily more complex, hitting an ultimate low-point in objectifying the Damsel-of-Distress by having her story end early, tied to a girder, taped around the waist and ankles, sacrificed to the Gods of bondage and teenage fancies with the immortal button prompt: “Gag/Ungag Harley.”
But everything changes when The Joker dies at the end of Arkham City.
More specifically, everything changes for Video Game Harley. By this point in the comics, Arkham Harley has already made her mark. Weeks before Arkham City was released, DC Comics released their The New 52 version of Suicide Squad, replete with new leather and corset-wearing Harley; a Harley who’s Arkham Asylum red and blue color scheme was not only worked into her new comic book outfit, but into her hair (as with Arkham City), which through some circuitous development ended up being part of a further redesign for the Suicide Squad movie. Same with the change over from mallet to baseball bat we also see from Arkham City through to Suicide Squad. Every Video Game Harley prior to Arkham Asylum is heavily influenced by the comics and the TV shows; every Harley Quinn after Arkham Asylum is heavily influenced by the Arkham Series.
However, the incendiary event of The Joker finally dying (which can never be a lasting prospect in the comics – even when his face is cut-off in The New 52) is the catalyst that Arkham Harley requires to begin her directional shift, not only from under the constraining aegis of The Joker’s vile vagaries and towards her own criminal career of Sirens-self-sufficiency, but towards a Harley that is an anti-hero, or a little more understandable and relatable at the very least.
In the story-based Arkham City downloadable content (DLC), Harley Quinn’s Revenge (2012), Harley is prepping for a siege with her army of Harley-costumed goons, having taken the gang-leader mantle from The Joker and having Batman as a hostage. Wearing a black veil and with a small group of Joker robots (clearly jarring the narrative, but demonstrative of the reversal of puppetry control – even when one of the parties has shuffled off the narrative coil), Harley is defeated, but when Batman does what Batman does best, which is saving villains from a death at the hands of their own hubris, Harley breaks down, crying: “You should have left me to die! Then I could have been back together… with… Mistah J!”
Towards the end of Arkham City, there are also subtle allusions to pregnancy (a positive pregnancy test can be found next to Harley’s Asylum costume). While this thread doesn’t seem to pan out in later games, Harley’s protective actions in Batman: Arkham Knight (2015) — her desire to keep people that are infected with The Joker’s blood safe from the Batman — could either be interpreted as an attempt to keep her former lover alive (“We just want our Mistah J back, and you dead, but mostly we just want our Mistah J”), or a maternal desire to keep their children alive (“a whole new generation of Jokers”) – a distorted desire amplified by the fact that one of the infected civilians, Henry Adams, is a creaky, creepy old guy. Being in the same vein as the Classic Joker, Henry ends up threatening to shoot Harley after shooting all the other Joker candidates, before turning the gun on himself.
As parting wisdom, Henry offers that “evolution’s a funny thing. No matter how many obstacles get in its way, the strongest always survives.” One can’t help but feel that these final words apply to the development of Harley Quinn throughout the 25 years of her existence, and especially across her accelerated developments within the Arkham series. Knight Harley wears a black dress with white rouched-frills, and a bodice with white shoulders (reminiscent of the nurse’s uniform). The leather is still there and the tights also make a return from the old lycra costume, but her look appears to be tempered by The New 52 Harley: sassy and strutting like a self-empowered Harajuku girl, still carrying a pseudo-medieval vibe, rather than a walking projection of some dude’s archaic notion of S&MTV sexy.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. When Arkham Harley becomes playable in the Arkham Knight DLC: the inventively titled Harley Quinn Story Pack, yes, Harley is fully capable of acrobatic fighting in attempting to rescue her friend Poison Ivy from Blüdhaven Police Station, reflecting a Sirens comic background that was hinted at in earlier games, but she still shouts Kung Fu malapropisms as she sets off her jack-in-the-box explosives and fights the Law, again, a verbal trait that we see in Scribblenauts Unmasked where the objective is quite simply to make Harley look intellectually diminished.
By the end of the Arkham games the player can actively choose to side with Harley Quinn and fight in an honour-among-thieves type scenario. The Injustice series, a duo of fighting games, take Harley’s liberation further, changing her dynamic from criminal to anti-hero in just two teeny steps: again, the death of The Joker, but also Superman’s successful attempt to take over the entire world with a totalitarian regime that flattens all in its path. The two plot points are far from mutually exclusive. Superman killed The Joker because, with the assistance of Harley Quinn as seen in the comic book Injustice: Gods Among Us: Volume 1, The Joker engineered the death of Jimmy Olson, Louis Lane, their unborn baby, and all of Metropolis. This leads the most culpable Video Game Harley to side with the good-guys, including her long-time foe Batman, and fight against either Superman’s super-cronies in Injustice: Gods Among Us (2013), or Braniac’s invasion force and the rogue’s gallery of “The Society” of Injustice 2 (2017).
Gods Harley is seen in two forms: an “Elsewhere” form that helps The Joker prime a nuke and is slapped for being “a third wheel” (amusingly, the sentiment is likewise expressed by Harley towards Batman in the animated series The Batman), and the sans-Joker version that has readied herself for war with her Joker Clan group of guerilla insurgents. The complicating factor for Harley’s narrative is that The Joker from “Elsewhere” has crossed over into her dimension, leading her astray once more. Harley releases The Joker from imprisonment and after displeasing him once more, he offers her a “generous severance package” from the end of a barrel. Luckily for Harley, Lex Luthor is also somewhat reformed and saves her, so while she “can’t believe [she] fell for him again”, Lex tells her “You’ve outgrown him”.
In terms of inner-growth and development, the end sequences for Gods Harley’s story is unimaginable for every iteration of Video Game Harley that has come before her, and builds on the forward drive of a character that has been placed in extreme circumstances to take a dark step that even The New 52 Harley stopped short of (“I finally get why Batman never just killed you all these years. It would give you exactly whatcha want”):
The defeat of Superman filled Harley with confidence. She knew what she was capable of, and knew what she wanted. She traveled to the visitor’s Earth and freed the Joker from prison. Returning to her world, they married in a ceremony that set Gotham ablaze. At the reception, the cake cutting ceremony took a gruesome turn. As her new husband playfully mashed her face into the cake, years of abuse took its toll. Something in Harley snapped. She used the ceremonial knife to slash Joker’s throat. Still wearing her wedding gown, Harley now resides permanently in Arkham Asylum.
Now “permanently” isn’t a permanent concept, especially not in a fluid world inspired by comic book logic; for in Injustice 2, Harley is not only freed from her padded-cell, but she’s in charge of Batman’s Batcave based Brother Eye computer. Of all the videogGame Harley one-liners, Injustice 2 Harley has a singularly unique quote: “I don’t know about ‘genius,’ but I do got a PhD.” From this refreshing opening point of orientation (as Batman explains to Green Arrow: “She’s a different person since The Joker died. Mostly”), Harley moves forward. She’s good friends with Black Canary and Swamp Thing (“It ain’t us you wanna bash; we’re the good guys!”), wears the Bat symbol on the back of her jacket, and fights an imaginary version of her new nemesis to emerge victorious: “Ain’t no slick fella with a cheap suit and cheaper grin telling me who I am ever again. We had mad love [ha!], once upon a time. but now that’s over, Mistah J.” Speaking of cheap suits, the mobile version of Injustice 2 allows you to buy the “Suicide Squad Harley Gold Pack,” conferring a Suicide Squad Harley to your roster, for the buy-now, regret it forever, price of $62.99 – got to make those synergy profits!
Seemingly redeemed, Harley is now one of the good guys with a moral compass that appears to have pulled away from the magnetism of her former Puddin’. Newly resurrected Harley is on the fast track to being an anti-hero, confronting Wonder Woman as she is about to kill a fallen enemy (“You lecture me? How much blood is on your ledger, Quinn?”, “Oh, buckets full honey. I was tryin’ too hard to impress the wrong guy. Kinda like you with Superman.”). At this point a deranged Wonder Woman drives her sword through Harley, leaving Super Girl to violently interject and heal her with laser vision.
At the time of writing, Injustice 2 is the latest Harley Quinn representation to be seen in a video game, and it’s a fitting point that on her 25th Birthday, she can be seen to have navigated from a bullied victim of domestic abuse to a self-empowered anti-hero. Injustice 2 ends in a way that would have seemed entirely impossible at the outset of her criminal career, with Batman offering her a place in The Justice League and plans being made by Harley to eventually be with her 4-year old, Injustice-comic-book-originated daughter, Lucy.
These plot points are made possible through a winding character development that has gone from Classic Harley: The Jester side-kick, to Modern Harley: The Punk Girl. The latter Harley is capable of greater character fluidity from the Arkham series onwards, but is still fundamentally based on the same bedrock as Classic Harley; the big difference is that more has happened to post-Arkham Harley so she has been forced to adapt to her circumstances. As the representations of Harley in video games recycle, clash, and compete with extra-textual influences and origin stories in a way that they never had to from 1994-2009, it’s hard to predict where Harley’s narrative will turn next.
The influence of Suicide Squad (the movie) has led to first-person wave-based game, Suicide Squad: Special Ops (2016), for mobile devices, but it’s also led to a great swathe of unofficial Harley Quinn dress up, makeup, and hair salon games on those same platforms. The YouTube animated series, DC Super Hero Girls, and the Cartoon Network’s Teeny Titans also both feature Harley and have started churning out tie-in games, again for mobile devices, where class-clown Harley is now best pals with Batgirl, Supergirl, and Wonder Woman. Additionally, DC Comics have just relaunched their new comic line up with the Rebirth series and the Justice League film universe is now kicking into some kind of gear beyond reverse.
It is because of this diversity and complexity that while the second episode of point-and-click graphic adventure, Batman: The Enemy Within, is set to release on September 26, 2017, featuring one “Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a former psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum,” there are no certainties as to whether we’ll see a jester’s costume, a leather costume, or something entirely new. The Telltale Games series has thus far thrived on twisting Gotham stereotypes into original configurations, but who knows, maybe this new Harley will set the template for the next 25 years.
Carl Wilson hails from Sheffield, UK. He has written on subjects ranging from Armenian Cinema through to the X-Men for the Directory of World Cinema, World Film Locations, and Fan Phenomena book series. He is currently a staff writer for PopMatters, where he has also contributed to edited collections on Doctor Who and Joss Whedon.