Comics Watch: How 'Harleen' Lays Groundwork for an R-Rated Harley Quinn Movie

Harleen - DC Comics Stjepan Sejic - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Stjepan Sejic/DC Comics
If Warner Bros. can make films with multiple actors playing The Joker, could someone else take up the mantle from Margot Robbie for a darker stand-alone?

Welcome back to The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Comics Watch, a dive into how the latest books from Marvel, DC and beyond could provide fodder for the big screen. This week tackles DC's Harleen, so be warned, there are spoilers for the first issue below.

DC Black Label’s latest title debuts today and it’s no laughing matter. Stjepan Sejic’s three-issue series Harleen takes a mature look at how a gifted psychiatrist, Dr. Harleen Quinzel, finds herself stepping into the dual roles of the Joker’s paramour and notorious villain. Harley’s descent into madness has been told before, most notably in The Batman Adventures: Mad Love (1994) a one-shot issue by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, set within the Batman: The Animated Series continuity and later adapted as an episode for the series in 1999. Elements of Mad Love, were later established as the canonical origin for Harley Quinn, and brief snippets of the story were included in Suicide Squad (2016). Harleen’s story is often secondary to her eventual transformation and the lure of Batman and the Joker. But Sejic, a writer and artist known for his distinct style and compassionate characterization, utilizes his skills to fully develop Dr. Quinzel’s life as a young woman living in Gotham, whose fate pushes her closer and closer to man who both terrifies and engages her. With Harley Quinn’s popularity only continuing to grow, and Warner Bros. exploring the possibility of a DC Black Label film branch, Harleen may very well be the book that lays the groundwork for a future solo film.

DC’s Black Label imprint, which celebrated its one-year anniversary this month, kicked off with Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Batman: Damned and was followed up with Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman: Last Knight of Earth, Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.’s Superman: Year One, and Sean Murphy’s Batman: Curse of the White Knight. These stories take an out-of-continuity approach, with typically R-rated considerations of some of DC’s most iconic figures. The inspiration for the label began with Azzarello and Bermejo’s graphic novels Luthor (2005) and Joker (2008). Fittingly, Todd Phillips’ upcoming Joker, while not an adaptation of the graphic novel, takes a similar R-rated approach outside of the larger DC movie universe.

Phillips has pitched the idea of a DC Black Label film side to Warner Bros., and while the studio is waiting to see how Joker performs first, fans are already speculating what could be next, with Luthor high on that list. But Harleen is just as viable a possibility.

Harleen doesn’t retell Harley’s origins by utilizing the Beauty and the Beast narrative of a beautiful girl seduced by a monster and held captive at his whims. Instead, the first issue focuses on Dr. Quinzel’s work, her interest in lessening the mass incarceration affecting Gotham, and reforming inmates and patients into functioning members of society. Her perspective frames Batman as part of the problem, a force that contributes to Gotham’s mass incarceration issue rather than lessening it. Batman and the Joker are caught in a “theater of shadows,” looming as silhouettes and nightmares that signify the root of Gotham’s problems. This would be a fascinating approach through which to see these characters on film. While Batman and the Joker loom large over Harley Quinn’s narrative, a film focused on her could push them to the background, shadows influencing her efforts and increasing despair.

Harley Quinn may not be as popular as the Joker among non-comic readers yet, but she’s getting close. Margot Robbie’s performance in Suicide Squad helped the character breakout in the minds of general audiences, and that popularity is likely to only grow with the upcoming release of Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. Robbie will be kept busy as Harley Quinn for the foreseeable future. But if a DC Black Label film branch does happen, and takes inspiration from the Joker in terms of allowing filmmakers to have creative freedom, there’s a chance that we could see someone other than Robbie take on the role for the film. While this idea may ruffle the feathers of some fans, the Shakespearean quality of these characters permits multiple actors to hold the same role simultaneously and each offer a different voice through which to understand them. Just as Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the Joker doesn’t prevent another actor from appearing as the character in Matt Reeves’ Batman, the same is true for Harley Quinn.

Harley Quinn’s role in the DC movie universe thus far is largely inspired by her recent comic book reformation, which has found her separated from the Joker, romantically involved with Poison Ivy, and largely heroic. But there’s still a place for her as a villain, and not just one who operates as a female equivalent of the Joker. Harley’s transformation, at the moment, doesn’t seem to be leading up to madness, but a conscious decision to abandon standards she clung to. “We’re all monsters in a civilized cage, it just takes the right kind of pain and fear to break the lock,” Joker says in the book. This kind of character focus and hard examination of a pop culture figure we thought we knew is the very thing that makes Joker look so appealing. Imagine if a filmmaker like The Rhythm Section's Reed Morano reteamed with Blake Lively and used Harleen as the basis for an R-rated psychological examination of the deterioration of one woman’s empathy in a crime-ridden city where Batman and the Joker only exist in the shadows.

Watching Harley Quinn develop into a more heroic figure in the DC Comics over recent years has been a compelling development, and arguably a necessary evolution for the character. But Sejic’s Harleen reminds us that there’s also room to reconsider her role as a villain through a modern lens that adds new layers to her character. If Todd Phillips and Warner Bros. are truly serious about further exploring the creative process that led to Joker, then they need look no further than Harleen for the next great examination of a DC villain.