How #RelationshipGoals Joker and Harley is at the Heart of What’s Wrong with Suicide Squad (and DC Films as a larger whole)

Spoilers. Nothing spoiling it more than the fact that it’s a swirling trash ring in the sky, but still SPOILERS.

The second the Joker (Jared Leto) broke into Belle Reve to bring Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) home, I sunk deeply into my mall theater seat and felt that last straw placed on the camel’s back.

Honestly, up until then, it was just the standard garbage I was resigned to, but seeing Joker burst in like Clyde-ass-Barrow for his Bonnie put a sour taste in my mouth, like garbage that has a full jug of spoiled milk. It was a part of the film that had been bugging me and in that moment, it finally crystallized exactly what was wrong, and perhaps the little nagging feeling that’s been in the back of my head ever since March 22nd when I saw Batman v Superman.

Let’s just start at what’s wrong here. For those of you unfamiliar, Harley Quinn and Joker are the DC Universe’s preeminent abusive relationship. Joker is a psychopath, incapable of feeling any love, but he’s managed to use some sort of natural charisma as well as Harley’s own insecurities to convince her that he truly does love her. It means that Harley is game for anything that the Joker asks her to do, completely at the sway of her love for him.

In other words, it’s one of the Joker’s greater crimes, because it is the one that hits closest to home. It’s unlikely you or a loved one has been the victim of a serial killer, just statistically. There’s a very good chance that you or a loved one has been in an abusive relationship, one that destroyed the sense of self and put at the sway of someone who saw their partner as a possession to control. Joker has essentially spent twenty years destroying Harley and making her think she loves it.

It isn’t just that it builds Joker’s character, gives him another on a long list of crimes. It also is an integral part of Harley’s history. One that we might need to examine, but it makes her a character who is constantly fighting against better instincts because love and the twisted machinations of a greater evil have kept her under their thumb. It means that she could one day break away from him, and live a life of her own, as she has done in the current DC Universe. It’s dramatically rich and extremely powerful for a villain. She’s a foil to Batman because she’s essentially slave to a similar version of his own psychology, that single-minded devotion, and because she’s competing with him for the space of her Puddin’.

In other words, the abusive relationship dynamics between Joker and Harley are incredibly rich from a storytelling perspective. This is besides the more moral fact that Joker cannot and should not be portrayed as any form of good in this action and that his relationship with Harley is textually rooted in an idea that cannot and should not be romanticized.

So you can imagine how pissed off I was when Suicide Squad decided to romanticize his relationship with Harley Quinn.

Now, Jared Leto’s Riddler from Batman Forever Faygo Scarface Joker suffers on the whole from his lack of signifying characteristics as a Joker. There’s nothing terribly different about him from any other criminal in Suicide Squad, minus visuals. No particular form of insanity is seen. In fact, as a club owner, this Joker seems to just be pitched at Instagram Drug Lord. The only reason it makes any sense that Joker is sent to Arkham Asylum in the context of the film is because we have an assumed cultural context that the Joker is insane. There’s no display of terrifying internal logic like The Dark Knight or no wacky criminality like Hamil’s animated version.

This is key, because it’s the first step to defanging the relationship. Joker is not particularly beyond the pale, especially in the context of a film about criminals. Harley seems more pointedly insane than he does. Granted, she also plays insanity more as that quirky girl who won’t shut up in your high school, but I digress. This means that Joker does not pose the mere threat of existence, the monstrousness that is key to the relationship.

What’s second is far more active. The fact is, the film gives us no reason to actually assume abuse. There are three scenes that come most closely to it. The first is that Joker leaves her behind when he sends his car careening off the edge. We’re not given enough context to properly read this moment, and we have no idea on his reasoning for doing so. But his anger that she’s gone later on is enough to make it clear that it was some form of accident. The second is the torture scene with the electrodes, but that’s glossed over incredibly fast and we see Harley on screen for approximately a few shots of it. The film almost wants us to ignore it, especially given that we never see him use them.

The third is the frankly bizarre scene wherein Joker convinces Harley to live for him which leads to her choosing to plunge into the chemicals to replicate what happened to him. It’s echoing that control in an abusive relationship. However, not only are we left with the fact that Harley clearly makes the choice (which Joker then puts himself in harm’s way to rescue her), but also that the scene is played incredibly lovingly. The kissing in the chemicals, the heart surrounding them, this is a moment of triumph in this relationship. If it’s indicative of anything, it’s this movie’s tendency not to think through the final implications of its scenes.

Everything else is attempting to play them in a abnormal and loving relationship. Joker just wants her back and clearly legitimately cares for her. He wants her back because he misses her. He even seemingly sacrifices himself to try save her before he comes back to get her from prison.

I have problems with this on a few levels. Obviously, the first being that I think this is an absolutely dangerous prospect. Remember that though this is a single textual interpretation, it’s readable in the context of every other one, all of which depict the relationship as abusive. It’s essentially presenting a romanticized view of an abusive relationship and refuses any opportunity it has to show that and criticize it. This movie’s problem with violence against women (two men clocking two different women are presented as laugh moments) becomes especially weighty in this context.

The second being that we do have to read this in context of a larger universe and as a piece of storytelling on its own. In Suicide Squad, it means that the film is afflicted with a central storyline and relationship that does not relate to its central themes. The Squad choosing each other as a family at the end is undermined that Harley wants to leave it for the Joker as it also is by the fact that Harley isn’t really choosing to leave behind an old way. There was a chance for a richer dramatic moment no matter what she chose at the end. Where is Harley supposed to go with this relationship from here?

It also means that the film has no actual central conception of what this relationship means which takes away from the actual ideals of its characters. Harley is given more time and is therefore fortunate enough to have some other ideas of her character, even if there’s less necessarily human about her, but Joker is absolutely hobbled by the relationship. The choice to make him functionally a romantic hero to the main character means that he can’t push as far as the character requires. We have to absolutely hate him with Harley (in general as well) and instead they decided to make us try to at least sympathize with him. How are we supposed to recover that come time for him to battle Batman (let’s be realistic about how this is going to work) especially given that this Joker has murdered Robin?

As did Harley, by the way. That’s part of the text of the film. Have fun with that Harley fans.

Essentially, I want to argue that in the context of this film, the conception of the Joker/Harley relationship has unnecessarily undermined their future prospects and absolutely wrecked the storytelling potentials they have in the future.

Just like Clark Kent dying at the end of Batman v Superman. Just like having to work backwards from Superman killing in his first appearance. Just like introducing your characters in a deconstructive universe and then hoping to try and reconstruct them. Just like consistently ignoring what’s made these characters work for decades which is the mythological inspiration wrapped in human empathy.

It’s a systemic problem in this DC Universe. There’s no forethought, ideas that seem to work for one film are not read in the context of what they’ll be doing to the next story down the line. There’s no real planning, because so much time is spent fixing.

The other problem with the DC Universe this relationship presents? The stuff that would have made it work?

WAS IN THE ORIGINAL FUCKING MOVIE.

Reports have come out about the scenes cut from Suicide Squad and the majority of them are Joker scenes. Many of them are ones that would have presented the relationship as abusive or controlling. Like this one:

(Yeah, not perfect video-wise, but you get the vibe)

But Warner Brothers appears to have gotten scared and cut the difficult stuff from the film at the last minute in favor of a more bright, cheery ideal and in turn COMPLETELY ELIMINATING MAJOR CONNECTIVE TISSUE. Whatever connective tissue was there, given that the script was written in 6 weeks.

The other major problem this indicates is that there is no idea of what these films actually need to be and there’s too many last-minute post-production attempts to fix and no time given in advance. That muddles these films and creates films that are confusing and difficult to connect with. This was Batman v Superman (though what worked about that film [the very few things that did] was present no matter what version [Batfleck and Batfleck]) and this is doubly so Suicide Squad.

If Warner Brothers wants these films to work, these can’t be produced on the nonsense timeline that this one was (6 week script!!) and they can’t go back and fix it when it’s too late to fix. For the love of Highfather, something needs to be thought through beforehand. Marvel’s success is because they get what makes these characters work and think on a grand timeline. DC is playing catch-up and it’s making them stumble over their own feet.

There’s one more year for this to work. More than ever, 2017 is the make-or-break year for Warner Brothers with Wonder Woman and Justice League holding up a whole universe on their incredibly fragile shoulders. Learn the lessons of Squad or Warner Brothers needs to prepare to be a 93 year old film studio bought out by Alibaba Pictures.

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