Things are just a little bit chaotic in the DC Extended Universe right now, as multiple projects have been announced and updated regarding spin-offs set in the comic book world — including a few that may involve iconic Batman villain The Joker. Unfortunately, the brass at Warner Bros is missing one opportunity that could make for one of DC’s most innovative experiences yet.
The psychopathic supervillain Joker has, of course, been a character of fascination for decades, as seen most recently on screen in “Suicide Squad,” where Jared Leto’s portrayal was paired with Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, the Joker’s partner in life and crime. But as more than one person on Twitter has pointed out, DC may be overlooking a spinoff idea that could be the very best version of a Harley Quinn and Joker story — one that doesn’t even require the Joker as a lead.
For inspiration, we look to “Batman: The Animated Series,” the iconic 1992-1995 treatment that cemented the voice of Kevin Conroy as the iconic sound of Batman, and that gave us a surprisingly mature treatment of both the pathology that underlies the Joker and Harley Quinn as a couple, while setting up a whole new dynamic for Harley. (It is streamable now on Amazon Prime.)
The episode “Harley and Ivy” was written by Paul Dini, a prominent producer and writer who was a major part of all the DC animated series from the 1990s and 2000s, and is credited with co-creating the actual character of Harley Quinn (with Bruce Timm) — after becoming a fan favorite on the TV show, she was eventually integrated into the official DC comics continuity, a rare reversal from the comic-to-the-screen pattern.
The episode opens with the Joker and Harley on the run from Batman after a diamond heist gone wrong; they escape capture, but the Joker blames Harley for handing him the wrong gun and their fight results in the Joker kicking Harley out of their hangout. Hurt and angry, Harley decides to steal the diamond herself, but the alarms go off as she runs across fellow bad guy Poison Ivy, also in the middle of stealing something from the museum.
The pair speed away, Ivy declaring “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” And in fact they strike up a fun bond, based largely on their subsequent interest in crime — then Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn proceed to develop their “female self-esteem” by going on a crime spree together, “playing with the boys on our terms.”
And that female bond, even in the midst of a crime spree, leads to some important but frank talk about relationships. At at least one point in “Batman: The Animated Series,” Batman did confront Harley over the imbalance in her relationship with the Joker, but in “Harley and Ivy,” Ivy’s the sort of best friend who isn’t afraid to call out Harley and Joker’s relationship as problematic.
“Don’t get me wrong, my Puddin’s a little rough sometimes, but he loves me really,” Harley admits at one point, to which Ivy reacts with dismay: “Sure he does. You’re just one big forgiving doormat, aren’t you?”
Harley claims she’s not, but her theoretically joyful crime spree with Ivy ultimately falls apart after Harley succumbs to her feelings and calls the Joker to let him know she’s all right. The Joker traces the call, not to whisk her back into his arms but to confiscate the loot she’s stolen with Ivy — the ensuing confrontation, which includes Batman in the mix, ends with Harley, Ivy, and the Joker all back in Arkham. While the Joker declares that next time he forms a gang, it won’t include any women, the always sunny Harley is pretty sure they’ll work things out. It’s what you would expect from a series that avoids serialization, resetting as much as it can to the status quo when possible.
“Harley and Ivy,” for a cartoon show theoretically aimed at the male pre-teen set, is a pretty feminist 22 minutes of television. At one point, Harley and Ivy have Batman literally tied up, poised to descend into a death trap, and Ivy taunts him: “Admit it, darling you didn’t think two women were capable of bringing you down.”
“Man or woman, a sick mind is capable of anything,” he replies.
“A very enlightened statement, Batman,” Ivy says. “We’ll carve it on your headstone.”
It’s also important to note that “Harley and Ivy,” with far less screen time and a much less adult audience than last year’s “Suicide Squad,” does a far superior job of depicting Harley’s connection with the Joker as a complicated one that does not lack in abusive overtones. “Suicide Squad” is a relatively surface-level treatment of their relationship; in the words of the film, “a workplace romance gone wrong.”
But the film is one that more often than not treats its female component as eye candy rather than a human woman more comfortable in a men’s dress shirt than hot pants — not to mention sees a twisted romance instead of a human woman who feels like she can’t escape an abusive lover. What can make the Joker and Harley into something resembling a modern relationship is an outside perspective — like what Ivy offers.
Well, perhaps another female character could fill her role, but the episode “Harley and Ivy” also proved that these two characters could be a lot of fun together on screen. Yes, they’re both villains, but most new friendships are built upon common interests, such as jewel theft or trying to kill Batman.
For the record, yes, Poison Ivy has appeared in a “Batman” film before. But in fairness to Uma Thurman, her performance in “Batman and Robin” was far from the worst thing in that movie (her choice to emulate Mae West, in retrospect, was relatively inspired). And a ham-fisted performance by Tommy Lee Jones in “Batman Forever” didn’t keep Christopher Nolan from taking on the character, 13 years later, in “The Dark Knight.” There’s no reason for the DC cinematic universe to keep her on the bench, especially in an era when a female superhero didn’t just kick ass on screen, but kicked ass at the box office.
Frankly, avoiding the idea of another female-led DC film is just bad business. Beyond our personal fan fiction — “what if Wonder Woman had to fight Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy but then they all became friends?!?” — it’s not necessarily a bad idea to consider this team-up within the framework being constructed, especially after we saw, over a decade ago, how compelling it could be.