Harley Quinn is an unlikely character to try to transform into a feminist icon. The villain — and longtime girlfriend of a physically and emotionally abusive Joker — has been a troubling figure in the Batman animated TV series, comics and video games since she was introduced in 1992. Her suffering was frequently used as a punch line: in the popular 2009 video game Arkham Asylum, after the Dark Knight gets into an altercation with her, the Joker quips, “Slapping around Harley is my hobby.” Director David Ayer did little to revise that characterization in his critically reviled but commercially successful 2016 superhero movie Suicide Squad, Harley’s big-screen debut. The film fetishized her pain: Harley, played by Margot Robbie, sported a jacket reading “Property of the Joker.”
The new Suicide Squad spin-off Birds of Prey, directed by Cathy Yan, tries to wrench Harley away from that toxic past and create something empowering. Sometimes it succeeds, and when it does, it’s pretty fun. Whereas Ayer’s camera ogled Robbie’s behind, Yan’s concentrates on her face, which can turn from sweet to salty in an instant. Harley trades the stiletto boots she wore in Suicide Squad for sneakers (and later Rollerblades). And during one fight against a gang of Gotham goons, Harley sidles up to an ally, Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary, and offers her a hair tie. It’s a practical, human moment that cements a relationship between the two women — and one that might never have occurred to the male filmmakers who have dominated the superhero genre until now. (It also answers a question that has vexed female moviegoers for decades: How are you supposed to fight with hair flying in your face?)
But Yan, despite her best intentions, is battling the problematic legacy of a best-selling character. The Clown Prince of Crime has been a major moneymaker for Warner Bros., the studio behind Birds of Prey: last year’s gritty Joker grossed more than $1 billion, and its star Joaquin Phoenix is in line to become the second actor to win an Oscar for playing the role. (Heath Ledger was the first.) The Joker’s inclusion in Birds of Prey was an inevitable marketing decision. Even though he never actually shows his face, the movie is still haunted by the specter of Harley’s abuser.
Birds of Prey is framed as a breakup movie; it’s subtitled And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (“… from the Joker” is implied). Harley performs every breakup cliché in the book: cutting her hair; eating ice cream straight from the carton; and adopting a pet to keep her company, albeit a hyena instead of a dog or cat. Even as Harley begins to establish her reputation as a supervillain in her own right, the Joker’s disembodied voice taunts her. Robbie produced the film; her production company’s worthy goal is to bring complicated women to the big screen with movies like I, Tonya. But like Tonya Harding, Harley Quinn has a lot of baggage.
Several other female directors will soon face a similar dilemma. This year alone, an unprecedented five of the top 10 projected highest-grossing movies will be helmed by women: Yan’s Birds of Prey, Niki Caro’s Mulan, Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 and Chloé Zhao’s The Eternals. But making a female-led action movie is more complicated than handing women weapons and sprinkling girl-power phrases into the script. The massive franchises that now monopolize summer blockbuster season — Marvel, DC Comics, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Mission: Impossible, James Bond — were built primarily by straight white men. They chose the costumes. They devised the love interests. They cast the female characters as Madonnas or whores. When women are handed a small piece of these franchises, they face an uphill battle to shoehorn feminist narratives into a space that was never designed for them.
This has resulted in wonky work-arounds, like convoluted time-jumping plots to explain why incredibly powerful superheroes like Captain Marvel or Wonder Woman were missing from their respective cinematic universes for nearly a decade. In reality, their delayed appearance can be attributed to Hollywood’s anxiety that audiences wouldn’t pay to watch female superheroes.
In the case of Black Widow, Marvel waited so long to give Scarlett Johansson her own spin-off movie that her character was killed off in the franchise in the run-up to this year’s film. Her solo movie — set in the past — will have to contend not only with her eventual death but also with the long history of harassment the character has endured. The spy was introduced to the franchise in 2010’s Iron Man 2 and immediately dubbed a “very expensive sexual-harassment lawsuit” by the one other female character in the film. Offscreen, Johansson’s co-star Jeremy Renner joked about the character’s trysts with the other Avengers, calling her a “slut” in a viral interview.
Franchise mania may be fundamentally at odds with these films’ much needed efforts to highlight powerful female figures. That puts studios in a bind: audiences have proved that they want to see female heroes with box-office smashes like The Hunger Games, Frozen, Star Wars, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. They’re no longer satisfied with the status quo. And yet IP has also proved more profitable than original storytelling. Filmmakers are stuck grafting empowerment onto narratives that are inherently sexist.
Critics and even people working within Hollywood often deride comic-book movies as unserious — or, as Martin Scorsese recently put it, “not cinema” — and dismiss their politics. But they remain the most-watched movies in the world and thus can have a profound impact on how audiences perceive power. Studies by the Women’s Media Center have found that seeing strong women onscreen boosts girls’ self-confidence: little girls who watch Rey become a Jedi in the most recent Star Wars films may aspire to be something beyond a love interest or the sidekick in their own lives. And little boys watching it may learn to see female empowerment in a different light than previous generations of men.
In an effort to change the cinematic landscape, some producers have jump-started a movement to acquire IP unburdened by the male perspective. Reese Witherspoon’s production company has scooped up books written by women, like Gone Girl, Big Little Lies and Little Fires Everywhere, for female-fronted adaptations, and female filmmakers repeatedly return to works like Little Women and Emma because of their timeless appeal. Yet persuading men to watch can be a challenge — — male members of the Academy reportedly weren’t attending screenings of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women before Oscar voting closed. And these stories are airing on TV or getting smaller distributions in theaters, which means they may never achieve Marvel-level numbers.
Very few stories written by women get the studio push: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books are exceptions, though, notably, Rowling’s two movie franchises have centered on male heroes, and both Rowling’s and Collins’ movies have all been directed by men. But there are plenty of acclaimed female genre authors whose work has never been adapted, and many of their stories feature women of color who still rarely get to play the hero onscreen. Hollywood might consider the untapped gold mine of female-authored beloved intellectual property created by Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin or N.K. Jemisin for their sprawling cinematic universes. That would probably be easier than trying to “emancipate” Harley Quinn.
This appears in the February 17, 2020 issue of TIME.