Explaining the Joker’s Minimal But Crucial Role in Birds of Prey

3 minute read

Harley Quinn gets her own supervillain spinoff with Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). But her longtime paramour, the Joker, doesn’t join her onscreen for the movie. The two break up in the opening minutes. Harley (Margot Robbie, reprising her Suicide Squad role) talks about “Mr. J” a lot. And he taunts her in a voiceover. But he never actually appears in the flesh.

That may come as a surprise to longtime DC Comics fans. Harley Quinn has long been entangled in a toxic relationship with the Joker, in the Batman TV series, comics and video games. And the two were thick as thieves in David Ayer’s 2016 supervillain movie Suicide Squad.

But that version of the Joker left a lot to be desired. Leto hyped the appearance for months before the film’s debut, telling reporters he sent dead rodents and used condoms to his costars’ trailers to get into character. But in the end, the Joker was largely cut out of the final edit of the film. The few scenes he was in lacked subtlety, to say the least: The guy had “damaged” tattooed across his forehead, just in case you forgot that he is bad. A fan favorite, he was not. So perhaps it’s not shocking that he was not asked to appear in Birds of Prey.

But the Joker and Harley Quinn’s relationship in Suicide Squad — and across the DC canon — also feels rather problematic in the post-#MeToo era. Joker is physically and emotionally abusive towards Harley. He once quipped in the popular Batman video game Arkham Knight that “slapping around Harley” was his “hobby.” Considering that Birds of Prey is being billed as a film about female empowerment, there was simply no place for the Joker in Harley’s ongoing story.

Birds of Prey
(L-r) Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Chris Messina as Victor Zsasz and Ewan McGregor as Roman Sionis in 'Birds of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation of Harley Quinn.'Claudette Barius—Warner Bros.

That said, Birds of Prey’s plot does revolve, at least nominally, around the Joker. The film is subtitled “The Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” for a reason. The movie replays old breakup cliches: Harley cuts her hair, eats ice cream straight from the carton and adopts a pet hyena so she won’t get lonely. She has to learn to be her own villain, outside of the Joker’s reach and no longer under his protection.

Even as Harley faces off against another villain, Ewan McGregor’s Roman Sionis — one who likes cutting off people’s faces for kicks — she still hears threats in the voice of the Joker. She hears the Joker telling her she’s no good. Her past haunts her. Hopefully the Birds of Prey sequel — if Warner Bros. greenlights such a project — will see Harley truly and finally free of that man, his voice included.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com