Who Is Harley Quinn? Margot Robbie’s DC Character Origins Explained

A close-up of Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) grinning as she swings something that is mostly off screen against a turquoise background with square images outlined in white (like photographs) of comic book illustrations of Harley Quinn

Originally written by Q.V. Hough for Screen Rant

The Birds of Prey movie will see the return of former Suicide Squad member and the Joker's (now ex-) girlfriend Harley Quinn, as she joins the other women of Gotham in a quest for emancipation. First appearing in Batman: The Animated Series before making the movie to DC Comics, Harley's origin story is quite a strange tale.

In the DC Extended Universe, Harley Quinn first appeared in the 2016 blockbuster Suicide Squad. Prior to the film’s release, an all-female spinoff had already been announced. Directed by Cathy Yan and written by Christina Hodson, Birds of Prey marks the eighth installment of the DCEU, and the franchise’s first R-rated film.

Related: Who Is Huntress? Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s Birds of Prey Character Explained

Birds of Prey will be a true pop culture event in 2020. And because the film’s lead actress already has a dedicated existing fanbase outside the DCEU, Harley Quinn is being pushed in both the movie's marketing and its full title (Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) as the star of the show. Here’s what you need to know about Harley Quinn’s comic origin story, and how it applies to Birds of Prey.


Harley Quinn's Origin In DC Comics

Harley Quinn-Comic Book-1

Harley Quinn’s DC origin story dates back to 1992. She didn’t initially appears in DC Comics, but rather on the Fox Kids TV show Batman: The Animated Series. Created by American animation artists Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the TV version of Harley Quinn was so popular that she was incorporated into the comics storyline. Her name derives from a popular theatre character from Italian comedy: the mischievous Harlequin. In the DC Comics universe, Harley Quinn’s real name is Harleen Frances Quinzel. She first appears in the September 1993 comic The Batman Adventures #12.

The 1994 book The Batman Adventures: Mad Love explains Harley Quinn’s backstory. She works as an intern at Arkham Asylum in Gotham City, and bonds with one of her patients, the Joker. From there, the relationship becomes complicated given the respective characters’ conflicting motivations. The Joker learns how to manipulate Harley Quinn for his own self-serving interests, even if there is a genuine romantic connection. And so, Batman becomes a target. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn is stuck in the middle between two powerful Gotham City figures, unsure how to proceed because she’s so emotionally invested in The Joker.

DC Comics relaunched its comic book universe in 2011 with “The New 52” - five years of all-new storylines. As a result, Harley Quinn received a new backstory and look - character traits that would later be applied in Suicide Squad. Now, on the big screen, Harley Quinn is a psychopathic character just like her ex-boyfriend The Joker, and reluctantly joins Amanda Waller’s team of Black Ops villains, The Suicide Squad. Harley Quinn’s hair is multi-colored rather than blonde, and her skin is pale as the result of The Joker giving her a chemical bath. Because of Harley Quinn’s traumatic past with The Joker, she experiences the condition known as Stockholm syndrome. Harley Quinn needs to emancipate herself from the Joker to move forward in life, a concept that sets up the storyline for Birds of Prey a.k.a. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). In 2019, DC Universe's Harley Quinn series revealed the true story of how Dr. Harleen Quinzel became the Clown Queen of Crime, specifically about how she ended up taking a chemical bath.


Harley Quinn's Powers In DC Comics

Harley Quinn-Comic Book-2

Unlike traditional superheroes, Harley Quinn isn’t known for having extraordinary physical powers, though she is handy with a variety of weapons. She’s known for being emotionally unstable, which means that the major obstacle to overcome is her obsessive attachment to The Joker - though her personal brand of madness is also what makes her so formidable. On the surface, Harley Quinn affects the world around her because of her charisma and sexuality. She’s appealing to both men and women, and shows an ability to complete objectives when she’s fully locked in and focused. Harley Quinn carries a mallet, and often disguises herself to manipulate tricky situations. She’s an athletic woman, and also has a strong immune system thanks to a toxin antidote that was injected by Dr. Pamela Lillian a.k.a. Poison Ivy.


Margot Robbie Plays Harley Quinn In The DCEU

Harley Quinn-Margot Robbie

Australian actress Margot Robbie was officially announced as the DCEU’s Harley Quinn in December 2014. At the time, Robbie had previously starred as Laurie Cameron in the short-lived ABC series Pan Am, and became more well-known in pop culture after portraying Naomi Lapaglia in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street.

Robbie delivered a breakthrough performance as the lively and unpredictable Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad. The character’s appearance aligns with The New 52 relaunch, with Robbie adding some personal touches for a little extra flair. But whereas Suicide Squad spotlights the Harley Quinn persona and relationship with the Joker, Birds of Prey will reportedly show a more intimate side of her life, thus allowing Robbie to display her versatility as a performer.

According to Birds of Prey costume designer Erin Benach, Harley Quinn’s sense of style will reflect her personality, but perhaps a little more than most women in Gotham City. She revealed that "behind [Harley's] story is always something a little bit off from center and a little bit crazy,” and that the character costumes are "fun and a little bit crazy like her.” During Screen Rant’s visit to the Birds of Prey set, Robbie teased that Harley Quinn’s apartment will reveal more about her personality and perspective:

“What's different about this film is that you see Harley in her element, you get to see Harley's apartment. What does her house look like? What does she wear when she gets to pick her outfit? In 'Suicide Squad,' there was a box there to choose from and she wore her mission outfit, but what is she wearing when she goes to get drunk at night? How does she deal with a hangover? You got to kind of see these other sides of Harley, a more personal side.”


Harley Quinn's Role In The DCEU

Birds of Prey-cast

In Suicide Squad, a “chemical wedding” establishes Harley Quinn as The Joker's partner-in-crime. As with the comic series, she’s caught in the crosshairs as Batman and the Joker battle it out, with her involvement ultimately leading to her detainment at Belle Reve Federal Penitentiary. There, Amanda Waller recruits Harley Quinn for Task Force X, which sets in motion the primary events for Suicide Squad. After a climactic helicopter crash, Harley Quinn and the Joker are separated, but ultimately reunite during a break-out sequence at Belle Reve.

The Birds of Prey trailers reveal that Harley Quinn broke up with The Joker - celebrating her newfound emancipation by blowing the Ace Chemicals plant. Now, Robbie’s character will team up with the Birds of Prey in order to take down crime lord Roman Sionis a.k.a. Black Mask. According to the director Yan, Birds of Prey will be a Harley Quinn story, but not necessarily a movie about her, stating “She doesn't necessarily make friends with the other women, but they come together, and through that they all sort of emancipate themselves throughout the film.”

Next: Birds of Prey's 'Emancipation' Title Means More Than You Think



Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey opens at Regal this Friday, February 7th.

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