WARNING: Spoilers for The Suicide Squad.
In James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie excels as Harley Quinn but also feels like she was shoehorned into the story and as a result, doesn’t quite fit. Unlike the majority of DC’s most popular characters, Harley Quinn has only been in existence since the 1990s, a far cry from Batman and Superman, who both were created way back in the 1930s. Harley is also uncommon in another way, as she was initially created for Batman: The Animated Series, then later made part of the DC Comics universe due to her popularity.
Harley’s classical version is that of The Joker’s girlfriend and sidekick, often portrayed as being just as violently insane as he is. The difference between them is that Harley genuinely loves Mr. J and he’s too much of a sociopath to return her feelings, instead seeing her merely as a piece of property than a person worthy of respect. Parts of this conventional portrayal have made their way into the DCEU characterization of Harley, but she’s also changed in notable ways, too.
It was apparent in 2016’s Suicide Squad that Harley wasn’t irredeemable and probably just needed more positive influences in her life to be steered in a less murderous direction. Harley Quinn’s relationship with Deadshot planted those seeds, and 2020’s Birds of Prey evolved Harley and her story by having her fully break away from Joker and become a full-on antihero. 2021’s The Suicide Squad furthers Harley’s evolution to an extent, and Margot Robbie gives what is in many ways her best performance yet in the role. Despite that, she doesn’t really fit into the movie as a whole.
In Suicide Squad 2016, Birds of Prey, and The Suicide Squad, Margot Robbie gives performances as Harley Quinn that are all some flavor of great, especially for big fans of the character. Oddly, though, all three versions of Robbie’s Quinn are also quite different, with some of that being due to natural character development, and part of it due to big differences between writers and directors. None of Robbie’s takes on Quinn so far have been 100 percent in line with the traditional version of Joker’s main squeeze from Batman: The Animated Series, but that hasn’t stopped her from making them memorable.
At this point, Robbie has fully laid claim to the role for future DCEU projects, and unlike Jared Leto’s Joker, Robbie’s Harley has no real semblance of backlash against her portrayal. There’s no reason to believe that, presuming Robbie is up for it, that she won’t continue to play Daddy’s Little Monster in many more DC movies to come, whatever forms those particular movies end up taking. The thing is, though, how good Robbie is as Harley in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad becomes slightly frustrating when one considers just how disconnected her scenes feel from the rest of the story. Just because something is great in a vacuum doesn’t necessarily mean it gels with other parts to form a properly cohesive whole.
Leading up to The Suicide Squad‘s opening mission, it’s amusing to see this new group of ragtag characters introduced, but the best part prior to all the hilarious violence is seeing the bond that has clearly come to exist between Rick Flag, Captain Boomerang, and Harley Quinn. Joel Kinnaman’s greatly improved Flag, Jai Courtney’s Boomerang, and Margot Robbie’s Quinn are all old friends after surviving their ordeal in the 2016 movie, and it feels comfortable and fun. Then all hell breaks loose, Boomerang is killed, Flag barely escapes, and Harley’s fate is left up in the air.
While trailers already revealed Harley survived the ordeal, the problem is that up until she gets “rescued” by Flag and company, Harley’s story plays like a series of loosely connected episodes that pop up just long enough to remind audiences she’s still there. This distracts from the main plot of The Suicide Squad, and mostly feels like material that could be safely removed from the film without causing much damage to the overall narrative. As awesome as it is to see Harley escape her bonds and gracefully slaughter her captors in numbers that would make John Wick blush or take out an amorous dictator due to “red flags,” the main thrust of the movie revolves around Bloodsport’s team joining forces with Rick Flag to complete the Starro mission. Special attention is also paid to Flag and Peacemaker’s relationship and betrayal, and Bloodsport’s fatherly bond with the perpetually tired Ratcatcher II. Meanwhile, Harley’s off on her own just kind of doing stuff.
While James Gunn insists that he loves the character, it’s still quite possible that Warner Bros. mandated Harley Quinn’s inclusion in The Suicide Squad. As established, she’s extremely popular with fans, which means she’s marketable, and fitting her into the story may well have been a concession that had to be made in order to appease the studio. That’s not to say that Gunn didn’t look forward to working with Robbie or writing for Harley. Still, most of Harley’s scenes feel so disconnected from the rest of The Suicide Squad‘s plot that it makes one wonder if she was grafted onto the script at a later stage, or ultimately didn’t fit with where Gunn wanted to take the story, but still needed to be included.
At the same time, Harley Quinn is such a great and beloved character that leaving her out might have risked sinking the film. Robbie does everything she’s given to do as Harley so well that having the opportunity to make use of her skills and not doing so would feel like a wasted opportunity. At the end of the day, though, The Suicide Squad could have cut her unnecessary subplot away from Task Force X, changed the mightily powerful Starro‘s method of death, and ended up a leaner, meaner final product with tighter pacing. Regardless, Gunn still delivered one of the most entertaining movies to release in 2021 so far.