DC Universe has informed critics that they’re free to spoil Harley Quinn, but in any discussion of the streaming service’s latest, plot points aren’t nearly as important as the issue of tone. Premiering November 29, this animated series is awash in gruesome violence and self-referential, pop culture-shouting-out humor, all of it employed in service of a playful critique of toxic masculinity and a bloody celebration of female independence and friendship.
Plus, there’s a motherf’ing avalanche of irreverent R-rated profanity.
Created by Justin Halpern, Patrick Schumacker and Dean Lorey, Harley Quinn is not your father’s Batman: The Animated Series—or, for that matter, your own Suicide Squad, the 2016 film that launched Quinn to mainstream prominence courtesy of Margot Robbie’s tarted-up performance. Robbie will return, in far more grrl power-energized form, in next year’s sequel Birds of Prey, but she’ll be hard-pressed to outdo the cartoon version of the character presented in this thirteen-episode small-screen effort, which uses Quinn’s twisted personal and relationship hang-ups as the springboard for a rollicking adult-oriented saga about sinister sisters doing it for themselves—and, also, for the devoted comrades by their side.
It’s the Joker (Alan Tudyk) who’s Harley’s right-hand man at the outset of Harley Quinn, although he sees things differently, viewing Harley (Kaley Cuoco) as little more than his sidekick, and thus useful only insofar as she suits his nefarious needs. Even the wealthy cretins whom Harley besieges during the premiere’s opening scene consider her merely the Joker’s girlfriend, to which the clown-suited femme fatale—establishing the enterprise’s dominant potty-mouthed attitude—replies, “Are you going to shut the fuck up so I can talk?”
Talk Harley does, in great streams of expletives delivered in a baby-doll voice that’s equal parts sexy and juvenile, pouty and enraged. Cuoco’s vocal work is top-notch, imbuing Harley with mischievous viciousness and wit, the latter typified by her habit of telling Batman (Diedrich Bader) that he “fucks bats.” Moreover, she breathes Harley into three-dimensional life by revealing a more vulnerable, damaged and insecure side of the villain, whose world is upended after the Joker ditches her so she can get thrown into Arkham Asylum, and then reneges on his promise to rescue her. Harley may still be, per the wife of a fellow inmate, a “porn clown”—a knowing nod to her sexed-up appeal, which is enhanced by her skimpy midriff top and short-shorts—but, in this iteration, she’s fundamentally an abused victim, manipulated and mistreated by a beau whom she can’t bring herself to leave. As she defiantly proclaims, “I’m a bad guy, not a bad person.”
Salvation from corrosive codependence arrives in the form of Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), a plant-controlling “eco-terrorist” who takes Harley in and attempts, in the face of great resistance, to teach her that she doesn’t need the Joker. Since Harley believes that the Clown Prince of Crime literally created her (by pushing her into a vat of acid), that’s not an easy sell, and over the course of its first season, Harley Quinn mines its protagonist’s quest for agency and self-actualization for laughs and action. Breaking free from the Joker—here an arrogant lunatic voiced, with maniacal glee, by Tudyk—is a process that requires tremendous struggle from Harley herself, especially since her dream of standing on her own is wrapped up in her desire to join the Legion of Doom, which operates as an exclusive club for the best of the worst, and whose HQ resembles the one featured in the classic Super Friends cartoon.
Harley thinks membership in the Legion of Doom will grant her legitimacy, and she chases acceptance from her malevolent peers by acquiring a nemesis and a crew of henchmen that includes pretentious shapeshifting thespian Clayface (Tudyk), tech-savvy King Shark (Ron Funches), and telepath Doctor Psycho (Tony Hale), the last of whom becomes a national pariah after calling Wonder Woman (Vanessa Marshall) the c-word. Misogyny is everywhere, be it from wannabe-reformed Doctor Psycho, sexist seminar speaker Maxie Zeus (Will Sasso) or the Joker, a psychotic narcissist who relishes keeping Harley under his thumb. So widespread is this sexist scourge that even the Queen of Fables (Wanda Sykes), a once-legendary baddie with the power to bring storybook creatures to life, has been punished for her crimes not by being thrown into Arkham (like her male counterparts), but by being gratuitously trapped in a giant tax-code book.
While male misbehavior toward women is a running thread in Harley Quinn, that feminist streak never comes across as preachy; on the contrary, it feels directly attuned to the superficial, titillating, unequal ways in which comics have traditionally treated female heroes and villains. The constant gruesomeness and vulgarity, marked by one-liners about men’s creepy packages (which appear pixelated) and other assorted dirty sex topics, is part and parcel of the show’s interest in leveling the gender playing field—and in ridiculing repellent male objectification, and marginalization, of women (superheroes or not).
With snappy animation and a fleet pace to match, Harley Quinn is enlivened by its anything-goes approach. Throwaway bits about journalism paywalls, daddy issues and “stripper rules,” and movie-related jokes aimed more at thirtysomethings than teenagers are sprinkled throughout. So too are appearances from famous DC characters, all of them reimagined in mockery-worthy form: Batman is a weirdo loner who actively avoids being buddies with maritally troubled Commissioner Gordon (Chris Meloni); Aquaman (Chris Diamantopoulos) is a pompous faux-Shakespearean buffoon; Robin (Jacob Tremblay) is a 12-year-old twit; and Bane (James Adomian, doing a funny Tom Hardy impression) is a dim bulb goliath who responds to every situation by hatching a plot to blow something up. With a rat-a-tat-tat goofiness reminiscent of Teen Titans Go!, the series marries its messages about individuality and loyalty to bonkers absurdity – epitomized by Ivy’s Venus flytrap pal Frank (JB Smoove), who at one point goes on an automotive odyssey with a drug dealer stoned on hallucinogenic honey.
The crux of this animated affair is, ultimately, the bond between Harley and Ivy, two tough and traumatized women trying to define themselves as both solo supervillains and team players while simultaneously figuring out what they want—and don’t want—from male partners (in Ivy’s case, that would be the ridiculous Kite Man). Through their up-and-down relationship, Harley Quinn illustrates that female empowerment is best achieved with a steadfast superfriend by your side.