In Sui­cide Squad, har­ley and a team of bad guys take on even worse guys...

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of in­car­cer­ated su­per- vil­lains, the film stars Mar­got Rob­bie as Har­ley in the char­ac­ter’s first live- ac­tion fea­ture- film ap­pear­ance.

How did Har­ley be­come one of the most pop­u­lar fe­male char­ac­ters in the DC Uni­verse? In part by clean­ing up her act, or what passes for clean in her world.

In sev­eral in­car­na­tions — most no­tably her foray into video games — Har­ley has been a true su­per- vil­lain, maim­ing and killing with un­bri­dled glee. Now she’s more of an an­ti­hero, as in Sui­cide Squad, where she and a team of bad guys take on even worse guys in Dirty Dozen- style mis­sions. In DC Su­per Hero Girls, which is aimed at a tween au­di­ence, she’s even tamer. Har­ley is ac­tu­ally one of the good guys, shar­ing a dorm room with her pal Won­der Woman at a very ex­clu­sive high school ( only teen su­per­heroes al­lowed).

Her rise is all the more in­trigu­ing when you fac­tor in her love life. As the Joker’s girl­friend, she was the pro­to­typ­i­cal vic­tim, en­dur­ing beat­ings, mur­der at­tempts and the most sadis­tic sorts of mind games — and al­ways com­ing back for more. Then there’s her long- run­ning re­la­tion­ship with her fel­low su­per- vil­lain Poi­son Ivy. The long hugs, the sleep­overs, the soul­ful stares? Even Bat­girl put two and two to­gether. Last year DC’S of­fi­cial Twit­ter ac­count con­firmed that Har­ley and Ivy were in­deed girl­friends, al­beit “with­out the jeal­ousy of monogamy.”

As an abuse sur­vivor and free agent, Har­ley has be­come some­thing of a fem­i­nist icon — mag­a­zines like Bust have praised her com­plex­ity, smarts and sub­ver­sive sex­u­al­ity — even as she rev­els in her own bouts of sadis­tic fun.

When the writer Paul Dini and the artist Bruce Timm first in­tro­duced the char­ac­ter in 1992 in an episode of Bat­man: The An­i­mated Se­ries, it was a small role, the lone fe­male among the Joker’s mot­ley crew of hench­men. The twist: un­like the oth­ers, Har­ley clearly had a thing for her boss. It was strictly a one- off. “We didn’t want to give Joker a girl­friend be­cause it hu­man­ises him,” Timm said, “and we were re­ally try­ing to stress how bizarre and creepy he could be.”

“Har­ley’s point of view is very prag­matic,” Dini said. “She’s like, ‘ Why don’t you just shoot the guy?’ But the Joker can’t just shoot him— he has to tri­umph over him.”

Dur­ing the next sev­eral years, Har­ley got her own solo comic book, starred in the short- lived tele­vi­sion se­ries Birds of Prey ( 2002) and played a ma­jor role in the crit­i­cally ac­claimed video game Bat­man: Arkham Asy­lum ( 2009), which sold 2.5 mil­lion units within weeks of its re­lease.

Tara Strong has voiced Har­ley in sev­eral an­i­mated se­ries and video games and con­sid­ers her one of her favourite char­ac­ters. “In gen­eral, video games are the most tax­ing on a voice ac­tor’s in­stru­ment, be­cause you’re con­stantly scream­ing and do­ing death sounds and kick­ing noises,” Strong said. “It can make you cranky. But I never get cranky when it’s time for Har­ley. I don’t care if I have to do a thou­sand death noises.”

But as the video- game Har­ley got darker and meaner and her comic- book artists traded in her red- and- black cat suit for corsets, short shorts and pig­tails, long- time fans balked at what they saw as the hy­per­sex­u­al­i­sa­tion of a char­ac­ter who, un­like other DC hero­ines, was never re­ally about that. The fourth in­car­na­tion of the comic se­ries Sui­cide Squad, which fea­tured a more bare, more mur­der­ous Har­ley, was can­celled.

“When they first started mess­ing with her, with the fish­nets and the re­ally ex­treme makeup and the nasty hair­styles, I was frankly put off by it,” Timm said.

Har­ley’s re­demp­tion be­gan with the 2013 start of the comic se­ries Har­ley Quinn, writ­ten by Amanda Con­ner and Jimmy Palmiotti. For the hus­band- and- wife team, the em­pha­sis was on fun. Fi­nally away from her no- ac­count boyfriend, Har­ley swaps grim Gotham for the joys of Coney Is­land, and her day job as a so­ciopath and mur­derer for more dig­ni­fied work as a land­lady, mem­ber of a roller- derby team and part- time shrink. She hasn’t stopped killing peo­ple, not com­pletely, but there’s no­tably less of it ( a re­cent roller- derby match in­volved de­cap­i­ta­tions and poi­son gas).

What­ever your pref­er­ence in Har­leys — clas­sic 1990s jester or this year’s Mar­got Rob­bie — some­one some­where is dress­ing up as her, from cos­play events to comic con­ven­tions.

— New York Times Syn­di­cate quin­tes­sen­tial an­ti­hero: 1 in the comics, har­ley quinn ( cen­tre) is the lead­ing lady of sui­cide squad 2 Mar­got rob­bie as quinn in the 2016 film

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