When they started advertising the Harley Quinn animated show as part of the DC Universe app, I was not impressed. Adult-oriented animated series are hit-or-miss for me, as I find they often lean too far into comedy for my taste. The animation style didn’t appeal to me, but more importantly, I don’t like this version of Harley Quinn they’ve been pushing. I’ve never understood the drive to turn Harley into an anti-hero, as I would expect her to better herself once extricated from the Joker, the bad influence in her life. I really loved this character in Batman: The Animated Series. It’s been disappointing to find that most films and series are more interested in sexing her up and making her crazier and less funny. I also generally don’t care for the notion of Harley trading one supervillain lover for another in the form of Poison Ivy. All this being said, Harley Quinn is yet another show I decided to check out on HBO Max, and I tried to give it a fair shake. Let’s have a look.
Harley Quinn finds its titular anti-heroine (Kaley Cuoco) trying to make her mark on Gotham City following a break-up with the Joker (Alan Tudyk). She recruits a crew of fellow evil-doers such as Dr. Psycho (Tony Hale), King Shark (Ron Funches), and Clayface (Alan Tudyk) in an effort to appeal to the Legion of Doom. Along the way, Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) convinces Harley that she deserves better and to forget Joker and the Legion. In the process, Harley falls in love with Ivy, but the latter is engaged to Kite Man (Matt Oberg). Through a series of mishaps and misadventures, Harley kills several of Gotham’s major super villains and plans the perfect bachelorette party for Ivy. A series of hook-ups on the bachelorette trip force Harley and Ivy to consider a future together.
There’s a lot to cover with two seasons of TV, but I think the characters are an obvious starting point. This version of Harley isn’t as bad as the one in Birds of Prey or Batman and Harley Quinn, but I don’t like her much. Despite being the one who ended the relationship, she spends most of season 1 trying to get back with the Joker and/or impress him. And as I alluded to earlier, as soon as she finally gets over Joker, she falls head-over-heels for Ivy. Harley Quinn paints its protagonist as a codependent individual who can’t function healthily by herself. And the thing is, this could be a good thing if the show was being critical of this character flaw. But her romance with Ivy is meant to be the solution and antithesis to the toxic, abusive relationship she shared with the Joker. I also don’t like how this plays out on Poison Ivy’s end. I saw it coming a mile away, but it was crappy nonetheless. Throughout season 1, Ivy develops a romance with a small-time villain named Kite Man. At first, she doesn’t like him much, but his charms and persistence eventually win her over, and they start dating. In season 2, their relationship goes to the next step as they become engaged and plan a wedding. The show uses things like Kite Man’s status as a low-level baddie and the fact that Harley is unimpressed with him to show that he’s not a good match for Ivy. However, he’s caring towards Ivy, treating her well, and showing interest in her friends and interests. Kite Man’s treatment of Ivy is diametrically opposed to how Joker saw Harley as a means to an end. Harley Quinn has a way of deciding all its male characters are sexist, dumb, ineffectual, or all of the above, and Kite Man just doesn’t deserve it. Why are you going to make me like this character (and want him to end up with Ivy, as dumb as any romance involving her is) just to do that?
Time and again, Kite Man proves he’s willing to go above and beyond to make things work with Ivy, and it seems reciprocal for a long time. When she stood up to his parents in season 2, episode 8, “Inner (Para) Demons,” I wanted to stand up and cheer. She was also genuinely sweet when she encouraged him to propose. I could tell early in season 1 where this was going, but I’m frustrated nonetheless. The show also makes dopes out of characters like Bane (James Adomian) and Commissioner Gordon (Christopher Meloni) while killing off major villains like Mr. Freeze (Alfred Molina) and the Penguin (Wayne Knight). I actually ended up enjoying Bane’s comic relief. Still, they turned Gordon into a pathetic, raving alcoholic, and I can’t believe how many significant players they have already killed off. Season 2, episode 4, “Thawing Hearts,” has good intentions, using the love between Mr. Freeze and his wife Nora to show Harley that true love does exist. But I detest the way it goes about doing so, killing Mr. Freeze and sending his wife on a nympho spree. Is this supposed to be funny? “Heart of Ice” this ain’t.
That being said, some of Harley Quinn‘s characters work quite well. I think it’s a shame the principal characters came out this way, but it’s important to give credit where it’s due. Batman (Diedrich Bader) is handled really well for the most part; I’m sure they knew this was the line they probably shouldn’t cross, and I’m glad. Season 2, “Batman’s Back, Man,” is one of my favorite episodes. They strangely open the episode with a pair of dudebros arguing about the usually female-led show, but I liked the actual story within the episode. As I mentioned, I also like Bane. He’s funny, and one of the few characters who never make me mad. I also found Dr. Psycho to be hilarious, and his storyline seems strangely realistic. Sure, it’s okay for villains to run amok, killing and maiming for fun. But God help them if they get canceled for saying a mean word! I think this was actually a rare moment of genius from the show.
I also like Clayface and Ivy’s plant, Frank. King Shark is a little too silly for my taste, but I don’t mind him too much. The character I’m most divided on is the Joker. I think Tudyk is brilliant in the role, and he’s a great character about half the time. But some of the talk between him and Harley about things like sex was just too much for me. I’m not sensitive about stuff like that, but it doesn’t feel right for the characters. I never thought I’d see the Joker talking about sex, and I don’t like it. I also thought I was beyond ridiculous when he fell in love in season 2, going back to a suburban single mom to rekindle a relationship with her. This is the Joker! Unlike Harley, he really is terrible to the core and not capable of love. Aspects of his portrayal in Harley Quinn are just too hard to accept.
And that’s my main issue with Harley Quinn overall: about half of these characters just don’t feel right. I know this is an adult sitcom, and as such, these are alternate versions of the characters and not necessarily compatible with other appearances. But it’s just not for me. As for the animation, I still don’t like it much. Some details, like Harley’s unnaturally blue eyes, are distracting and creepy, and the character silhouettes are uninspired and generic. I never thought I’d be saying that about Batman’s rogues gallery, but here we are. I also don’t care for the designs or personalities of other heroes who appear. However, Vanessa Marshall gives an excellent vocal performance as Wonder Woman. She has also voiced her in several of the DC animated movies, and Black Canary in Young Justice.
Overall, I’m somewhat torn on Harley Quinn. Some of the characters and concepts in this show are truly clever, and the voice acting is beyond reproach. However, I don’t like the animation style even now that I’ve seen it in action, and the main characters could have used some work. It’s hard to say if this show is for you because so many of my criticisms come down to what I find believable for these characters. If this sounds good to you, I guess you’ll get more out of it than I did.