Some things end with a bang, some with a whimper, and some with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Thanks to a mix of creative and corporate overhaul, the sequel to a film that made over $1.15 billion has been rendered as little more than a postscript to the dissolving DC Extended Universe project. Set to be replaced by a new shared universe in the next few years, one overseen by comic book whisperer James Gunn, all that’s left now is to clear through the rubble of what was once Warner Bros.’ attempt to rival Disney at its interconnected game and see what was done right.
The main answer to that is pretty easy to glean: Harley Quinn. A character that first emerged as the fanatic gun moll to the Joker in the classic Batman: The Animated Series was given a live-action shot on the big screen thanks to the DCEU, and she would end up being perhaps the most consistent thing about it. The DCEU’s biggest impact lay far away from the familiar territories of Batman and Superman — it was always best when it shied away from the familiar and allowed characters like Harley Quinn to shine.
That’s not to say that Harley Quinn had been somehow rescued from obscurity. Along with Marvel’s Venom, she’s the most famous bad guy introduced in the modern era of comics. Thanks to her appealing mix of naivete and bloodthirstiness, she quickly grew to rival the infamy of the clown she’d been paired with, and many of her episodes in BTAS (like “Harley and Ivy” and “Mad Love”) are considered some of the best in the series. Creators at DC Comics put her development into overdrive in the 2010s, with a spot on a revamped Suicide Squad and her own still-running series, which built a life for her outside of Gotham City and had her emphatically break up with the Joker. In 2019, she even got a cartoon of her own, one that placed her as the lead among a beloved band of weirdos and outcasts and eventually pushed her comics-canon romantic relationship with Poison Ivy to the forefront.
But success in movies had, like it had for development hell regulars like Aquaman and the Flash, eluded her. She was apparently set to debut as the Joker’s vengeful daughter in Batman Unchained, a film that would’ve been director Joel Schumacher’s third stab at the franchise. However, Batman & Robin’s one-two punch of a lackluster box-office gross and some of the worst reviews ever hurled at a major IP blockbuster put a stop to that. As such, she languished, always seeming like the kind of character that would be great if someone would just give her a chance.
In a way, Harley Quinn’s role in the first Suicide Squad reflects her status amid the wider DCEU. That the movie was a post-production nightmare is an open secret now — Director David Ayer’s initial approach was edited and reshot into an ungainly DC riff on Guardians of the Galaxy, one that took in a lot of money but was ill-received. Margot Robbie, though, embodying Harley Quinn as a deadly, funny firebrand, became a hit among comic book and Hot Topic devotees alike. By the end of the film, it mattered very little what the Joker was doing, even as he kept Quinn under his thumb. It was very clear who the star was among the two.
“Mattering very little by the end” would be a trait that haunted most of the DCEU’s films. The grand, thematic struggle between gods and mankind that had been central to Zack Snyder’s vision for the Justice League was replaced by empty banter by the time Joss Whedon got his hands on the big team-up extravaganza. Wonder Woman had made a ton of money and actually scored a solid critical reception, but her standing as one of DC’s holy trinity was left unclear by a clumsy straight-to-streaming sequel.
Henry Cavill, spread thin among numerous franchises, had a will-he-won’t-he (reprise the role) relationship with Superman, and by the time he cameoed in Black Adam’s post-credits scene, the DCEU was already on the way out. Ben Affleck proved to be a capably angry Batman that was forever in search of a good script, though he ended his tenure as perhaps the Platonic ideal of what the DCEU was originally intended for: He starred in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, while showing up in supporting roles in Suicide Squad and The Flash. But his days were numbered after a planned solo film slowly evolved into the DCEU-less The Batman.
With so much upheaval among the DC titans, it left little room for the character development that one would expect. But Harley Quinn returned in Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), a movie that actively tried to push Quinn beyond her Joker fixation and onto a team of women who were all dealing with their own troubled backstories. It was a hopeful film that framed its push toward optimism in a natural narrative way, rather than the gun-to-your-head corporate grin of something like Whedon’s Justice League movie.
By the time she appeared in The Suicide Squad the next year, she’d grown into a character able to function without the expectation of the Joker’s presence. In a way, she’d even usurped his function as the likable, chaotic presence in DC’s film mythology. And most impressive of all, she’d somehow managed to weather multiple soft reboots of the aims of the DCEU and, as an ensemble staple, became the queen of its freaky B-listers. The closest thing that the Justice League got to a post-Snyder reunion was a brief bit at the end of the first season of Peacemaker and a jumbled conversation in the first act of The Flash. Quinn, though, through multiple Suicide Squads and the nascent Birds of Prey, seemed primed for whatever team-up events that Warner Bros. would throw her way.
All of the DCEU’s most embraced hits came from evading assumptions. Aquaman quickly became the most likable hero in the entire series (mostly thanks to Jason Momoa’s indomitable frame and back-slapping repartee), a far cry from the years he’d spent as a comically lackluster member of the Super Friends. Wonder Woman was such a surprise that it earned the highest accomplishment a DC film can: The best DC film since The Dark Knight. Before the Shazam! sequel collapsed into inanity, the first film was quite refreshing for a hero who, at his blandest, was considered a Superman palette swap. Peacemaker got his own TV spinoff and turned the character into an oddly sympathetic musclehead. After over 30 years of false starts, a Flash movie finally got made! Shame about, well, all the rest of it.
With the DCU on the horizon and James Gunn’s open enthusiasm about comic book source material (and proven adeptness at handling its translation into movies), it seems all but certain that Harley Quinn and characters like her will get their due. And while Margot Robbie’s participation as the character is up in the air, the groundwork she laid for the character’s cinematic future is strong. Against the odds, she and a group of filmmakers managed to take a character on a comprehensive journey from Joker lackey to fan-favorite antihero. No amount of franchise restructuring could kill her. As the DCEU fell, Harley Quinn survived.