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Harley Quinn season 3 completes the Deadpooling of the Batman universe

To quote Abraham Lincoln: Why so serious?

Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy stand in the woods in Harley Quinn season 3 Image: HBO Max
Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

It’s kind of a wonder that taking the piss out of Batman hasn’t been a bigger thing. Sure, fans, comedians, and even some comic books have done it plenty over time. There’s plenty to work with. The child soldiers he trains, Bruce Wayne as a member of the 1%, the bat costume, the fact that his whole deal is an idea he cooked up when he was 8 — the guy is just begging for someone to come along and own him daily. Luckily, Harley Quinn has found a way to mainstream Bat-mockery, centering its raucous third season antics in part on lambasting Batman — but also, maybe, helping him grow as a person. Which is what I also tell my friends when I make fun of them.

After season 2 of Harley Quinn ended with its heroine (voiced by Kaley Cuoco) driving off into the sunset with her girlfriend, Poison Ivy, season 3 begins with them on the tail end of their romantic “Eat, Bang, Kill Tour,” getting down (doing crimes) and Getting Down (the other stuff) all around the world with the help of Wonder Woman’s stolen invisible jet.

Unfortunately, their newfound gay bliss is soured by numerous complications back in Gotham City. Frank (J.B. Smoove), their sapient plant friend, has mutated and gotten kidnapped. The Joker (Alan Tudyk) is running for mayor. And Bruce Wayne (Diedrich Bader) is getting deep in his feelings after Catwoman (Sanaa Lathan) breaks up with him, and James Gunn (James Gunn) makes a biopic about his parents. Making it hard to deal with all of this is the fact that Harley is trying to do something she’s never really done before: be in a healthy adult relationship.

Poison Ivy stands in front of a slide projector of a tentacled plant monster. Image: HBO Max

With all of the Gotham goings-on in this season, Harley Quinn doesn’t really feel that much like it’s about Harley Quinn this time around. Granted, she’s still important; her relationship to Poison Ivy, Joker, and the Bat-family still drives a lot of the action, but the real dramatic weight is shouldered by Poison Ivy as she struggles to deepen her plant powers and eco-terrorist vision while not losing herself in her new relationship. Meanwhile the comedic heft is behind Batman and his cohorts, who are now as regular a part of the show as recurring fan-favorite villains like Bane (James Adomian) or Clayface (also Alan Tudyk).

This wider canvas Harley Quinn’s writers have slowly staked for themselves across three seasons puts the show in the unique position of being the only DC Comics adaptation to occupy the place Deadpool has in the Marvel Universe — a self-aware semi-parody that is also interested in its own earnest themes to explore. Thankfully, Harley Quinn does not have the same fourth-wall breaking schtick that some might find obnoxious about Deadpool, but both characters have been adapted in ways that still manage to be about more than just jokes.

Batman, Robin, Batgirl, and Nightwing stand behind the Batcomputer in Harley Quinn season 3 Image: HBO Max

Underlining Harley Quinn’s comedy is the way that it has always taken Harley herself quite seriously. In prior seasons, this meant never undercutting her agency as she strove to establish her independence after severing ties with her abusive ex, Joker. In this season Harley’s story is about learning the difference between supporting your partner and enabling them, and also using her degree in psychiatry to maybe get at the bottom of Batman’s whole deal.

Hopefully she never does, though. Harley Quinn might run out of jokes, and that would be the real crime.

The first three episodes of Harley Quinn are now streaming on HBO Max. New episodes drop on Thursdays.