At this point, days after the release of Birds of Prey, nobody needs a primer on the troubled launch of what we can probably now regard as Phase One of the DC Extended Universe. Man of Steel begat Batman v. Superman. Batman v. Superman begat Justice League. They were all varying degrees of mediocre, and—apart from a small cadre of loyal Snyder Cut truthers—everybody, including Warner Bros., recognized it was time for their superheroes to make a hard pivot.
So it came. Since then, the DC Extended Universe has backed away from the interconnected, one-size-fits-all model pioneered by Marvel. Instead—building from the epic sweep of Wonder Woman, the sole bright spot of Phase One, and extending to the Atlantean weirdness of Aquaman and the Big-inspired silliness of Shazam!—the goal seems to be figuring out how to make each individual movie special without worrying about how those puzzle pieces might someday fit together.
But there’s one last curiosity that was caught right in the middle of the DC Extended Universe’s evolution: 2016’s Suicide Squad, a movie that had clearly been reverse-engineered to introduce a whole gang of DC antiheroes for the Justice League to fight and/or form reluctant, temporary alliances with in the faces of some greater evils.
After a deeply troubled production full of “panic and ego,” the final cut of Suicide Squad turned out to be the most incoherent, top-to-bottom bad blockbuster I saw in the 2010s. (My review, which called it a disaster, was probably too generous.)
And while the movie did reasonably well at the box office, it’s striking how, just four years later, Suicide Squad has left almost no footprint. Jared Leto’s comically uninspired take on the Joker—the first attempt by anyone to tackle the role since Heath Ledger won the Oscar for The Dark Knight—has been scrubbed from memory in favor of last year’s Joker, which just won an Oscar for Joaquin Phoenix. Ben Affleck’s Batman, who turns up in a Suicide Squad cameo, has already been permanently retired. And the Suicide Squad of the original movie will be supplanted in 2021 by The Suicide Squad, a soft reboot featuring a mostly new lineup of characters.
But even as Suicide Squad moves from a key building block of the DC Extended Universe to a half-remembered trivia question about the actor who didn’t win an Oscar for playing the Joker, it has one legacy that continues to endure: Harley Quinn.
Harley Quinn was the thing most critics liked best about Suicide Squad—but despite Margot Robbie’s best efforts, I always thought the movie did her dirty. For Harley’s characterization, writer/director David Ayer leaned almost entirely on the character’s obsessive, toxic, and abusive relationship with the Joker. That’s fair enough—it’s a pretty key part of Harley’s origin story. But Suicide Squad comes dangerously close to romanticizing Harley and the Joker’s warped relationship, with weird exchanges that have since been immortalized in a thousand Tumblr GIFs. A fantasy sequence revealed that Harley’s real dream was living as a housewife in the suburbs, doing laundry with curlers in her hair as the reformed Joker kissed their cherubic, blonde-haired children goodbye on the way to work.
Suicide Squad ended with the Joker breaking Harley out of prison, setting up a Bonnie & Clyde-style sequel that would have cemented the DC Extended Universe’s characterization of Harley as a hopeless victim of amour fou. But what Birds of Prey presupposes is… what if it didn’t?
Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)—now, after a disappointing box-office gross last weekend, reportedly retitled Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey—is somewhere between a sequel and a spinoff and a reboot, making Harley the narrator of her own story even as it moves her from the ensemble to the center of the narrative. It is a cagey but firm refutation of pretty much everything about Suicide Squad—even as it borrows some of its weaker bits, like groan-worthy needle drops like “Black Betty” and “Barracuda,” from Suicide Squad’s bag of tricks.
First things first: Despite the vague implication of the trailer, Jared Leto’s Joker is not dead. For better or worse, he lives, unseen, on the edges of Birds of Prey—a boogeyman whose notoriety renders Harley Quinn untouchable until everybody learns that they’ve broken up. "I had to find a new identity, a new me," narrates Harley, doing everything but winking at the camera and saying, "Get it? Because Suicide Squad sucked?"
Birds of Prey doesn’t quite pretend Suicide Squad never happened, but it comes pretty close. Harley doesn’t make any references to her old buddies Deadshot or Captain Boomerang or Killer Croc. Apart from a tossed-off reference to how she saved the world one time, Birds of Prey’s Harley seems to have forgotten everything that happened in Suicide Squad entirely.
Instead, Birds of Prey makes a smart choice by dramatically shrinking the scope. The first action scene is mostly just about how the hungover Harley is trying to hold onto a breakfast sandwich. Reeling from her breakup, Harley is just trying to save her own skin, as a host of old enemies—but especially Black Mask (Ewan McGregor)—come out of the woodwork to kill her now that they don’t fear retaliation from the Joker.
This doesn’t really jibe with the Joker of Suicide Squad, who seemed like exactly the guy who would kill anybody who killed his ex-girlfriend out of pride or possessiveness or whatever—but Jared Leto is off starring in his super vampire movie, and either way I don’t think anyone is going to miss him.
Birds of Prey is ultimately about Harley going from pretending she doesn’t need the Joker to learning she actually doesn’t. By the end of the movie, Harley Quinn more or less accidentally builds her own version of a suicide squad. There’s Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a teenaged pickpocket; Dinah Lance (the excellent Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a nightclub singer with some seriously powerful pipes; Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), a hard-nosed detective navigating an indifferent and corrupt police force; and Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a deadpan assassin who’s a sharpshooter with a crossbow.
It is not incidental that all of those characters are women. And that’s the biggest breakpoint between Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey: It’s about something. It is as unsubtle as Harley Quinn taking a baseball bat to somebody’s head. "This is a man's, a man's, a man's world," sings Dinah Lance as she works, in indentured servitude, for an openly misogynistic gangster. The bad guys are bad guys, and the women are fighting the system as much as the men who benefit from and propagate it. Or to put it another way: It’s the introduction Harley Quinn—who has always been better and more interesting than the Joker—should have had in the first place.
Plus, a great explanation for why Suicide Squad’s Joker got kicked to the curb.
Originally Appeared on GQ