Batman and Harley Quinn: Atonal Mess, by Tyler Smith
In Sam Liu’s economically-titled Batman and Harley Quinn, the tone is set early. In a fun and energetic opening credits sequence, Harley is constantly causing Batman trouble. The animation is stripped down, like the beginning of Catch Me If You Can, and is playful enough to make one wonder if this film will actually be a sort of comedy. However, once the film really gets going, Liu incorporates moments of pathos, which could help to deepen the film, but ultimately feel out of place, ultimately leading us to wonder what exactly DC Animation was trying to accomplish with the film.
I recognize that to build a film around Harley Quinn – for my money, the most overexposed comic book character of the last ten years – is to ride the line between goofy comedy and psychotic tragedy. The dual nature of the character is something that has made her so compelling since she first burst into the Batman landscape in the brilliant Batman: The Animated Series. The film appears to take place in the timeless world of that series, grounding the events in a dark reality that we would normally welcome, but seems incongruous with the events of this film.
So what exactly is it that makes this film seem so at war with itself? The answer lies in the age old paradox that the more a person tries to seem like an adult, the more juvenile they become. As Batman and Harley Quinn attempts to incorporate more explicit sexuality – what could be considered “adult content” – into the story, the film takes on the tone of a couple of 13-year-olds constantly high-fiving each other as they take turns writing risque Harley Quinn fan fiction. I’m not exactly sure what the filmmakers were trying to achieve by treating the audience to gratuitous upskirt shots of Harley, but it certainly wasn’t an attempt to make her a more well-rounded character. In fact, it’s actually pretty dehumanizing.
Had the film been content to be a strange superhero-themed sex comedy, I think I would have appreciated its audacity. Unfortunately, there is still a fairly straightforward story, and moments of mournful reflection, as Harley laments not being able to find work as a psychologist (her previous profession before the Joker got ahold of her). There is definitely a good story to be told about a reformed super villain unable to re-enter society, but this certainly isn’t it. In the film’s commitment to making Harley a funny, childish character, it completely undercuts her desire to be a part of the normal world. Nobody watching this film would ever think that this woman could ever be a functional person, much less an effective psychologist.
Therein lay the problem with Batman and Harley Quinn. Sam Liu and his writers – likely under the guidance of DC executives – want to make a film that has us mourning Harley’s inability to rejoin society, yet celebrating all the things that keep her from being able to do that. It wants to be about grown up things, but doesn’t actually want to grow up. So instead we get half-assed nods to sexuality and brutal violence; things that won’t be found in any kids movie, but here is so poorly utilized that it most certainly isn’t for adults.