The Enthralling ’80s Excess Of Suicide Squad’s Joker
The blueprint for Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad was drawn the moment Michelle Pfeiffer swayed to Amy Holland’s “She’s on Fire” in a Miami nightclub. As Elvira Hancock in Brian De Palma’s drug ballad Scarface, she lures kingpin-to-be Tony Montana to the dance floor and enchants him with her swiveling hips and blonde disco-queen chill. The allure of Tony and Elvira as the ultimate ’80s ride-or-die couple is that they made Bonnie and Clyde’s quaint ’60s mayhem look like Nick at Nite compared to their boozy, drug-filled, and ultimately doomed relationship—doomed because Elvira is only in it for the drugs, the rush she gets from Tony’s bloodthirsty swagger. And as much as Suicide Squad tries to imply that Harley Quinn wants a white picket fence with The Joker, she’s no different than Elvira. Her drug is his insanity, his off-kilter brain that ticks just like hers.
In the midst of the Reagan era’s overblown conservatism, the intravenous drip of masculinity became cinematic cautionary tales. Tony Montana’s cruelty and violence as a drug kingpin, Patrick Bateman’s narcissism and murder spree in American Psycho—these are the men who drew the blueprint for Jared Leto’s Joker. And so you have two fierce villains who’ve been destined to create carnage together by invoking their pop-culture past lives, two villains who feed off the excess and the insanity of one another, which makes them the most enthralling thing about Suicide Squad.
David Ayer’s film depicts the assembly of a supervillain group forced by the government into protecting America’s interests. This leads to an inevitable battle with Enchantress, a superpowered metahuman witch with plans to destroy the world. Amid all this sturm and drang, thankfully, is the relatively human romance of Harley and The Joker. Dr. Harleen Quinzel falling for her demented, sweet-talking patient only to become one of his victims gives Margot Robbie a heartbreaking emotional core to plumb.
No, Jared Leto’s Joker is not anything like Heath Ledger’s—far from it. But Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker was one of an anarchist who craved chaos. The mayhem that he set upon Gotham City in The Dark Knight wasn’t really for monetary gain or control of the underworld, but rather to watch the city burn while he cackled. Leto’s Joker, by comparison, is a narcissist. He’s a man who advertises his insanity with detailed tattoos on his skin. The idea of Ledger’s Joker sitting down to get “Ha Ha Ha” tattooed on himself is laughable. But for Leto’s Joker, it’s believable. It’s his aesthetic. It matches his gold pimp cane, his tailored suits, and his lush mansion laid out like a David LaChapelle video on acid. But just because Leto’s Joker is more familiar, more a product of humanity’s depravity, doesn’t make him less dangerous. The devil you know is still a devil, after all.
Which makes The Joker’s relationship with Harley scary and frightening. It’s not a love story. It’s a story of a victim and her captor, a lush, colourful depiction of the destructiveness of possession and misogyny. Joker and Harley ride through Gotham in tricked-out style like hip-hop royalty Notorious B.I.G. and Lil’ Kim in their heyday. And Harley has more in common with Lil’ Kim than you think. The ’90s hip-hop queen exuded sexuality in the same way Harley—in her poom-poom shorts, baseball tee, and high heels—turns heads. Both have that bad-bitch allure that inspires women and queer fans, the ones who’ve loved Harley Quinn since Batman: The Animated Series and long for a solo flick for Margot Robbie to finally have her due.
And sadly, their victimization is the same. The way The Joker terrorizes Harley—tossing her into a vat of chemicals, changing her outward appearance to match something as perversely Warhol as him—is how Lil’ Kim once felt in her relationship with B.I.G. As a dark-skinned black woman, it hurt her to lose out to “European” women. Speaking to Newsweek, she said, “I have low self-esteem and I always have. Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, ‘How I can I compete with that?’ Being a regular black girl wasn’t good enough.” Since then, she’s been plagued by rumours of skin bleaching, and new photos of her show increasingly lighter skin. The tragic nature of a relationship that beats you into submission while also being as intoxicating as a drug is what Kim and B.I.G. sang about on their ’96 track “Drugs.” “Damn ma, I love you like the lah,” B.I.G. rapped. “The ganja / Sensimilla, can I feel ya / All I wanna do is touch ya / The ultimate rush, you’re drugs, baby.”
As I mentioned earlier, Harley at one point has a fantasy that she could have two kids and a white picket fence with The Joker. But this a misstep in the sinister romance we’ve come to see between Harley and Joker over the course of Suicide Squad. Their partnership is filled with lust, but not romantic love. It’s dark and messy, and she’s as addicted to the rush of murder and havoc as she is him. And it’s that same twisted romance that allows The Joker to sit on the throne at his nightclub while Harley dances with the same fervour as Hedda Gabler reaching for her shotgun.