Feminism & Warner Brothers’ Suicide Squad

*This post contains spoilers for the movie Suicide Squad. Please stop reading now if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to be spoiled.

Hear me out.

I know what you’re thinking. Feminism, in a film where a female character is punched in the face just before the punchline, “She had a mouth,” is delivered? Feminism, in a film where countless characters threaten the female lead with violence, constantly stating that they don’t care that she’s a woman? Feminism, in a film that, to say the least, depicts an unhealthy romantic relationship as #goals?

I promise, there is.

When early promotional spots for Suicide Squad were released, many fans expected the film to be all about The Joker. Jared Leto was featured heavily in trailers, commercials, and interviews. His performance was continuously hyped up, and he received significantly more media attention than his co-stars (in fact, his name is top-billed on posters for the film and in the credits, despite the fact that his character appears for a mere fifteen total minutes out of a two-hour-plus movie). Co-star Margot Robbie, who was just as excited about playing Harley Quinn as Jared Leto was about playing The Joker, was somewhat overlooked as critics speculated what Leto would bring to the famed role.

Now that the film is out, and viewers have had a chance to digest the material, many are shocked at how little Joker scenes there were. Instead, much of the film focused on Robbie and Will Smith’s characters and the complex nature of their relationships with the film’s other characters. What was once billed as ‘The Joker Show’ has actually turned into Harley Quinn Land, and while many fans (and Leto himself) have expressed their disappointment at the amount of cut scenes… I don’t hate it.

I know that film studios think that women like me (read: women who love superhero films) don’t exist, but the truth is, we do, and we like it when a woman takes the lead. Suicide Squad puts Robbie’s character front and center, and doesn’t give the audience a chance to mind, because there is nothing to complain about. In the comic books, Harley Quinn is an undeniable badass, but she is also fanatically obsessed with The Joker, and lets the love that she has for him dictate her every move. Comic-Harley is defined by her love for The Joker. She is, first and foremost, The Joker’s girlfriend, and the fact that she is a complex character takes the backseat to The Joker’s will, always.

In the film, Harley Quinn is her own person. She has so many other things going on. Suicide Squad provides us with scenes that show so much emotional depth. The viewers learn about Quinn’s past, her present, her future. Her hopes and dreams are explored and surprise viewers because they are different from what we believe Harley to be. Harley never stops surprising the viewer, and, most importantly, the viewer never loses interest because the character has so much to offer. And, while we see so many of Harley’s relationships with the other characters explored so intimately, all we see from The Joker is how he feels about Harley.

Throughout Suicide Squad, Harley takes charge of her own life. She does not let The Joker define her. Harley makes friends, saves the world, loves and mourns The Joker but does not abandon the fundamental core of who she is in order to be with him. Meanwhile, The Joker’s every scene involves Harley Quinn. A majority of his lines are either to her or about her. When Quinn is imprisoned, The Joker lies on the floor, desolate and pining for her. The Joker is the one who does not know how to be when his love interest is not around.

Given that, in so many films, the female character is relegated to the ride-or-die love interest role, the feminist in me is thrilled to see a man as powerful as The Joker take the backseat for once. Rather than have Harley’s entire story line revolve around The Joker, as it has in past depictions of the character, Joker’s entire story line revolves around Harley. He spends the whole film chasing her. How many other movies can you say that about?

Shooting Suicide Squad from the perspective of Harley Quinn and showing only bits of The Joker was a smart choice by Warner Brother’s. No, I’m not kidding. After a list of (alleged) deleted scenes was leaked, fans took note that many scenes where Mr. J appears to be inflicting violence upon Harley were cut from the film. Fans were understandably upset – in the comics, Mr. J is incredibly abusive towards Harley, and fans were unsure how they felt about a more romantic version of the toxic couple they’d known for so long.

After having some time to think about it, and being a fan of both the comic and cinematic universes, I have decided that I enjoy the on-screen portrayal of their relationship much more than the abusive one. It is honestly thrilling to see Harley as the strong, independent badass she is. She still loves The Joker, and would do anything for him, but her obsession does not define her character or compromise the person she is when he isn’t around. Instead, the viewer is exposed to so many nuances of her personality, and we learn so much about who Harley really is, even without The Joker’s influence.

I understand why fans are disappointed. I understand why Jared Leto is disappointed. The Joker is an iconic, larger-than-life character. Fans expected him to be front-and-center during the film, and Leto dedicated himself to a role that he didn’t know would be thrust into the backseat. But I encourage everyone to give this version of the story a chance. While you might not find too many things outside of Margot Robbie’s performance enjoyable (though Will Smith remains a national treasure), this film is doing great things for the way women are treated in the superhero genre. This film understands that women love superhero movies, and that the summer blockbuster doesn’t always need a hot girl to play the doting girlfriend.

Women can be killers, can want to be mothers, can be prison inmates and sexy and violent and loving and all of these things, all at the same time. Female characters do not need to be defined by their boyfriends. Female characters can carry the film, because superhero films are not exclusively seen by men anymore. And an actress of Margot Robbie’s caliber certainly does not deserve to be pigeon-holed into a role where she merely play’s somebody’s girlfriend.

I applaud Warner Brothers and DC for taking this first step in the right direction. I hope I don’t regret this post when the Harley Quinn spin-off comes out.