Summary: Harley Quinn was created in 1992 and quickly developed a large audience (what is her appeal?). Ian’s series explores her character, how she fits in the superhero universes, and why she (and the other heroes and villains in the superhero universes) appeal so strongly to so many.
Part 2: Is Harley Quinn a Mary Sue?
About Mary Sues.
In my next chapter of the Harley Quinn series, I tackle a question that has come up increasingly often in fantasy and superhero movies: Is the protagonist a Mary Sue? The answer: clearly not.
Before delving too deep into the movie, it’s important to address a common flaw shared by many female protagonists in recent blockbuster films (such as Rey from Star Wars). They’re Mary Sues. Male characters can and sometimes are Mary Sues, but it is a trait more commonly held by female protagonists.
There are quite a few criteria to rate the “Mary Sue-ness” of a character, but these are three biggest ones.
- Unearned love and trust from other people she meets.
- The villains are obsessed with her for no plausible reason.
- She has unearned and implausible skills and knowledge, and no weaknesses to counterbalance them.
The key factor in all of these is unearned.
Harley is not universally loved. She’s not loved by anyone at all. She’s hated and despised by almost everyone in the movie, and for good reason. In the opening scenes, people only tolerate Harley’s bad behavior because they fear retaliation from the Joker (Interesting side note: the Joker dumped her, but didn’t make the break-up public. Had she simply dropped out of his mind, or was this a deliberate act to protect her?). Once they learn that she is on her own, attempts on her life begin almost immediately.
Over the course of the film she makes alliances, but they are all from of necessity. The “Birds of Prey” only join forces with her because they’re heavily outnumbered and would die otherwise.
The villains are not obsessed with Harley as they would with a Mary Sue. Naturally, she’s pursued by people with personal grudges for crimes she committed against them, but besides that, no one pays much attention to her. The film’s chief villain doesn’t particularly care about her, he’s much more concerned about the diamond she leads him to.
As for her abilities, that’s more complicated to answer. The comics and earlier animated features depict Harley as a competent street fighter, which she learned from her career in crime with the Joker. Like the Joker, she can defeat larger and stronger opponents by being smarter, using tricks, and unusual weapons that no one expected.
The evolution of superheroes’ powers.
Birds of Prey lacks the imagination shown with the Joker and Harley in Batman: The Animated Series. She smashes dozens of enemies, even the entire Gotham police force, effortlessly. But this is part of a larger trend that isn’t unique to Harley, and not related to the Mary Sue question. There’s a long tradition in multiple film genres, such as martial arts movies and slasher flicks, of depicting heroes who can decimate massive numbers of opponents with no pretense at realism. How does Jet Li beat up hundreds of armed men? It’s a silly question. He just does.
In his Kill Bill films, Quentin Tarantino depicts Uma Thurman killing off entire gangs in spectacular sword fights. How does she do it? Again, it is a silly question. It is not that kind of film. Do not think, enjoy the spectacle.
Harley Quinn is also part of second large trend in American superhero movies in regard to “powers.” Believability has gradually been sacrificed in favor of cinematic spectacle.
X-men, released in 2000, is arguably the first in the current wave of superhero movies to bombard the box office year after year. The abilities of the various X-Men on the team closely match their comic book inspirations. They are powerful, but have clear limitations. Wolverine is a central character in almost every X-Men themed movie, culminating with Logan in 2017, making him an useful example of the evolution of Hollywood’s depiction of superhero abilities.
In X-Men, Wolverine is one of the most powerful members of the team, and becomes a logical co-leader alongside Cyclops. He has traits, strengths, and weaknesses that complement Cyclops’. Cyclops has a nearly impossible power to control and relies on pure discipline to use it properly. Wolverine’s strength comes from his pure animalistic instincts in the heat of battle. Despite their differences, they work together as a strong team that is more than the sum of its parts. Cyclops keeps a cool head in stressful situations. Thanks to his heightened senses and instincts, Wolverine detects and immediately responds to threats Cyclops and the rest of the team didn’t see.
Wolverine has adamantium plating along his bones, rapid healing, and of course his signature “wolverine” claws. But he’s not superman. His healing takes time, he’s incapacitated by serious injuries, and often is near death. In a comment to Rogue, he mentions that even extending his claws is painful. He cuts through himself to break free of Magneto’s metal restraints, a difficult and painful feat. Much later, they still had not completely healed – so that when he touches Rogue to let her drain some of his healing ability, the wounds reopen.
By the third movie in the X-Men trilogy, Wolverine’s powers have grown so immensely he can run through hailstorms of bullets with no difficulty, healing instantaneously. The Phoenix incinerates an entire platoon of soldiers, but can’t incinerate Wolverine, despite repeatedly blasting him.
Even the writers themselves realized they made him too powerful. In The Wolverine (2013) they invented a silly explanation for why he isn’t so powerful; there’s a robot spider manipulating his heart. In Logan, he can’t heal fast because he is… old? Wolverine is a man born before the American Civil War. In X-Men, Jean Grey states that it is impossible to know exactly how old he is because he ages so slowly. Yet in Logan, he falls apart so drastically in 25 years that he can barely heal at all. Almost as if it was necessary for the plot. Otherwise, he would have exterminated every henchman within the first five minutes of the movie.
Back to Harley.
Harley is bizarrely overpowered, but this is a trend in almost every superhero movie in recent years. It is more obvious with her, and not just because she has no superpowers. The bigger failure in Harley’s fight sequences is the choreography. In a well-choreographed movie like Kill Bill, the hero convincingly defeats enemies with her superior martial arts and swordplay. In a badly choreographed movie like Birds of Prey – or The Last Jedi (e.g., the infamously bad throne room fight) – it is obvious that her foes let her win.
Not only is Harley not a Mary Sue, the writers depict her as a deeply flawed and in many ways a repulsive character. That is arguably the movie’s greatest strength. We see Harley an anti-hero with no attempt to downplay her “villainous” qualities, or engage in a moral cop-out by blaming them on the Joker’s influence.
Reading minds isn’t possible for us non-superheroes, but one can speculate that this quality is a result of the all-female team that created her. Rey from Star Wars might be a Mary Sue because she’s a fantasy figure of the men who created her. There is a noticeable and well-documented trend of male writers showing a lack of willingness to give their female characters actual flaws, rather than cute quirks.
So Harley isn’t a Mary Sue, but that alone isn’t enough to make her a meaningful and compelling protagonist. That’s a question for the next article in this series about Harley Quinn.
Return next Saturday for part 3 in this series.
See the films!
- Batman Begins.
- Man of Steel. Locke Peterseim’s review – A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman.
- Justice League. My review: Justice League is the film we need, not the one we deserve.
- Joker. My review: Joker is a film of our time, but not the film we need.
See posts about the Batman universe
- The philosophy of the Joker – by Larry.
- The philosophy of Batman – by Larry.
- Joker & Harley, a partnership made in hell – by Ian – Part I of a series about Harley.
- Is Harley Quinn a Mary Sue? – Part II.
About the author
- Generals read “Ender’s Game” and see their vision of the future Marine Corps.
- Pain and misery build discipline! Or so we’re told.
- The Atheist Conservative shows why secular conservatism continues to be an irrelevant and impotent force in American politics.
- Alita, the Battle Angel, fights her feminist critics.
- Plato and Diogenes warn us about hubris – Here is a fun short story, historical fiction about one of the clashes between two of the larger-than-life people of the ancient world.
- A fun tour of Harley Quinn’s Gotham.
For More Information
Ideas! For some holiday shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
- Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?
- Our choice of heroes reveals much about America – It’s gotten worse since I wrote this in 2013.
- We like superheroes because we’re weak. Let’s use other myths to become strong.
- Our biggest films reveal dark truths about us.
- Hollywood’s Hero Deficit – both a cause and symptom of our weakness.
- The sad reason we love superheroes, and the cure.
Best films in the DC universe