Squad Goals: Harley Quinn's Star Vehicle

August 15, 2016

Written by Rory

Suicide Squad is out, and it’s getting a very mixed response. Some critics are panning it as a poorly produced mess ruined in the editing room and board room. More positive reviews are going so far as to call the movie “okay.” After a brace of trailers that blew everyone away, those same audiences may be feeling a little short-changed after finding out that the final product is basically a complete, two-hour long version of those same trailers.

But what was Suicide Squad supposed to be? Was it DC Comics’ attempt to recreate Guardians of the Galaxy, as was originally the case? No. Was it a wholly irredeemable train wreck? No. It had one job, and it did this job incredibly well. That job just wasn’t to entertain the audience.

[Warning: This article contains spoilers for Suicide Squad]

There’s a term in the movie business for specific projects like Suicide Squad: “Star vehicle.” A star vehicle is a movie which is framed around one actor, where almost each and every frame is used to showcase their acting chops to help ‘sell’ them to audiences. Successful star vehicles are often, in hindsight, referred to as a certain actor’s “breakout role,” the role that really launched them into stardom. The practice was more common in the 30s and 40s, when actors would be contracted to work exclusively with specific studios, placing responsibility on the studios themselves to build an actor’s profile with the public.

While the origins of the term is more difficult to trace, one of the first films of this type was 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, the promotion of which was centered around the talents of a then-teenaged Judy Garland. Actors now more commonly signed on for individual movies, but star vehicles are still fairly common: Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman; Dwayne Johnson in The Scorpion King (back when he was still being billed as The Rock); and Miley Cyrus in The Last Song, an effort by Disney to break Cyrus away from the Hanna Montana character. The British nouveau-Ritchie crime drama Layer Cake, while not particularly a big hit in its own right, was a star vehicle for its leading actor Daniel Craig, whose subtle, charming drug trader Mr. X was essentially Craig’s resume to be the next James Bond, a role he secured in Casino Royale.

Suicide Squad

So if Suicide Squad is a star vehicle, who is it promoting? There aren’t really any massive unknowns amongst the cast. Will Smith is Will Smith, the charming down to earth hero character who’s basically had vehicle after vehicle after vehicle going back as far as The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. Jared Leto is an Academy Award winning method actor famous for roles in Fight Club, American Psycho, and Dallas Buyers Club. Even Margot Robbie, arguably the greenest of the leading players, is renowned for her roles in The Wolf of Wall Street and Focus, playing opposite Will Smith. Who is left for the movie to promote to film audiences?

Harley Quinn herself.

It wouldn’t be the first time a superhero movie has used an ensemble flick to test the waters for a future main player. Just this past summer, Captain America: Civil War introduced Black Panther (another character making his live action debut) to the Marvel cinematic universe in a similar way. Like Harley, there was also a lot riding on how this character was received by audiences, albeit for largely different reasons; Marvel, sadly, was simply unsure how a black superhero would be received by audiences, but DC had a wholly different problem.

In a Suicide Squad roster that lacks team regulars like Bronze Tiger or Killer Frost, Harley Quinn is the odd girl out, more renowned for her adventures in Gotham than anything else. And yet she was understandably absent from Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy — Heath Ledger’s Joker simply didn’t need her. While she’s one of the most loved of Batman’s rogues by the hardcore comics audience and regularly gets prominent billing in animation and videogame properties, Harley’s character makes for a difficult sell to more mainstream cinema audiences.

There are legitimate concerns about trying to add a character as simultaneously inexhaustibly cheery and crushingly pitiable as Harley to a more realist, down to earth blockbuster machine like the DC Cinematic Universe, not to mention the doubts that any live-action performer could even ‘get’ the Harley Quinn character at all. If DC was to bring Harley Quinn into the cinematic universe, it needed proof that audiences would accept her, and that’s where Suicide Squad came in.

Harley Quinn 2

From the very opening credits, the DC Comics and Warner Bros logos overlaid with red, black and white diamonds makes the purpose of the film clear: Give movie audiences a whole lotta Harley and see if they buy it. And audiences got a whole lotta Harley: Iconic comic elements like her ‘baptism’ at ACE Chemicals, the quintessential red and black jester number, the slow-burn seduction of mild-mannered Dr Quinzel at the hands of Leto’s Joker — it’s all there.

There’s a particular scene in which the Joker is believed to have been killed. A despondent Harley sees Smith’s Deadshot and Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang approach, and almost like a lightswitch calls them over with a peppy wave, bravely burying her misery. It’s clear to these two she’s struggling, but both recognise the reason she’s covering it up: Do the right thing and give her agency over her emotions. A scene like this absolutely hinges on Robbie’s ability to convey the exact balance of masked sorrow and feigned joy; too far one way and all emotional value of the scene’s lost, too far the other way and the hero characters look like dicks. Robbie absolutely nailed it, Smith and Courtney played off it well, and the movie continued. If in the future the already-rumoured Harley Quinn movie becomes a hit, I’m gonna point back to this one scene and tell everyone who’ll listen ‘that’s the moment I knew this was happening.’

Reviews of the film might be ranging from “alright” to “atrocious,” but one of the consistent themes in feedback is that the Clown Princess of Crime steals the show. It’s hard not to just gush over Robbie’s performance. Rather than the true Guardians Of The Galaxy-esque ensemble many moviegoers expected, Suicide Squad is a more objective-driven vehicle to introduce a character not many mainstream fans are overly familiar with. The movie itself may not be to everyone’s tastes, but it did its job. Harley Quinn’s on the silver screen at last — and she’s brilliant.

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