In DC’s new superheroine team-up movie Birds of Prey, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn finally breaks up with the Joker, leaving the classic Batman foe behind to strike out on her own.
However, that doesn’t mean that the Joker is excised completely from the story, even if the Clown Prince of Crime – as played by Jared Leto alongside Robbie in 2016’s Suicide Squad – doesn’t properly appear in the film.
You can understand director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson’s bind. While Robbie’s Harley Quinn is inextricably linked to the Joker (a character she was created to be a sidekick to on a TV show, before making her way to the comics), the version freshest in audience’s minds isn’t Leto’s from Suicide Squad.
Rather, it’s the mentally unwell Oscar-bait incarnation as performed by Joaquin Phoenix in Joker that’s currently getting all the buzz. Leto’s Joker, meanwhile, was largely dismissed and only appeared in one unpopular film, where he was overshadowed by his other half Harley.
Clearly, reviving another already less familiar version of the Joker would be confusing and counter-intuitive. However, Robbie’s version of Harley was specifically the girlfriend of Leto’s version of the character. So how do you tell a story about breaking up with the Joker when nobody wants to see that Joker?
Well, based on this new film you just don’t show him – at least not entirely. Instead, Birds of Prey opens with an animated recap of Harley’s early life, corruption by the Joker and eventual relationship with him. In this cartoon, Joker appears more like his classic comic-book incarnation (complete with smart purple suit) than the tattooed, grill-wearing figure he was in Suicide Squad, allowing Harley to tell their story more allegorically without referring specifically to Leto’s take on the character.
Later, flashbacks to Harley’s origin have him just out of frame, and when we do see him in another memory – where he and Harley are tattooing somebody – audiences only see the back of the Joker’s head (though it’s clear from the hairstyle that this is supposed to be Leto’s Joker, if you care to look).
It’s Leto’s Joker that Harley has been dumped by – but really, it could be any Joker. In the end, the Joker that Harley leaves behind is more of a plot device than anything, the bad relationship of her past that she needs to reboot herself from, even as her estrangement from him and his protection means that she has a new target on her back.
In other words, there’s a Joker in Birds of Prey– it just doesn’t really matter that much which Joker it is.
Birds of Prey is in UK cinemas now