Interlude – “Harley Quinn = Money” Should Be Warner Brothers’s Takeaway From the Success of Deadpool

(I won’t be able to add to my goal of 100 movies in 2016, again, until the first weekend of March, most likely.  So, to make sure you know I’m still here, I’ll be posting an Interlude or two in the meantime.  Here’s the first.)

There has been much said about the unexpected and, quite frankly, nearly-unfathomable success of Fox’s Deadpool.  In just ten days, the X-Men spinoff surpassed the domestic grosses of each of the X-Men movies, themselves, and every studio is going to be (if they aren’t, already) tripping over themselves, trying to find a way to duplicate that level of success ($500 million worldwide and counting) for similar low costs (only $58 million).  It’s time for Warner Brothers and DC to realize that they don’t need to trip over anything or anyone; their answer is right in front of them.

Harley Quinn, casually created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm when they needed someone to jump out of a cake, became the breakout character of Batman: The Animated Series.  Debuting on September 11, 1992, she quickly captivated the minds, hearts, and funny bones of viewers of all ages.  Originally a sidekick/”romantic” (and I use that word very loosely) interest for the Joker, she truly began to take on a life of her own when Dini and Timm published BATMAN: MAD LOVE.  That story was so well-received by both fans and critics (winning the “Best Single Issue” Eisner Award for 1994) that it was then adapted into an episode of the animated series, as well.

Following that, things took off for Harley to the point that, in 1999, she was introduced into the mainstream DC Universe in BATMAN: HARLEY QUINN #1 by Dini and artist Aaron Sowd.  From there, she finally got her own ongoing comic book series in 1991 that lasted for 38 issues. That may not sound like much to the uninitiated, but it’s truly no small feat.  After that, she made some guest appearances, here and there, before once again starring in her own book but, this time, sharing the spotlight.  This was a team book called GOTHAM CITY SIRENS in which she formed a group with other frequent Batman foils Poison Ivy and Catwoman.

In 2011, when DC rebooted their entire line of books under the New 52 banner, Harley found herself as part of the Suicide Squad, a team of villains forced into servitude by a covert government operation.  Two years later, Harley once again became the star of her own book, this time at the hands of the husband-and-wife writing team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner and artist Chad Hardin.  It was here when Harley truly found her own unique identity and began to resonate with readers of all kinds and origins.  The movie industry would refer to that as “four-quadrant appeal” (young, old, men, women).

Defying all expectations, the new HARLEY QUINN regularly fell in the top ten monthly sellers of all comics across the industry – becoming DC’s second-biggest ongoing series behind BATMAN (that includes regularly outselling DETECTIVE COMICS).  A buzz began to form around the book and Harley, herself.  I, personally, began to notice more Harley Quinn memes popping up on social media.  And the merchandise!  Harley is a Hot Topic staple and if you want a Harley Quinn shirt, action figure, blanket, pajama pants, poster, or anything else, you don’t have to look too hard to find it.

So, why is Harley Quinn WB/DC’s ace in the hole?  Lots of characters have cult followings.  The Punisher has almost always been highly regarded by fans, and often by critics, too.  He had three movies fail – and fail spectacularly.  The Fantastic Four launched the Marvel Universe.  They, too, have struggled at the box office.  What would make Harley different?  Why would she succeed where others with far more of a legacy behind them have failed?  The answers lie in Deadpool‘s success.

There are lots of nervous think pieces out there regarding what lessons studios will take from Deadpool‘s success.  Most seem centered around the fear that studios will now assume that everything needs to be rated R in order to be a breakout hit.  So, let’s start with that and how it relates to Harley.  A Harley Quinn solo film, just like any given Deadpool solo film, wouldn’t absolutely have to be R-rated.  But, also like Deadpool, it could be.  The key here lies not so much in explicit content but in the edginess that the two characters share.  Both take their frustrations out in mega-violent fashion on those who earn their wrath.  You can show this explicitly for an R rating or have it implied for a hard PG-13.  Harley is also completely unashamed of her sexuality.  I don’t know what Margot Robbie’s contracts look like, now that she’s nearing mega-star status, but if she was agreeable, the sexuality could definitely be R-rated without too many people complaining.  But, it could also be close-but-no-cigar for that more appealing PG-13.  The language is the same way; Harley curses, but she’s not Andrew Dice Clay (too dated a reference?  Look it up!  Sigh.  Okay, I’ll look it up for you.).  PG-13 language would be completely acceptable.

The key in mining this field of gold is in truly understanding her appeal, in the same way that the folks behind Deadpool understood his.  While Harley and Deadpool share many similarities, they aren’t carbon copies of each other, only with one being male and the other being female.  One trait that they have come to share in recent years is their anti-hero status.  Both characters long to be heroes but frankly have little idea how to succeed at it, due to their psychotic personalities.  This aspect of the Harley character was primarily introduced (or at least emphasized) by Palmiotti and Conner and is a frequent source of humor, pathos, and story progression, as it could be in a potential film.  The upside to focusing on this in a Harley film would be that the Deadpool film not only ignored that aspect of his character, but downright contradicted it.  So, that would really set a Harley film apart from Deadpool and allow her to become more of her own entity and avoid some otherwise natural comparisons between the films.

Another similarity the two share is tone.  This is where Deadpool got it perfect.  That film was hilarious when it could be and serious when it needed to be.  It allowed Deadpool’s personality to shine through without making it impossible to also take him seriously as a person.  Again, Conner and Palmiotti have nailed this same idea flawlessly in HARLEY QUINN.  Her adventures are often manic, comedic, and outlandish (to wonderful effect) yet she’s not without very human wants, desires, and feelings – all of which are entirely relatable to the reader.  This, along with the wit and humor, is why she’s caught fire in recent years.  Both as a character and as a book, she’s so much fun, but you also root for her to succeed at simply getting through her daily life, in the very same way that we root for ourselves to do the same.  And, as tough as life can be for us normal folk, it’s significantly more challenging for Harley because she can’t help but complicate things for herself to an exaggerated degree.  So, we cheer her on, all while understanding her everyday troubles and laughing along with her as she tries to find solutions to them.  Translating this component of the character over to the big screen is paramount and would be the lynchpin upon which financial (and likely critical) success would hinge.  Harley, like Deadpool, isn’t about saving the world.  She has enough trouble saving herself.

As I mentioned before, while Harley and Deadpool have similarities, they also have differences.  There are obvious differences (the cosmetic), more nuanced differences (character motivations), and then there’s one critical difference.  That difference is market penetration.  Audience awareness.  Unlike Deadpool, Harley Quinn is nearing Household Name status without ever appearing on the big screen.  This provides a sturdier launching pad than Deadpool had.  And not only that, but she has near-equal appeal to men as Deadpool does but far stronger appeal to women.  Therefore, her potential is far more promising from the outset than Deadpool’s was.  I have a hard time believing that the right people haven’t noticed this, yet.

So, it’s great to throw all of this out there for consideration, but I don’t like to analyze without offering up a plausible scenario for success.  As Fox has learned the hard way (The Fantastic Four), you can’t just throw anything you want onto the screen and expect it to succeed.  So, here’s how I would approach a Harley Quinn solo film.

  • Schedule It Now  Allow a reasonable amount of time, but stop beating around the bush and pull the trigger on this.  I would find a new, creative director who is also a fan.  And not just an old school fan.  If they haven’t read the New 52 series, where Harley truly came into her own, then it’s a no-go.
  • Use the Comics Professionals  Hire Conner and Palmiotti to write it, if they’re willing and able.  If not, see if they’ll consult.  The majority of the hugely successful live-action comic book adaptations have had the input of the comic professionals that understand them.  Nobody understands Harley more than Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti.  I even prefer their take on the character above Paul Dini’s.  If they’re open to it, they need to be involved.
  • Keep the Budget Relatively Low  Something else that Deadpool has shown is that the attraction is in the character, not the spectacle.  Harley Quinn has no need for huge set pieces.  The casting should be reasonable, as well.  In that vein, keep Margot Robbie.  She’s perfect.  I don’t know how she’ll be portrayed in this summer’s Suicide Squad, but Robbie has the look and the talent to pull it off, even if the writing fails her in this summer’s debut for the character.  If things go south there (and I have no reason to think that they will; I’m just speculating for the sake of covering my bases), they can be fixed in the solo film, just as the problems with Deadpool’s debut in X-Men Origins: Wolverine were fixed in Deadpool.  But that’s getting ahead of myself and off-topic.  Keep the budget low and keep the story true to the nature of the character. Obviously, there’s no guarantee of box office returns that equal that of Deadpool, but making a profit of some sort would be a virtual guarantee.
  • Keep it PG-13  I mentioned the four-quadrant appeal, earlier.  Those four quadrants include little girls who could be a source of huge revenue when it comes to ticket and merchandise sales.  But only if they have access to the character.  My actual suggestion would be to film an R-rated cut with the full intent of trimming it down to a PG-13 for the theatrical run.  Release two blu-ray versions and everybody’s happy.  The budget should be low enough to allow this idea to be developed from the genesis of the project so that the script could be written with the end goal in mind.  Multiple shots and takes could be filmed in the moment for the relevant scenes, as well, making the process both time- and cost-efficient.  An airplane and cable cut would have to be made, anyway.  Might as well take care of it from the start.  But, if a choice must be made, then it should be (a hard) PG-13.
  • Do 3D  Deadpool skipped the 3D due to budget, I assume.  I get that, but if any movie should be 3D, it would be a movie where the main character regularly breaks the fourth wall.  Harley has done some of that, but even without doing that (and a Harley film should avoid breaking the fourth wall.  Let Deadpool have that.) I think 3D would allow the film to further immerse the audience in her crazy world and also play with them, at the same time.
  • No Batman.  No Joker.  Conner and Palmiotti have transformed Harley into her own, fully-realized independent character.  She doesn’t need to rely on these other men to pull her across the finish line.  In fact, she’s more fun, interesting, and entertaining 1) without them, and 2) than either of them.  Plus, they would just elevate the budget, anyway.  But Harley is a figurehead for strong, confident, intelligent women and cramming Batman and/or the Joker into her film would rob her of that individuality and independence.  Other than one possible-future-timeline appearance and one long-overdue cathartic event (in the best issue of the series, so far, Harley Quinn #25.  BUY IT!), and a Valentine’s Day Special, they have had virtually no presence in her new series and their absence has been welcome.  Harley is her own woman, at long last.
  • Use a Bright Color Palette  This may seem like a minor – and even inconsequential detail, but I don’t think that’s the case, at all.  A film having a certain look can overwhelmingly affect how it’s perceived by audiences.  This was a minor gripe I had with Deadpool.  The color palette was a little drab for the tone.  A Harley movie should be glowing and radiant, just like Harley’s personality.  And the dichotomy between the happy look of the film and the darker material contained wherein can be shocking and memorable.  Look at South Park for an obvious example.  If the filmmakers really wanted to mix it up, Harley, herself, could maybe be a barely-noticeable shade or two brighter than the rest of the film, representing her undying spirit in the face of the unforgiving world around her.  But Harley should shine and sparkle on that screen, without question.
  • Change the Suicide Squad Character Design  I’m sure in designing Harley’s look for Suicide Squad, WB wanted to make it more “grounded” and “real-world”.  Perhaps “less sexual” due to fears of being accused of sexualizing her, or something of that sort.  Well, forget all of that.  When I look at that design, I don’t think “Harley Quinn”.  It’s going to be down to Margot Robbie’s performance to convince me that I’m looking at Harley (and, for what it’s worth, I expect her to succeed.).  By now, WB should know that going for the fantastic tends to breed greater success than grounding the material does.  And, guess what?  Removing her affinity for sexuality also removes her (new-generation buzz word, comin’ at ya!) agency.  Harley enjoys her sexuality, her appearance, and showing it off.  Lots of real women do, too.  It’s reality.  So, there you go; it’s still grounded, after all.  Therefore, either keep the Conner design or ask her to design something else close to it.  But go back to the source (and not the harlequin costume, which is impractical and too closely associated with the Joker, though that should be referenced, at some point).  It works.  Speaking of Harley’s sexuality . . ..
  • Keep Her Bisexual  Whether you know it, or not, Harley Quinn is very openly and unapologetically bisexual.  Another thing Deadpool did beautifully is marketing, which included releasing the right information at the right time.  The faithful comic-book-reading audience is so extraordinarily tiny when compared to the size of the movie-going audience that, in reality, they/we make up very little of any comic book movie’s box office take.  But we’re important in terms of pre-release buzz and word-of-mouth.  In place of Batman and the Joker, include Poison Ivy.  Release a still of them looking cozy or holding hands.  The comic fans go nuts (in a good way) because it validates continuity.  The general public and media applaud the progressiveness.  The good buzz begins.  I’m not saying their relationship needs to be the primary one in the film.  Maybe Mason Macabre could be in there, too.  But it’s about creating positive buzz and getting the right people talking in the right ways.
  • Buck the Conventional Story Structure  One criticism of Deadpool is that it still follows the traditional comic book movie arc while seemingly lampooning said comic book movies.  I can’t really argue with that.  While it didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the film in the least, that’s a very valid point.  Harley is nowhere near approaching conventional.  So, her movie shouldn’t be, either.  Frankly, variations of any of the Conner/Palmiotti arcs would work just fine.  And, somewhere down the line, a sequel could even introduce Power Girl and use their super-hero story (included here) for a full twist on the genre.
  • Make It Fun  Another common rumor regarding backstage WB policy regarding DC Comics films is that – in order to distinguish themselves from Marvel – they want fun and comedy to be kept to a minimum.  Success never comes to those who are concerned with the affairs of others.  WB shouldn’t be concerned with what anyone is doing except for themselves.  If the fun is taken out of Harley, then the heart is taken out of Harley and your audience will reject the film.  That leads me to . . .
  • Trust the Characters  This has seemingly been WB’s big sticking point regarding their library of DC characters.  “If they aren’t Batman, they’ll lose money,” seems to be the conventional WB “wisdom”.  Rumors of that line of thinking from the higher-ups are starting to rear their ugly heads, once again, regarding the announced Justice League film, even as filming is said to begin in April.  I don’t know what’s true and what isn’t, but that fear will be unfounded if you trust the characters.  That’s why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has exploded.  Marvel understands and believes in its characters.  There’s no good reason for WB not to do the same.  Harley will resonate with movie goers for all the same reasons she resonates with comic readers.  Just market it well and get people into the theaters.  I think if the rest is done as outlined above, or with any other semblance of love and faith, the film would then take care of itself.

As it stands, Harley will make her debut this August in Suicide Squad.  It looks promising and I’m excited to see it, but Harley as a solo act is an untapped, obvious, and natural source of money and goodwill.  Just like Deadpool, she’s a character poised to break through into the general public consciousness and WB would be foolish not to jump on the opportunity.  With a potentially unlimited audience appeal and a versatile, well-rounded character, Harley is what the world is waiting for.  If you thought the Joker was fun . . . wait ’til you getta load o’ her.

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