Despite over a decade of very serious cinematic universes, it helps to remember that superhero fiction is, in fact, quite silly. This is an empirical fact: it doesn’t matter who wears the batsuit, the mystique all falls away the second they have to do something mundane. This is not limiting, but freeing: You can learn all sorts of things about the world once you stop taking yourself so seriously. This is why Harley Quinn, the animated series streaming on DC Universe and airing on Syfy, is one of the best TV takes on comic books you can catch right now.
Like Birds of Prey, the show follows Harley Quinn (Kaley Cuoco) as she tries to step out from under the shadow of her notorious, toxic ex, Joker (Alan Tudyk). In the first season, this manifests as Harley’s long, slow quest to join the Legion of Doom on her own merits, the chummy circle of supervillains that are taken seriously by the superhero community. Gathering up a band of misfit supervillains like King Shark (Ron Funches), Clayface (also Alan Tudyk) Dr. Psycho (Tony Hale), Frank the Plant (J.B. Smoove) and Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), Harley tries bigger and bigger stunts, trying to acquire the accoutrements of serious villainy. You know: a lair, a nemesis, all that jazz.
But because the show is animated, its canvas is much bigger than a live-action film’s. It can use the entirety of the DC comics canon, from the Justice League to Darkseid and Apokolips (you know, from the Snyder Cut?), all with Harley Quinn’s trademark irreverence. Everything is up for lambasting, from the fans who want a Snyder Cut to Batman himself. (Especially Batman.) And the show is better for it.
Harley Quinn is like a funhouse reflection of the DC Universe. Watching it, you see familiar icons in a new light, and different aspects begin to surface. What’s usually taken too seriously (again, Batman) is roundly mocked and swept aside, and the characters that are often ignored (female characters like Harley, Ivy, and Batgirl) can shine — even if they have designs on world domination and probably shouldn’t run Gotham City.
For all of its jokes, Harley Quinn does take a lot of things seriously. It’s an earnest and queer love story, a show about women supporting each other in male-dominated spaces, a character study of someone undergoing the long, slow process of reclaiming their agency after an abusive relationship. It’s also vulgar and violent, delighting in the cartoony chaos of working out your issues while also inciting a prison riot, or goring hundreds of demons.
The series’ recently-concluded second season does all this with a loving mashup and parody of a number of classic Batman comics, breathlessly tearing through homages to stories like ‘No Man’s Land” (a loose inspiration for The Dark Knight Rises) and the 2015 reinvention of Batgirl as a DIY millennial vigilante. It also ends on a question mark: while the ending works as a finale, there’s clearly a desire to do more. The show hasn’t yet been greenlit for a third season, and the DC Universe service stands on seemingly shaky ground as shows like Doom Patrol begin to make their way over to HBO Max. If Harley Quinn is fated to be yet another show gone too soon, at least it ends on its own terms. But it’s proven that there’s a lot to gain from taking the piss out of superhero era of entertainment. I’d hate to see a Snyder Cut out in the world without a new season of Harley Quinn there to endlessly make fun of it.