Back in 1992, nobody on the writing staff for Batman: The Animated Series would have imagined that in 25 years Harley Quinn would become the movie star, feminist icon, and merchandising juggernaut that she is today.
Harley's been popular since day one, but somewhere between 1992 and 2017, the clown princess of crime skyrocketed into one of DC's biggest assets across comics, games, and films. So when did this spike happen, and who or what do we have to thank for her rise to stardom? The answer is 2009's Batman: Arkham Asylum, the game that took Harley out of the comics and cartoons and proved she could excel in the darker, grander DC universe.
The first video game to break the decades long curse of bad Batman games, Arkham Asylum was a critical hit that took a deep dive into the Dark Knight's world. The game sold over 4.2 million copies globally, placing not only Batman in the limelight, but also his villains, many of which would be new to casual fans — Harley included.
The Tone: Embracing Her Inner Demons
Unlike the cartoons, Asylum and it's sequels — referred to as the Arkham Trilogy — were able to explore darker elements of Batman with far less censorship. And unlike the films, games could do grim and gritty without fear that the source material's quirks would feel unrealistic. The Arkham games thrived in a happy medium between dark and fantastical.
Until this point, Harley Quinn had largely been reserved for either lighter tales or PG-rated ones with subtle undertones of the character's mature themes. Yet there always existed an untapped darkness in Harley's character. Bruce Timm once said, "Within the scope of a children's cartoon we were basically portraying an abusive relationship, which is really weird... all of this stuff was kind of played for fun and lightness, but there was this darker subtext to it."
Dr Harleen Quinzel: the promising young psychiatrist manipulated by a psychopath, twisted until her doctor-patient relation transformed her into a co-dependent accessory to the Joker. Rocksteady knew the darkness present in Harley's character and welcomed her into their M-rated world.
While no means the star of the game, the murderous Harley Quinn fit into the dark and gruesome world of Asylum seamlessly. In it, we see her beat the warden senseless, blow up a corrupt doctor, and come close to besting Batman — all with an infectious smile.
Rocksteady proved that the quirky, bubblegum chewing psychopath could shine in their dark world, with her always-present brand of sadistic humor made even creepier given the surroundings.
Before Arkham Asylum, the idea that Joker's sidekick girlfriend could be the leading lady in an R-rated live action film seemed like a bad joke, but that's exactly what happened with David Ayer's Academy Award winning Suicide Squad. Who knows if Ayer and DC would have believed Harley could work in a real world if not for Asylum first utilizing Harley in one of the darkest interpretations of Batman and still being considered a critical darling.
The Look: Broadening Her Horizons And Costumes
When Harley arrived in Arkham Asylum, she showed up in a new nurse motif that stepped away from her iconic jester look. When Arkham City rolled around, Harley's design changed once again, this time to more of a biker / street gang style.
Whether they knew it or not, Rocksteady established a new convention for Harley Quinn that today feels like a staple: the reinvention of her costume with each new appearance.
Since 2009, Harley has had over 13 redesigns, from Batman: The Brave and the Bold to the Injustice games to 2016's Suicide Squad. The visual diversification that Asylum introduced allowed Harley to fit into stories she may have been left out of if she were only ever associated with her classic, colorful outfit.
And it isn't just writers benefiting from the new digs. The countless redesigns have made Harley a creative goldmine for cosplayers and fan artists at conventions and on the web. With these never-ending adaptations dominating pop culture spaces, even non-fans are likely to have came across and recognized the lovable anti-hero.
Harley was even the most popular character of Halloween 2016, largely because of Suicide Squad releasing that summer, but no doubt also thanks to the versatility in Harley's designs that allow just about anyone to create their own spin on Quinn.
The Voice: Letting New Talent Shine
Beyond introducing the world to a more mature, visually different Harley, Rocksteady's Arkham Trilogy was also the first to establish new lasting voice talent to play Harley. Asylum was longtime Harley actress Arleen Sorkin's final major performance before retiring, and the game's sequel marked the beginning of the post-Sorkin DC world, with Tara Strong first up to bat.
"I got the call for Harley and they said, 'we do not want you to do an impression of Arleen,'" Tara strong told Hollywood Reporter. "We want you to make it your own... we want this to be the new Harley."
Though Sorkin defined and literally inspired the character originally, by passing the torch, a different set of actresses were able to breathe new life into the character, much like how Batman and the Joker have been redefined countless times by new actors.
When Margot Robbie took on the role in Suicide Squad, she wanted to reimagine Harley and emphasize the doctor trapped inside her mind. "I kind of played it that Harley is a bit schizophrenic, so she has voices in her head. And one of those voices is Dr. Harleen Quinzel ... you can always see a bit of Dr. Quinzel in Harley Quinn."
Most recently, The Big Bang Theory's Melissa Rauch is set to voice Harley in the latest DC animated film, Batman & Harley Quinn, no doubt adding her own spin to the anti-hero.
The (R)Evolution of Harley Quinn
Batman has always excelled in dark stories, it's what attracted audiences to the character and elevated him above other DC mascots in the first place. Rocksteady seemed to believe that the same could be true for Harley, and their decisions to let her loose in a dark world, and to consistently re-imagine both her look and voice helped shape Harley into the versatile, transformative star she is today.
Considering the commercial success of Suicide Squad, it's safe to assume we haven't seen the last of Margot Robbie's Harley. And, later this year, we'll see Melissa Rauch's fresh take on the character in the animated Batman & Harley Quinn. Harley's never been as big as she is today, and while most recently we've got Margot and Melissa to thank, they might not have had the chance to shine if Rocksteady hadn't let Harley and the inmates run the Asylum back in 2009.