It's pretty clear from all the hype surrounding "Suicide Squad" that the DC movie's premiere is going to be one of the biggest events in pop culture next year. But there's still an uncomfortable elephant in the room for a lot of comic book fans -- is the movie going to portray Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and the object of her obsession, the Joker (Jared Leto), the right way?
By "the right way," of course, we mean "as the messed up abusive situation that it is." Since Harley first appeared as the Joker's sidekick in "Batman: The Animated Series," she's taken the superhero world by storm with her bright personality and penchant for crime. But her obsession with the Joker, which has been just as fundamental to her character as her black and red color scheme, complicates things considerably. Harley's not a saint, sure, but her story is one inexorably tied to relationship abuse, mental illness, and psychopathy, which ultimately makes her a much more tragic and relatable character than the Joker -- not that you'd necessarily know it from the way they're romantically paired up together in everything from couples' cosplays to T-shirt designs.
So can "Suicide Squad" depict all the complexities of Harley Quinn, and does writer/director David Ayer have a responsibility to tell their story in a particular way? Dr. Wind Goodfriend, principal researcher for the Institute for the Prevention of Relationship Violence at Buena Vista University, thinks that it's possible, but that it's going to be an uphill battle given what's at stake.
"If she’s going to be portrayed as a victim of abuse who continues to embrace that abuse and continues to go back to that abusive perpetrator, I think that viewers who are currently or former victims themselves could be re-traumatized by that because they are going to personally respond to the abuse that they see on the screen," she said. "If the Joker hits her --" which he certainly will, according to leaked footage from the Toronto set -- "I think that people who have experienced that will respond to that on a visceral level, much more than people who have only heard about that or who have never really thought about it."
If that sounds like a small price to pay for a big screen version of Harley, we need to take into consideration how high the rates of relationship violence actually are. According to the National Network to End Domestic Violence, approximately 7 million women in the U.S. are assaulted or raped by a current or former partner each year, and an average of three women are killed by a current or former partner every day. The problem can be much worse for younger people, too: a recent survey also found that 43% of dating college women and 28 percent of men reported experiencing violent and abusive dating behaviors in a relationship.
But that doesn't mean telling Harley's story is entirely without merit for those who may find it all too close for comfort. In that same study, 57% of college students reported having a difficult time being able to tell what constitutes dating abuse, and Goodfriend notes that fictionalized depictions of abuse can sometimes make these concerns more accessible to people who may not know how bad their own situation has gotten.
"We have cognitive biases that protect ourselves," Goodfriend said. "So we may be experiencing these negative dynamics in a relationship and we don’t label it, we don’t recognize it, we don’t see it from the objective perspective. Sometimes seeing it in a fictional character helps us identify, this is what’s happening to me and this is not okay. So regardless of the outcome, in some ways that could be a positive effect... My concern is that if the conclusion is that Harley continues to be in love with this abusive person and continues to go back to him, in some ways to me that would be encouraging viewers to do the same thing."
"If they show her as standing up to abuse and being a very intelligent character... if they show her as really being very clever and responsive to misogyny, I think that she could be a really great person for young people to admire in spite of the fact that she’s a psychopathic murderer." The current run of "Harley Quinn" comics, in fact, depict her doing just that and making a new life for herself far away from the Joker.
Even if she does return to the Joker, there's no denying that Harley's to be the biggest part of "Suicide Squad" for sure; the trailer we saw at Comic-Con featured her pretty prominently, and newly leaked, then pulled images from on set this week suggest that we might be seeing her origin story over the course of the film.
"A lot of people are attracted to Harley Quinn and the other villains because they’re not perfect," Goodfriend told MTV News over the phone. "We can relate to her as being someone who makes mistakes. And in some ways that’s really great to show someone on screen who is relatable... with whom we can empathize in some ways. But again, depending on the way they go with the character... that could do a lot of damage because now girls are going to say, 'Oh, I relate to her, I like her, maybe I should make that same decision [as she does.]'"
If you or someone you know is suffering from physical, emotional, or verbal abuse from a relationship partner, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-787-3224.
"Suicide Squad" arrives in theaters August 5, 2016.