Now, there are a whole lot of ever-so-slightly antiheroic supervillains out there, but there aren't a whole lot – if any at all – who can match Harley Quinn for sheer popularity. From her very first introduction in Batman: The Animated Series way back in 1992, Harley has been one of the most fan-beloved figures in comic book-dom, and has maintained that favor through decades of unusually consistent awesomeness.
What's more, with Harley set to hit the big screen for the first time in this summer's Suicide Squad, played by Margot Robbie, the character's fame is likely to reach to new heights, almost a quarter-century after her creation.
The only problem?
Harley Quinn's Latest Origin Story Looks Set To Be Super Controversial
Y'see, as Donna Dickens over at Hitfix pointed out a while back, the full Suicide Squad trailer released this January actually tells us pretty much exactly which version of Harley's origin we're going to see in the movie... and it's not what a whole lot of fans were hoping to see:
The big problem, from an old-school Harley Quinn fan's perspective?
This shot right here...
...in which, it seems, The Joker is dipping Harley into the same sort of mysterious chemicals that transformed her into the villain we know and love in her most recent comic book origins:
The big question that raises, though?
Why Is Harley's Most Recent Origin Story So Controversial?
Well, to answer that, it's probably worth taking a detailed look at just what Harley's full, canonical, New 52-era DC comic book origin currently is, as recounted in 2014's Secret Origins #4... which, thanks to the intrepid Imgur-ing of DeanMachine16, you can read in full right here. Essentially, though, Harley's new origin focuses on revealing her tough, animal-abusing childhood, that culminated in her falling in love with a murdering school friend, before heading off to college, and eventually getting a job working at Arkham Asylum. It then suggests that she slept with the warden in order to get closer to The Joker, a proximity that quickly leads her to fall in love with him, and - via a bath in a mysterious fluid - to become a hyper-sexualized "ditz" in order to please him.
The reason for that origin story – which, containing as it does The Joker immersing Harley in a mysterious body-altering fluid, seems to be more-or-less the one that Suicide Squad is opting for – being so controversial?
Now, it isn't the distinctly problematic approach it has to Harley's (hyper-)sexuality – that's been something DC has been ramping up for years, and is a conversation for a whole other day. Instead, it's something pretty fundamental about Harley – and a a key part of her original origin – that has somehow been lost in translation.
Harley's Original Origin Story Was Widely Loved For A Reason
Whether we're talking the animated series' take on her transition to villainy, or Paul Dini's Eisner award-winning one-off comic book Mad Love, Harley's origin is defined by two key things. Firstly, she actively chooses to become a villain as a result of falling in love with The Joker while she herself was in a position of power, and secondly, she remains with him despite him being both verbally and physically abusive because... that's a thing that actually happens in real life, and reflecting it on the comic book page is a damn fine way to get people to talk about it. As Dickens puts it...
"It’s a supervillainous metaphor for how anyone can find themselves inexplicably with a partner that abuses them."
...And that, as much as any other element of Harley's back catalog of badassery, is why so many of us love her. She's a real, fully-rounded, genuinely troubled character who makes her own damn decisions (wrong or right), in a world where most of her female comic book counterparts aren't allowed more than the barest fraction of actual individual agency.
And, as it turns out...
Harley's New Origin Takes A Whole Lot Of That Agency Away From Her
Indeed, as Donna Dickens puts it:
"...all of Harley Quinn’s power is wiped away with the New 52 — and now “Suicide Squad” — origin. Dr. Harleen Quinzel isn’t a three-dimensional supervillain with a complex personality and layered motivations. She no longer chose to be a villain. She no longer chose to alter her genetic code to become more dangerous. She no longer even chose Joker of her own free will. By having Joker forcibly convert his psychiatrist into his girlfriend, Harley is stripped of her personality, her flaws, and her ability to make her own choices, as toxic as they are."
She's still a badass, and her actual comic book existence has still tended to be distinctly feminist and agency-filled, but her new 'secret' origin still strips away a whole lot of the intriguing power dynamic that her original meeting with The Joker was centered around, and makes her ultimate conversion into a villain the result of him choosing to throw her into a vat of chemicals.
She surrenders a piece of herself "ta become one with him," aiming to "become a whole new person" - where the old-school Harley simply found her true, anarchic self in the villainy he offered her, and in the (admittedly deeply problematic) love she found with him.
In comic book terms, it's a relatively small difference – but it's one worth hoping Suicide Squad directly addresses and discusses, rather than simply showing Harley as a agency-less blend of sexual object and victim, created not by the Joker's love, but by his power and control.
After all, that's something the old-school Harley never would have stood for.