Ricky Church looks at the late Arleen Sorkin’s best performances as Harley Quinn…
Recently Arleen Sorkin, the voice and inspiration behind the beloved Batman character Harley Quinn, passed away. In the 30 years since her creation in Batman: The Animated Series Harley Quinn has become a huge character unto herself. Not only is she one of the few Batman characters introduced in an animated series to be brought over to the main comics continuity, but she has had several comic titles of her own, been a lead character in three live-action films and has her own animated series which will soon conclude its fourth season. All of this is due to Sorkin’s performances as Harley by making her a rounded, complex and beloved villain turned anti-hero.
It is important to note Harley Quinn was written specifically for Sorkin after BTAS writer Paul Dini, who was a college friend of Sorkin’s, saw her perform as a jester in an episode of the soap opera Days of Our Lives and was inspired to create a foil for The Joker. Dini was even influenced by Sorkin’s already bubbly personality when creating Harley, going so far as to use Sorkin’s mannerisms and way of speaking into the character. To honour Sorkin and her role as Harley, we’re looking at some of her best performances that helped define Harley Quinn and turn the character into the household name she has become…
Honourable Mention: Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker
Batman Beyond: Return of The Joker is a tie-in to the Batman Beyond animated series set 40 years after Batman: The Animated Series where an elderly Bruce Wayne trains young Terry McGinnis as the new Batman. The movie sees The Joker somehow return in his prime to plague Gotham City once again as Terry investigates how this could be possible and uncovers the secrets of Bruce’s final encounter with the Clown Prince.
Being set so far in the future means characters from BTAS and The New Batman Adventures don’t play much of a role with the exception of an extended flashback depicting that fatal final battle. This makes it Harley Quinn’s chronological and canonical final appearance in the DC Animated Universe and Sorkin does a fine job showcasing Harley’s twisted reasoning for The Joker’s latest sick plan in torturing Tim Drake/Robin along with a humourous tag at the film’s conclusion showing, unfortunately for her, the apple doesn’t fall far from the family tree.
If there is anywhere to start it is with Harley Quinn’s very first appearance in the first season BTAS episode ‘Joker’s Favor’. Though Harley doesn’t have a huge role in this compared to her later appearances, it was enough to cement her as a memorable character as she helped The Joker extort an innocent family man with a plan to blow up Commissioner Gordon and much of Gotham and GCPD leadership at an event for his honour.
Right from her first line of dialogue, in which she calls Joker by her iconic petname “Mistah J”, Harley is set apart from Joker’s usual henchmen, not to mention she’s got her own smarts, sass and attitude as she struts into Gordon’s party in disguise and gives Detective Bullock a swift whack on the knee for crudely hitting on her, while at the same time being helplessly devoted to Joker. It is quite an introduction that immediately grabs attention, making it no small wonder why Dini worked hard to bring her back and how she grew a fanbase of her own.
It was becoming clear by the end of the first season of BTAS how popular she was becoming as she began starring in nearly every episode The Joker was in with more screentime and even had a leading role in the memorable ‘Harley and Ivy’ (more on that later). It’s no surprise that trend would continue further in the second season as Harley Quinn would get more of a spotlight starting with ‘Harlenquinaide’.
This episode saw Joker steal an atomic warhead that could completely destroy Gotham City, forcing Batman and Robin to recruit an imprisoned Harley to help them catch Joker in exchange for a lighter sentence. Sorkin steals the show with her performance as she annoys Batman to no end and even sings a musical number that is a thinly-veiled summation of her twisted and abusive relationship with The Joker. What’s more is we get our first hints at her backstory as Batman questions why she stays with Joker and his revelation to Robin she was a former clinical psychiatrist. This definitely pushed Harley’s evolution along and Sorkin did a great job showing the deeper layers to her character than an obsessed sidekick/girlfriend.
Unlike The Joker and much of Batman’s rogues gallery, Harley isn’t outright evil. She more enjoys breaking the law for the fun of it when she’s not hanging off Joker’s every word and doesn’t always want to hurt anybody not named Batman. Given this and her bubbly personality, what might happen if she turned a new leaf? ‘Harley’s Holiday’ sees her doing just that as she’s declared sane and released from Arkham, though it’s not long before a series of misunderstandings has her back in costume and on the run from Batman and several other parties out for her head.
This episode is significant because we see much more of Harley’s good side as she’s away from The Joker, Poison Ivy and other negative influences and is actually trying to turn her life around – even if that means she’s not quite how she was prior to meeting Joker, walking her two pet hyenas around Gotham or happily recounting to a former victim how she held them up. When she accidentally takes that same victim hostage she’s actually nice to her and even refuses to hold her for ransom, promising to get her go once she’s out of Gotham. Sorkin’s genuinely distraught breakdown to Batman is some of her best work as the character as she releases all of her anger and frustration at trying to be good and doing the right thing – even paying for a dress with actual money! – and still coming off as the bad guy, though she still is unwilling to recognize her own role in the misunderstandings that got her in this situation.
It’s a great episode that offers deeper insight into the type of person Harley Quinn really is and what she could be were it not for the people she hangs around with, but thankfully that has largely changed in the comics, films and her own animated series as she’s much more of an anti-hero now striving to be better.
‘Girls Night Out’
One memorable episode of the revamped BTAS, The New Batman Adventures, featured not just a team up between Batgirl and Supergirl, but between Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy and Superman villain Livewire for a girls night out as the trio caused all kinds of havoc in Gotham while the heroines had to stop them. Seeing Harley and Ivy together was nothing new as they were often paired up by this point, but adding a new element like Livewire to the mix resulted in all sorts of fun.
Sorkin got to have a lot of fun in this crossover between Batman and Superman, even getting to stretch a new aspect to Harley: jealousy. Ivy’s flirtation with Livewire after seeing her skill and snarky attitude brought out Harley’s jealous side, a rarely seen part of her personality as she was always trying to impress Joker, which caused her to lash out at Livewire or out stage her in some very funny ways. Harley’s attempt to sneak up on Supergirl with her trick gun and its literal backfire is one of Harley’s most hilarious moments. If nothing else, this episode is just a lot of fun and Sorkin’s performance puts that on display.
‘Harley and Ivy’
‘Harley and Ivy’ was the episode that changed it all for Harley Quinn. Not only was this the first episode which put her in a major starring role instead of a supporting character, but this began Harley’s other major relationship which is still going strong today in most media, specifically HBO Max’s Harley Quinn. Harley and Poison Ivy’s romance is just about as famous as hers with The Joker thanks to Paul Dini’s subtext in his script and the performances of Sorkin and Poison Ivy actress Diane Pershing.
‘Harley and Ivy’ was also the first episode we got a better look at the level of abuse Harley endured from The Joker as he kicked her out after blaming her for his failings in a scheme gone wrong. Determined to show Joker up and make it on her own, she meets Poison Ivy during a robbery and the two immediately hit it off and became Gotham’s ‘Queens of Crime’ with their massive spree across the city. The chemistry between Harley and Ivy was great, bringing out new sides to both Sorkin’s Harley and Pershing’s Ivy as the latter tried helping Harley get over her abusive dependency on Joker. As Ivy told Harley in a line which unknowingly foreshadowed what they would become, “this is the start of a beautiful friendship’.
It’s also notable how Dini implied a romance between Harley and Ivy. Given that this was an early 90s show and very few gay characters existed on TV in live-action and especially animation, it’s no surprise Dini wasn’t allowed to outright say or even imply the pair had those feelings for each other. However, with the fact Harley and Ivy are wearing nothing but shirts and underwear when they’re alone and eagle eyed viewers noticed there was only one bed in their rundown hideout, the subtext is pretty clear and has become a lasting element to both Harley and Ivy’s development, even turning Ivy from a villain to anti-hero or outright hero in some cases. It also began a great friendship between Sorkin and Pershing with the Poison Ivy actress penning a few words about their friendship after Sorkin’s passing, reflecting on how close they were in the past 30 years.
Harley Quinn’s origin is so well known and common now that its easy to forget we didn’t actually see how she became Harley Quinn until much later in The New Batman Adventures, though Paul Dini and Bruce Timm wrote the graphic novel Batman: Mad Love years before which was later adapted in the animated series.
‘Mad Love’ tells the backstory of Harley Quinn who was once Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a rising and ambitious criminal psychiatrist who got hired at Arkham Asylum and decided to find out what really made The Joker tick. Through a series of manipulating and sympathetic sob stories, Joker convinced Harleen he was really just a misguided prankster who took his jokes too far and was unfairly treated by the police, justice system and especially Batman. Having become infatuated with her patient, she chose for herself to break Joker out of Arkham and the two began a ‘romance’ where the Clown Prince of Crime habitually abused, both physically and emotionally, Harley Quinn on a regular basis.
Sorkin sounds completely different as a stable and intelligent Harleen, gradually descending into her regular Harley voice. After yet another instance of Joker kicking her out, Harley decides to really help by setting an elaborate trap for Batman in which, by Batman’s own admission, she actually almost got him. Sorkin’s performance throughout ‘Mad Love’ is her very best as she goes through a wide range of emotions, especially after Batman reveals to her the true nature of Joker’s manipulation by telling of Joker’s variations of the same sob story. Unfortunately for her, Harley ends up on the receiving end of a particularly brutal beat down by Joker, all for almost besting him at defeating Batman. It is completely tragic as Harley at first blames herself, saying “I didn’t get the joke’ and Sorkin sells the despair and hurt in her voice.
At the episode’s conclusion, you almost think she’s finally come to her senses as she reverts back to her Harleen voice and realizes how awful Joker is… right up until she sees a basic apology flower and note from Joker and reverts once again to loving him again. From start to finish, ‘Mad Love’ is a testament to Arleen Sorkin’s portrayal as Harley Quinn and is her very best work in the animated series, films and video games.
What are your favourite Arleen Sorkin performances as Harley? Let us know on our social channels at @flickeringmyth…
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.