HBO Max’s ‘Harley Quinn’ cartoon is the sillier, gorier ‘Birds of Prey’ you didn’t know you needed

If you’re not sold on Harley Quinn the first time Bane walks into a scene, then maybe the show isn’t for you.

The HBO Max-hosted animated series is actually about the post-breakup escapades of Quinn, the Joker’s former lieutenant-slash-love interest rediscovering life as an uncoupled woman. But Bane’s portrayal is extra-special: The big, hulking brute speaks in a strained whine that is clearly meant as a knock on Tom Hardy’s ridiculous voice in The Dark Knight Rises.

In a show that already presents a comic take on Gotham City and its trademark rogue’s gallery, Bane stands out. He’s a hulking, vengeful brute who’s also the Legion of Doom’s perennial doormat. He may not be the brightest, but he’s increasingly shown to have great emotional depth. His greatest nemesis may be frozen yogurt shop’s cashier (who doesn’t work Wednesdays).

There’s a dichotomy in Bane’s portrayal – evil and villainous, but also quite lovable – that is emblematic of Harley Quinn as a whole. It’s one of the most violent, gory, and profane examples of animated television you’ll ever see, but it also leaves space to dive in deep on the compromises the come with any relationship, the nature of love, and the purging of toxic influences from one’s life.

In that way, it’s not so far removed from another recent Harley Quinn tale, the rare 2020 cinematic gem that is Birds of Prey. Both the movie and the TV show explore a gratuitous vision of Quinn’s life after Joker. But where the movie is realized as more of a gratuitous vent session on newly single life with punk rock aesthetics, the TV series aims for absurd comedy with a sincere heart.

It picks up at the beginning of the end, with the Joker (Alan Tudyk) finally going a step too far in his chronic mistreatment of Harley (Kaley Cuoco). Soon after, she connects with Poison Ivy (Lake Bell) and forms a shaky friendship defined by a shared sense of independence and contrasting temperaments. Ivy is cool, collected, and has her shit together. Harley… is the opposite of that.

The strain between the two women in those early episodes is as palpable as the foundation of commonly held beliefs that makes them work so well together. The reference to “early episodes” here is crucial, as the Harley/Ivy relationship – just like all the others on the show – isn’t at all static.

Harley Quinn has an ongoing story to tell. Characters come and go, live and die. Friends become enemies and enemies, friends. As you wind through the 26 episodes spread across two seasons, you’ll find yourself investing emotionally in the arcs of Batman-verse characters that you’ve never before imagined caring about.

We mock Kite Man because we love Kite Man.

Bane, who I love so much, isn’t even a central player here. Harley is the show’s emotional core, but her friends and associates are hardly one-note. Ivy is chief among them of course, but the “crew” Harley assembles early in Season 1 – which includes Doctor Psycho (Tony Hale), Clayface (Tudyk again), King Shark (Ron Funches), and, eventually, Sy Borgman (Jason Alexander) – are all realized with rich inner lives as the story unfolds.

Like some of the best superhero fiction out there – I’m thinking things like Birds of Prey and Umbrella Academy, but also Matt Fraction’s epic run of Hawkeye comicsHarley Quinn grounds itself in a familiar reality. This is a show where super-powered hijinx are often incidental to the human drama that’s unfolding.

We don’t love King Shark because he’s a gigantic, bipedal shark-man with dagger teeth and an unquenchable bloodthirst. We love him because, as the group’s social media and style guru, he’s filled with wit and insight. He’s as goofy as any other character in this version of Gotham, but his completely preposterous and impossible combo of human and shark is also the show’s recurring voice of reason.

Harley Quinn leans into the absurdity so hard that it all feels normal very quickly. Kite Man (Matt Oberg), who yes, really existed first in the comics, is introduced as the joke he’s always been. But the running gag of his basic existence is offset by our growing appreciation for who he is and what he represents in the context of the ongoing story.

Eventually, the realization strikes like a bolt of lightning: We mock Kite Man because we love Kite Man.

The tough thing for me as I preach the good word of Harley Quinn is getting into specifics. Some of the best pieces of the series – both in terms of what’s funny and what’s heartfelt – rely on heavily spoiling an ongoing story. I can’t mention how [Character X] pops up in Season 2 and what their arrival means because there’s so much groundwork laid down in the run-up to that reveal.

HBO Max's 'Harley Quinn' cartoon is the sillier, gorier 'Birds of Prey' you didn't know you needed

I can tell you that this absurd vision of Gotham City extends well beyond Batman’s long list of enemies. The Caped Crusader himself (Diedrich Bader) shows up, as does Robin (Jacob Tremblay), Commissioner Jim Gordon (Chris Meloni), and Superman (James Wolk).

The cast beyond that continues to be stacked. Over two seasons, you’ll also hear the voices of Wanda Sykes, Sanaa Lathan, Rachel Dratch, Alfred Molina, Jim Rash, Andy Daly, Briana Cuoco, Giancarlo Esposito, Wayne Knight, Will Sasso, and a ridiculous lineup of others. Playing “name that voice actor” quickly becomes a fun exercise as you watch.

I can’t speak highly enough about Harley Quinn. It’s easily one of the best reasons to have an HBO Max subscription right now, even with just two seasons under its belt. If you watched and loved Birds of Prey earlier in 2020 and ache for more, this show’s for you. If you just like to laugh hysterically, this show’s also for you.

And if you crave intersectional entertainment that embraces a modern view of life and love, but still isn’t afraid to give you slapstick comedy and juvenile wordplay to laugh at? Hey, you guessed it: Harley Quinn is definitely for you.

You can stream both seasons of Harley Quinn anytime on HBO Max.

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