Much of Injustice 2's charm stems from how it gives players the ability to make their favorite DC comic book characters beat the crap out of each other. Fighting aside, though, the game also features some pretty solid character development for one of DC’s most iconic antiheroes, Harley Quinn.
In Injustice 2, Harley finds herself working along with Batman, Black Canary, and Green Arrow to take on a cabal of classic villains who, in the wake of Dictator Superman’s defeat in Injustice: Gods Among Us, are trying to take over the world. I mean this literally—Harley is working with the Bat-family in the Batcave, complete with a Bat-logo on the backside of her jacket.
Through an insanely convoluted series of events that began in the original Injustice from 2013, and continued through its (excellent) comic tie-in, Harley comes to realize that the Joker never truly cared for her despite her devotion to him and his memory. It’s a realization that multiple incarnations of Harley have come to in the years since she was first introduced as the Joker’s number one girl, including, at this point, DC’s actual comics continuity. Her rejection of the Joker has become a central part of her personal canon.
While comics Harley and animated Harley have been busy carving out new, independent identities for themselves, DC’s cinematic take on her has relied heavily on her classic dysfunctional relationship with the Joker. To be fair, it’s impossible to tell Harley’s origin story—which was a major part of Suicide Squad was—without the Joker. They fall in love, he tosses her into a vat of chemicals, and the rest is maniacal history.
But in many ways, Suicide Squad went a step further and glamorized the more toxic, literally abusive elements of Harley and the Joker’s dynamic that her comics counterparts have slowly been distanced from over the past decade. The Joker tortures her, offers her to other men like she’s property, and at one point damn near drowns her. Throughout the entire movie, the Joker’s an absolute asshole to Harley, and yet in the film’s final showdown with Enchantress, Harley’s still trying to find a way to get him back. It’s a callback to her original relationship with the Joker, when she first debuted in Batman: The Animated Series, but it’s one that many fans—and a significant portion of DC Entertainment—has moved on from.
It’s possible part of Harley’s character growth in the upcoming Gotham City Sirens movie will involve her coming to the realization that the Joker’s a piece of shit, but so far, the movies’ DC Expanded Universe seems pretty comfortable with its treatment of Harley as someone oblivious to the fact that she’s being treated terribly. Suicide Squad ends with her gleefully joining the Joker after he breaks her out of prison, while lots of official Harley merchandise emphasizes her love for him.
Injustice 2 doesn’t shy away from the history that Harley and the Joker have, but rather than relying on old (and problematic) canon to make this Harley feel familiar, the game gives her back her agency to evaluate her life in a realistic way.
One cutscene in particular features Harley going toe to toe with the Scarecrow, who uses his fear toxin to summon the thing that Harley fears the most. After being engulfed in a cloud of the toxin, Harley hears the Joker’s familiar laughter and is horrified when he steps out of the shadows. (In the Injustice universe, the Joker’s been dead for quite a while now.)
The Joker proceeds to comment on Harley’s newfound heroism and fondness for the Batcave before he suggests that Harley’s been doubting herself. This new Harley, Joker suggests, isn’t the Harley he knew—that’s the real Harley that she’s merely trying to run away from. Even though this Joker is just a manifestation of Harley’s fears and anxieties, the scene speaks to Harley’s struggle to disentangle herself from the person who spent years psychologically and physically abusing her.
For a brief moment, Harley starts to buy into the Joker’s words and contemplates slitting a bound Batman’s throat. When she chooses not to, Joker calls her a disappointment and Harley has a realization: she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to.
“Ain’t no slick fella with a cheap suit and cheaper grin telling me who I am ever again,” she says, advancing on the Joker. “We had mad love, once upon a time. But now that’s over, Mistah J.”
From there, you play as Harley and proceed to very satisfyingly kick the Joker’s ass in traditional Injustice fashion, and the game’s larger plot carries on.
Though the scene’s rather insignificant in Injustice’s grander scheme, it’s the kind of treatment of Harley that perfectly marries her dated origin story with the more progressive depictions of the character that have turned her into a feminist icon.
Harley’s still very much the same crazy, semi-murderous jokester that we all know and love, but here she’s afforded a level of confidence and self-awareness Suicide Squad so sorely lacked. This is who Harley Quinn is now—hopefully DC’s movies will figure this out.