As we near the end of the decade, we're all getting down to the business of looking back at the last ten years and making some evaluations: what was good, what was bad, and what changed? But if anyone is making a list of people or characters who began the decade as an afterthought and are ending it at the forefront of the cultural zietgiest, the DC Comics villain Harley Quinn belongs on that list. What's impressive is that she belongs there after appearing in only one (very terrible) movie so far. Maybe that's the Harley Quinn way: rising out of the ashes of something terrible to emerge as a force for chaos, one way or another.
This week, the DC Universe platform debuts Harley Quinn, an irreverent new animated series that takes a brash, bloody, darkly comedic look at the destructress who used to be Joker's girl Friday. Voiced by Kaley Cuoco, the former Dr. Harleen Quinzel pals around with Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), tries to bounce back from her breakup with Joker (Alan Tudyk), and attempts to pull off enough nefarious villainy to get into the vaunted Legion of Doom.
All in all, Harley Quinn seems like a fun ride. And it's just the tip of the iceberg for this character, who — as played by Margot Robbie — was far and away the highlight of the abysmal Suicide Squad film. So much so that she got her own spinoff movie in the bargain, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), which will premiere in theaters this February. In the film, Robbie's Harley teams up with Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett Bell), and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) to take on an even badder guy, played by Ewan McGregor.
In short, it's basically Harley Quinn's world at the moment. What's wild is that, in this realm of Batman and Joker and Wonder Woman and characters who have been around for decades, Harley Quinn has only existed since 1992. She was an original creation for Batman the Animated Series. And yet in such a relatively short time, she's become an icon, with a sense of nostalgia all her own.
In the under 30 years that Harley Quinn has been around, she's been portrayed by quite a few performers and voices. Some with an indelible stamp, others with a more transient impact. The five most notable, in chronological order:
Arleen Sorkin in Batman the Animated Series (1992): The original and for many people the unrivaled voice of Harley Quinn. A veteran voice performer and soap-opera actress (the characterization of Joker's moll as a harlequin actually came from a fantasy sequence Sorkin starred in on Days of Our Lives), Sorkin brought a broad comedic appeal — including an over-the-top Brooklyn accent that still gets mentioned whenever anyone references classic Harley Quinn. (Anyone referring to Joker as "mistah Jay" owes Sorkin some royalties.)
Mia Sara in Birds of Prey (2002): The success of Smallville in 2001 led The WB to develop another superhero series, this time based on the all-female Birds of Prey title. The trio of heroic women — Oracle, Huntress, and Black Canary — eventually found their main antagonist in Dr. Harleen Quinzel, who was secretly planning revenge for the Joker's ouster from Gotham. Sara, best known in pop culture as having played the title character's girlfriend in Ferris Beuller's Day Off, played Harley as a much slinkier, seductive, less overtly unhinged character, able to pass as a mild-mannered doctor long enough to get the jump on the Birds.
Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad (2016): Robbie had made the leap to superstar actress by the time she appeared in Suicide Squad, but in a strange way, Harley Quinn allowed her to stretch her muscles at playing an outlandish, larger-than-life persona, a year before she hit theaters in her Oscar-nominated role as Tonya Harding.
Jenny Slate in The LEGO Batman Movie (2017): While Harley Quinn is not a major character in The Lego Batman Movie, she is part of the horde of Batman villains attempting to take him down. And though she only gets a scant few lines of dialogue, Slate's signature voice rang out from the din and made its mark.
Kaley Cuoco in Harley Quinn (2019): The decidedly comedic bent of this show required a comedic actress, making the casting of Cuoco, who spent all those seasons bopping between geek apartments on The Big Bang Theory seem just about perfect. Her voice work is brassy and broad, which fits right in with all the Harley Quinns we know.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.