Hey you! Yes, you—are you growing less and less excited about every new Marvel release? Do the many different iterations of Batman within the last 10 years have your head spinning? Well, you might just have superhero fatigue.
Don’t worry, it’s a pretty common diagnosis right now. The good news is that there is a cure: the Harley Quinn animated series on HBO Max.
Yes, it is a show set in the DC Universe, starring a lot of the same superheroes and villains (and everything in between). And yes, it might seem like something that would only add to your existing fatigue. But, in reality, Harley Quinn is the ultimate palate cleanser. Now in its third season, which premiered Thursday with its first three episodes (the rest will release on a weekly basis), the show can only be summed up in one word: as Harley herself would put it, fan-fucking-tastic.
Harley Quinn is neither your typical superhero show nor your average cartoon. It’s absolutely for mature audiences, not only because of its over-the-top violence, but also for Harley and her crew’s affinity for foul language. This is a show where heads explode and Harley’s bat literally snaps bones in half, and even Poison Ivy drops a casual F-bomb. What this amounts to is a fever dream starring the most iconic DC comic characters at their absolute most unhinged, and I mean this in the best way possible.
Since it premiered in 2019 (on the DC-centric, now-dead streaming platform DC Universe), Harley Quinn has been consistently on top of its game. It’s fast-paced and hysterically funny, but it’s most defining trait is how downright cynical it is about the entire superhero genre. If you think something like Prime Video’s The Boys is TV’s most provocative critique of superhero stories, just wait until you watch Harley Quinn—you’ll never see your favorite characters in the same light again.
Case in point: The show tosses the played-out Joker/Harley Quinn romance right from the start. From the first few minutes of Season 1, Harley Quinn made it clear that the Joker is trash and Harley deserves better. By the end of that season, Harley (a never-better Kaley Cuoco) finally made a 100-percent clean break from her toxic relationship with the Joker (Alan Tudyk) and created her own team of villains—consisting of BFF Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), King Shark (Ron Funches), Clayface (also Tudyk), and Dr. Psycho (Tony Hale).
Her goal was to be let into the villainous society called the Legion of Doom. (Smash that glass ceiling, Harls!) However, by the end of Season 2, her dream now seems futile, as Gotham has been thrown into complete chaos and the Legion has been rebranded as the Injustice League and all the villains are given control of a certain part of the city. Obviously, that doesn’t work out that well for anyone. That we still sympathize with the undoubtedly evil Harley Quinn during this, and in her efforts to be the biggest villain of all villains, is just one of the show’s many charms—this isn’t your typical comic book adaptation, that’s for sure.
It’s been two years since Season 2 ended, way back in 2020. In that time, there have been 13 new Marvel movies and shows and 4 new DC-centric films. Yes, all that in just 2 years—and many of them have been lackluster at best.
The glut of superhero stories in the interim makes Harley Quinn‘s return feel even more refreshing. Harley gives a recap at the beginning for those who forgot what happened in Season 2, but the main things to know are that the Joker is back to being the Joker, but on the straight and narrow (or at least his deranged version of that); Dr. Psycho turned against the team when Harley decided against seeking total world domination; and King Shark and Clayface still remain the BFFs we all want to have.
Most importantly, after tons of build-up, Harley and Ivy are finally together (yay!) and on their version of a couple’s holiday—the “eat, bang, kill” tour, naturally. They even stole Wonder Woman’s invisible jet to globe-trot in.
The wait for a good Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy on-screen romance has been long and often disheartening, with lots of promises and little follow-through. But Season 3 doesn’t disappoint. This season, the show masterfully juggles the unhinged romance between two villains with some downright heartfelt moments. Yes, there are plenty of make-out scenes that will make fans go wild, but there is also a beautiful emphasis on how this relationship is helping each of them grow.
Tackling issues like the importance of communication and how to balance an independent person and a codependent person in a relationship is not something you’d expect from such a violent, foul-mouthed cartoon. But that’s what makes Harley Quinn so unique: The show doesn’t shy away from serious topics. And better yet, it’s not afraid to bring an LGBTQ relationship into a genre notoriously hesitant to showcase one.
But even with all the romance, Season 3 doesn’t skimp on the rest of the good stuff. The show makes sure to keep the jabs at the DC cinematic universe coming. One Joker-centric episode opens with his very own theme song that incorporates the now famous “we live in a society” phrase. Then you have the actual James Gunn (director of 2021’s The Suicide Squad, starring Margot Robbie’s Harley) cameoing as himself, as he directs a biopic of Bruce Wayne’s (aka Batman) father Thomas Wayne.
Batman has always been a figure in Harley Quinn, as Gotham’s greatest defender. And the show has never shied away from focusing on him not as a hero, but a man with deep psychological issues. Season 3 really goes the extra mile to show just how broken Batman is by literally going inside of his mind. Yes, all the dark corners of Batman’s psyche finally get analyzed, and it is glorious.
Harley Quinn has always looked at villains and heroes through a very cynical lens, daring to show the gray areas that superhero stories often ignore: Good guys can be terrible people, just like bad guys can be pretty great. Take Bane, the deep-voiced, masked-up bad guy viewers may remember from The Dark Knight Rises.In Harley Quinn, he’s not a ruthless killer; Bane is a needy and deeply insecure person, who just wants to be loved. Not to say that Harley Quinn’s take on Bane doesn’t have a taste for blood, of course: I’m still laughing about how he wanted to blow up a barista for misspelling his name “Bang.”
Up until this season we have seen Harley struggle with who she is, but, exposing characters’ insecurities is a big part of Season 3, especially when it comes to Harley. While we’ve watched her struggle with who she really is throughout the show so far—is she really a bad guy deep down?—this season, we see the line between villain and hero get murkier and murkier.
The way that Harley Quinn distinguishes this version of the iconic character from all the other versions of her is always impressive. It’s incredibly difficult to do something new in this genre, especially when fans are so familiar and attached to existing backstories and histories. Yet Harley Quinn has done just that, and Season 3 only continues to define this Harley as the best one out there. A lot of this is thanks to Kaley Cuoco, who nails Harley’s chaotic energy and heartbreaking sincerity. She remains an absolute powerhouse in the role, making Harley totally lovable, even when she’s accidentally releasing a homicidal maniac on innocent people or abandoning friends for her own selfish gain.
The previous seasons of Harley Quinn were an absolute blast, but there is something about this season that truly takes the cake. It may be the pitch-perfect cynicism, with Harley always saying what we’re all thinking about the current state of the genre—and, heck, the world. Or it just may be how Season 3 beautifully develops our beloved characters, from Harley to Ivy to the slapstick-y Kite Man. It’s a Herculean task to juggle so many characters and give them meaningful story arcs, and Harley Quinn does this with expertise.
The last thing this Earth needs is someone telling someone to go watch an excellent superhero show. But that’s not exactly what I’m doing: I’m telling you to go watch a show that may teach you a thing or two about life and relationships—with an occasional knee-slapper about the DCU.
Now what are you waiting for? As Harley would say, go fucking watch the new episodes!