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Harley Quinn explained - the DC villain’s complete history and powers

Harley Quinn is one of the best DC characters, and we won't back down from that statement, so here are her origins, powers, and so much more explained.

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey and Kaley Cuoco in the Harley Quinn animated series

Who is Harley Quinn? To say this psychiatrist turned Joker side piece turned anti-hero pop culture icon has evolved is an understatement. In fact, there might not be another from the DC universe that has evolved and gained popularity quite like she has.

One of the DCU‘s most entertaining faces with her messiness, lack of loyalties, and eventual new takes on her story, Harley got her start in the DCAU before appearing in everything from video games to new movies. And hey, she isn’t slowing down anytime soon either; in fact, she’s even being played by Lady Gaga in Joker 2. So, let’s investigate one of the best DC villains and most talked about figures in fiction. Here’s Harley Quinn’s complete backstory, from romances to origins and everything in between explained.

Harley Quinn explained

Harley Quinn is a DC anti-hero/villain (depending on source material) who previously was Joker’s love interest. She’s wild and violent, but with relatable qualities that allow her to be likable.

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In the broad strokes, Harley’s a naive, kinder (even though she’s a murderer like a billion times over), and lovesick counterpart to Joker’s psychopathy. Read between the lines, though, and you’ll find a much more entrancing figure; she has weak spots, craves affirmation, and has her own set of morals away.

While Harley is selfish and unstable, she is capable of love and reason. She’s not cruel for the sake of it but rather wears blue and pink blinders that allow her to wade through life like Jesus on water: an unbothered, unstoppable force.

This is partly why Batman has historically gone easy on her and why she finds herself allied with her polar opposites. She has a faux innocence and malleable personality that attaches to more cynical or walled characters (Poison Ivy, the Bat Family, Catwoman).

Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn and Jared Leto as the Joker in Suicide Squad

Harley Quinn’s backstory explained

Harleen Quinzel was a young psychiatrist working at Arkham when she fell in love with a manipulative and abusive inmate, the Joker. With her own villainous tendencies and an aptitude for chaos, she entered a life of crime as Harley Quinn.

Like almost all of the best DC characters, she’s been around long enough that there have been different tellings of her origins. But most stick to the core idea of the Arkham affair and subsequent Joker breakout.

Our favorite version of this is what is shown in Stjepan Šejić’s Harleen comic, which paints Harleen as intelligent but prime for manipulation. By the end of her treatment sessions with the green-haired madman, she’s swept up by the enigma of the Batman villain and made to feel special.

Trying and failing to make sense of the world around her through the lens of psychiatry, she has a spiritual rebirth and somewhat falls into the arms of an alternative persona. Ultimately, she helps him escape and follows him around as a lovesick puppy while he picks her up and puts her down with little affinity for her.

Lady Gaga as Harley Quinn in Joker 2

Harley Quinn in the DC movies explained

Harley has appeared on screen in movies multiple times, with the most famous version being Margot Robbie’s iteration in the Snyderverse continuity.

She’s also had several actors voice her in animated television and some of the best DC Animated movies. So, below is a list of all her on-screen cast members, from her origins to the latest actor to tackle her. If you’re planning on watching all the DC movies in order, she’ll show up fairly often.

A list of all Harley Quinn actors:

  • Arleen Sorkin — Batman: The Animated Series
  • Mia Sara — Birds of Prey
  • Hynden Walch — The Batman (2004)/Assault on Arkham 2014)
  • Tara Strong — 33 appearances
  • Grey Delisle — Lego Batman: The Videogame
  • Janyse Jaud — Batman: Black and White (2013)
  • Meghan Strange — Batman: The Brave and the Bold
  • Laura Bailey — Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes/Lego Batman: The Movie – DC Superheroes Unite (2013)
  • Margot Robbie — Suicide Squad (2016)/Harley Quinn and the Birds of Prey (2020)/The Suicide Squad (2021)
  • Kang Ji-Young — DC Super Heroes vs. Eagle Talon (2017)
  • Melissa Rauch — Batman and Harley Quinn (2017)
  • Laura Post — Batman: The Enemy Within
  • Jenny Slate — The Lego Batman Movie (2017)
  • Sirena Irwin — Batman vs. Two-Face (2017)
  • Margot Rubin — The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (2019)
  • Kaley Cuoco — Harley Quinn
  • Lady Gaga — Joker: Folie à Deux (2024)

Kaley Cuoco as Harley Quinn and Batman

Harley Quinn’s powers and abilities explained

While Harley Quinn doesn’t technically have any superpowers, she is a talented gymnast and has exceptional agility in combat. She also has immunity to most toxins, thanks to Poison Ivy.

Harley’s combat prowess is largely due to being dextrous; she can move quickly and is slippery to catch and hold. On top of that, Ivy helped her build exposure to toxins and poisons so they could “play” (Harley’s words, not ours).

Her ability to understand and empathize cannot be discounted either. Even though she should never be allowed to practice psychiatry again, she has a perspective on other’s motives and emotions, which has come in handy on multiple occasions.

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What was Harley Quinn’s first appearance?

For Harley’s first appearance, visit 1992 and engage with Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s work, her credited creators. Batman: The Animated Series episode ‘Joker’s Favor’ is the one you’re looking for.

Her part in it isn’t large, so we’d suggest following it up with ‘Harley and Ivy.’ This is a raucous yet insightful episode that lays the groundwork for decades of budding friendship and romance.

In it, a very green and mean Ivy meets Harley and reluctantly tries to convince her to leave the Joker as they embark on a fun crime spree. Shenangings occur, and eventually, all three of them are locked up in Arkham, with Ivy angry at Harley’s inability to escape the cycle she’s in. This would go on to be a regular dynamic.

This problem led to one of the most memorable comic moments involving the three of them: the final issue of Gotham City Sirens, where Harley uses Ivy’s feelings to press her buttons while betraying the Sirens to break Joker out of prison again! Ouchie. This issue had to be put down for a second before continuing after a deep breath.

Panels from Gotham City Sirens: Harley asks Ivy if she loves her

For more deep dives, see our list of the best Joker actors, our guide to Chapter 1: Gods and Monsters, and our picks for the best superhero movies of all time. More into wacky behind-the-scenes news? Okay. A Lady Gaga fan crashed the Joker 2 set to have her boob signed.

We’ve also got all the up-to-date information on the Aquaman 2 release date and the Superman: Legacy release date. But for something less comic booky, check out our team’s list of the best movies of all time.