The first game in Rocksteady’s Arkham series, Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009) uses the same voice cast as Batman: The Animated Series (including Arleen Sorkin as Harley Quinn) and was written by Paul Dini, but this Harley is different to those that have come before her. Where the Animated Harley was content to wear a onesie, this one wears a leather corset. Where the Classic Harley was happy to wear a jester’s cap, this one has pig-tailed blonde hair and wears a choker. Where the Traditional Harley exuded a cheeky noir-derived sexuality, this one has ample cleavage and a bare mid-riff. Yet, this is still Harley Quinn: a red and dark-blue jester with a penchant for crime and a love of The Joker, only she’s now grubbier and dressed like a ’90s Britney Spears at a Bachelorette party.
Given her credentials as a former white-coat psychiatrist with a bona fide Ph.D. — which we see a little of in Batman: Arkham Origins (2013) when she is first seduced by a captive/captivating Joker while he is actually talking about his “special connection” with Batman — the more extravagant costumes still reflect the playful cosplay nature we’ve seen before in Harley, only they are more self-consciously sexual, presumably for the voyeuristic enjoyment of the contemporary player-base. The look has elsewhere been described as “porn star.” Even Arkham Harley is aware of this amplified-to-eleven attitude adjustment, first appearing in Asylum with a nurse’s uniform over the top of her figure-hugging particulars: “How do you like my new uniform? Pretty hot, huh?”
Even with the introduction and subsequent foregrounding of more adult themes in Asylum, like a rollercoaster at a fairground, Harley is still following the same patterns we’ve seen countless times. She may now run the asylum, but she’s still beholden to one of its patients. Asylum Harley sets off bombs, creates Saw-like traps with hostages (which to be fair, are now more malicious than they seem to have ever been with Classic Harley), and she still performs acrobatic acts to elude capture – all while taunting the impotencies of The Bat. Harley also reprises her role as the fan-fare narrator of the unfolding events, appearing in several safe spaces (behind bullet-proof glass, behind a force field, on a TV screen), but further two items are absolutely inescapable: first, when she seriously displeases The Joker, Harley is still left out in the cold, off the “party list”; secondly, when Batman catches up with her, she is always incapacitated within mere moments with barely a struggle.
In the sequel Batman: Arkham City (2011), this pattern of expositional hench-lady seems destined to continue with Batman consoling a worried Alfred that “Quinn never was too smart”, before she gets one-punch knocked down again. It’s not that Arkham Batman doesn’t want you to fight Harley, you understand, it’s that Batman is too much of a gentleman to make his fights with women protracted, so they’re over too quickly to be worth taking control of. City Harley loves her announcements and she loves siccing her goons on Batman from a point of elevated safety. She also carries this trait on in Batman: Arkham City Lockdown (2011), being eventually defeated, and one would imagine greatly embarrassed, by a slow-moving, remote-controlled, wonky batarang. City Harley is also enamored with her slightly more muted, new outfit (this time with the tips of her bunches dyed black and red): “It would be a shame to get blood all over my nice new outfit. What do you think bat-brain? Like it? What am I saying, ‘course you do. Who wouldn’t?” You can put your hand down at the back; this part of the game is rhetorical.
Harley also takes part in another fake death of The Joker (as we also saw in Vengeance with Classic Harley), and continues her fantastic habit of pushing the narrative along with her own verbal incontinence, telling Batman that “I’m not going to tell you about the crap Joker took from Freeze and locked up in the boiler room”: a strange trait transposed from the expositional comic format, which is also shared with her appearance within Scribblenauts Unmasked: A DC Comics Adventure (2013) where Harley tells Robin The Joker’s nefarious plan, following it up with “I really shouldn’t have told you that!”
By this point in the series, Arkham Harley is spunkier and punkier than Classic Harley, but not necessarily more complex, hitting an ultimate low-point in objectifying the Damsel-of-Distress by having her story end early, tied to a girder, taped around the waist and ankles, sacrificed to the Gods of bondage and teenage fancies with the immortal button prompt: “Gag/Ungag Harley.”
But everything changes when The Joker dies at the end of Arkham City…
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