Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! This month’s summary is kinda long because we have five main characters, but I’ll keep it as brief as possible.
After a bad breakup with Joker, Harley Quinn publicly announces their breakup by blowing up the Ace Chemicals plant. Gotham City Detective Renee Montoya—our second protagonist—investigates a series of mob killings carried out by a crossbow-wielding vigilante, finds Harley's necklace at the scene of the explosion, and asks Dinah Lance (our third main character), nightclub-singer-turned-new-driver to mob boss Sionis, to become a confidential informant. Sionis sends Dinah to retrieve a diamond important to the Bertinelli crime family, who were massacred years ago. Young pickpocket Cassandra Cain (the fourth main character) steals the diamond and swallows it after she is arrested. To get the diamond, Harley breaks into the police department with her cartoonish weapons and frees Cassandra, and the pair escape. They meet the "crossbow killer," who is Helena Bertinelli (the final main character). She has been targeting each of the gangsters responsible for her family's murders.
Harley calls Sionis and offers to turn Cassandra over in exchange for his protection, agreeing to meet at an abandoned amusement park. Dinah notifies Montoya of the rendezvous, but her betrayal is noticed. Sionis dons the ritualistic mask which gives him the nickname, Black Mask. Thus, we set up for the big climax at the amusement park. There, our main characters confront each other but eventually realize they will have to work together to fight their way out past Sionis. They each do their cool tricks, including Dinah revealing her metahuman ability of supersonic screaming, to defeat Sionis’s men. Eventually Cassandra defeats Sionis with a grenade and they all escape..
In a sort of epilogue, Montoya quits the GCPD and joins Dinah and Helena in establishing a team of vigilantes called the Birds of Prey. Harley and Cassandra escape to start their own contract killing business.
Carly: So I actually really liked it. I was surprised too because I’ve been a little burnt out on superhero movies, and I haven’t enjoyed the latest DC ones very much. But the humor in this one was spot on for me. It was definitely a classic superhero movie, but it fully embraced the comic book ridiculousness. I’m always a sucker for leaning into that comedy and I’m especially a sucker for a villain POV. All in all, I thought it was good, but not amazing. What about you?
Jeni: For me, this movie was pretty much exactly what I expected. There weren’t a lot of huge surprises. It’s an action movie. I do think that the plot was more intricate than a lot of action or comic book movies, just in terms of having the viewer invested in so many characters and story lines, and they did a nice job tying them all together. Two of these characters—Harley Quinn and Renee Montoya—were actually introduced in the 90s Batman: The Animated Series, which I loved. I was very pleased to see how they translated Montoya to this tough-as-nails detective for adults, and Rosie Perez really brings her character to life. She was definitely the female character I wanted more of in this movie. I want a whole movie that’s just about her, if I’m being honest. And I was also really glad that they included her sexuality and in such an organic way. There is already not great LGBT representation in comics, so not having one of those characters also be LGBT in the movie would’ve sucked. And honestly I love Jurnee Smollett so much. To me she’s one of those actors that just becomes her roles so much that I sometimes don’t even recognize her right away. The other aspect I really liked is that they didn’t shy away from all the bright colors and exaggerated imagery because that’s SO Harley and Joker. And of course, it’s very girl power and has a message of women supporting women, which I love. What did the movie do well that writers can use in their own work?
Carly: This movie exemplifies the quintessential antihero. Everyone loves a good antihero, but let’s take a minute to define what it actually is. An antihero is a main character, your story’s hero, that doesn’t fit the typical mold. Usually they are morally bankrupt or live in shades of gray. An antihero acts out of self interest and not out of idealism or for the greater good. Sometimes, an antihero will do something good, but it is always for the quote unquote wrong reasons. Why do we love antiheroes? Because most people act in their own self interests, and there is nothing wrong with that. Antiheroes show us our darker side and make us feel better that we can be selfish and still do the right thing. We can help others without being perfect ourselves. Literature and pop culture are riddled with antiheroes. The first one that springs to mind for me is Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. She is as vain as they come. We spend the whole book following her around as the world around her crumbles and she continually focuses on herself. But in the end, she learns, grows, and does some minimal good. Then there are all the noir antiheroes like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Hard-edged private eyes that are in it for the money. We’ve got Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby, who amasses a great fortune and throws elaborate parties all with the intent to win Daisy’s affection. He does awful things and makes his money through illegal means. He never claims to be a good man, but in the end he offers to sacrifice himself to save Daisy. We spend the whole book watching Jay live extravagantly and offer nothing to the world. But he is compelling because of this, he is fascinating because he is utterly consumed by his desires and doesn’t care about morals or what is “good.” Antiheroes allow readers to indulge that side of themselves that isn’t concerned with doing the right thing or being altruistic. They are real and relatable.
Jeni: I feel like I’ve always been drawn to antiheroes, even as a kid. Like, on cartoons I watched growing up, I always identified with the antihero characters more than the heroes. Like Wolverine, and Raphael was my favorite ninja turtle. Part of that, I think, was their sarcasm. You may not know this about me, Carly, but I have a very sarcastic side. Imagine. I think, in general, readers and viewers like antiheroes because they are inherently complex characters. Like, yes, Superman is a great guy. In fact, to your point about the other DC movies, I really don’t like that they’ve made Superman into an antihero now, but I won’t get into that. But characters like that can be very one note. Purely good characters can feel very predictable and too perfect and honestly, unrealistic. Overall, I think we, as readers or viewers, connect with characters’ flaws as much as or even more than we connect with their strengths. Of course we want to be able to root for our main character, but just as importantly, we want to be able to see something of ourselves in them--and no one is as perfect as Superman. I think there’s something to be said for seeing a deeply flawed character struggle with morality and ultimately make the decision to be good, rather than always knowing what the right thing is. When we see these kinds of characters doing that, it gives us hope that it can happen in real life too, for us and for other people. So I do really think the love of antiheroes is a kind of optimism and faith in humanity.
Carly: I totally agree. So this movie is all about antiheroes. I can’t think of a single pure hero in the whole bunch. Let’s start with our biggest main character, Harley Quinn. She is a villain that has wreaked havoc throughout Gotham. But her origin story, the fact that she was a psychologist that fell in love with the Joker and sacrificed her sanity for him, makes her more human. She isn’t a distant villain that hurts people for the fun of it. She did it for love, and now she is hurt and afraid. The entire city has turned against her and she must do bad things to stay alive. Even as she begins to try to be good, she decides she likes Cassandra and maybe won’t turn her in. At that pivotal moment she is betrayed by the one person in the city that she trusts. When that happens she immediately falls back on her selfish tendencies and decides to hand Cassandra over to Sionis. By the end we see Harley feels bad and rescues Cassandra, she even apologizes. We see growth and learning but also are able to relate to making bad decisions and hurting the ones we like. Then we’ve got Renee Montoya, the quintessential hard-boiled detective. She’s sick of the red tape and having her wins be co-opted by the men in the precinct, so she goes rogue. She becomes a vigilante that is focused on doing things her way and not worried about rules or safety. Next is Dinah Lance who is just trying to live her life. Her mother was a hero and was torn apart by the system, so Dinah doesn’t care about saving others, she just wants to survive. She is working for Sionis even though she abhors a lot of what he does. But she wants to make a living and have safety. It is only as she observes the depth of his depravity that she comes around to helping Cassandra. Helena Bertinelli is focused on vengeance. That is all she cares about. Her purpose is to avenge her family’s murder. Beyond that she couldn't care less. She helps out because her vendetta is over and what else is she going to do? Cassandra just wants to survive and be good at her job. She wants money and independence. She is not in it to help anyone but herself.
They all get cornered and only team up because it is their only chance to escape Sionis. They don’t really care about each other at that moment, they just want to live. They are only working together because it benefits them. All of these characters move the plot forward through their selfishness. They aren’t really trying to help anyone, they aren’t trying to save the world, their moral code is minimal at best, they just want to survive. And though they form relationships along the way, it is never because it is the right thing to do. It is because they like each other and it is fun. They accidentally do the right things, and nothing is more relatable than that.
Jeni: We’ve talked about a lot of examples of antiheroes, but I feel like most antiheroes fall into a few categories.
They do always share some characteristics though. They need to have sound motivations that make sense to them and are intricately related to their emotional wounds. An antihero can be pretty evil, but they can’t be as bad as the antagonist. Your reader always needs to be able to feel like they haven’t gone so far that they become unredeemable. I think Dinah and Zsasz are a great example of this. He will do whatever Sionis tells him because he doesn’t have his own moral code—or at least it doesn’t conflict with these orders—but Dinah can’t let them do these terrible things without letting Montoya know. Use other characters to highlight the vulnerabilities of the antiheroic character. Like, in this movie, we see that Harley develops this soft spot for Cassandra. And lastly, remember antiheroes aren’t role models. If their arc takes them that way, they really become heroes, which is fine. But I always think the best antiheroes don’t fundamentally change in the long run. They are always selfish or just broken and never really become “nice,” even though they use their powers for some good and not pure evil.I do want to point out here that antiheroes are not always unlikeable. Sometimes they can be very charming, even though they do terrible things. That is part of their complexity.
Okay, Carly, so it’s quiz time. Which character do you think is which kind of antihero? The choices are rebel, self-serving, and like a sociopath with a heart of gold haha
Carly: Both antiheroes and heroes move your story forward and bring about your resolution. But they go about it in entirely different ways and their motivations are fundamentally different. I think the big differences between heroes and antiheroes are their goals and motivations. What they want and why they end up doing good are entirely different. Antiheroes have goals that are self-serving and separate from the greater good. They may help people, but only for the glory or in order to help themselves. And their motivations are always related to hurt that hasn’t turned them into good people, but instead made them cynical. Heroes take hurt and turn it into something positive that pushes them to help others or do what is objectively right. Antiheroes take hurt and become cynical, losing faith in the world around them. Their moral code turns gray and they take steps to further their own agenda. Of course, good things can come out of that, but it is only within their code or with their heart of gold that that comes about. They do good despite themselves or in the most selfish way possible. Antiheroes are still heroes, but with a dark underlying current. They still may help people and resolve our conflict, but on their own terms and with their dark motivations and goals directing them.
Jeni: So a lot of antiheroes get redemption arcs over the course of a story or series, and then some of them kinda go the other way and stay or become villains. First, what is a redemption arc? Well, that’s when a character’s development arc takes them from being a villain to being more of a hero. Their redemption is in the eyes of the readers and the other characters. We can see that here in the sort of epilogue piece. Harley and Cassandra have essentially done their good deed this one time by getting rid of Sionis, but really only because it benefited them. It just happened to align with the side of what’s good for society. But Montoya, Dinah, and Helena all get this redemption arc of creating this crime fighting team. We get the idea that they will continue to work toward making Gotham a better place for its citizens rather than terrorizing them. In this case, we can see that what kind of antihero they are played a role in their redemption arcs. That’s not always what happens, but it speaks to the element I mentioned earlier that antiheroes can’t really completely be villains. In the long run, for your reader to continue to connect with them, they have to stay just on the right side of worthiness of redemption. In fact, there’s been a lot of discussion about this in the book world (and TV shows fandoms too) recently. The line for what makes a character unredeemable can vary reader to reader. I think a lot of this has to do with each reader bringing their own experiences and their own morals to their connection with the story. That interactive experience is what makes reading so amazing, right? So, like with other elements we’ve discussed on this podcast, when considering whether an antihero is worthy of redemption, think about the impact this has on your reader. Make sure you’re considering the impact on your readers and that you’ve given them enough to take that journey with you and the character. While you can’t make everyone happy, the last thing you want to do is leave your readers feeling unsatisfied. As always, know your tropes and do your research. Find out what stories in your genre readers feel like got it wrong or turned fans against them and understand why.
Carly: The biggest pitfalls with antiheroes is the point of them becoming irredeemable. It is always a fine line where your reader loves your antihero and then despises them. There are certain acts that make someone irredeemable. And that line can be different for every reader. It is a balancing act. Take antiheroes like Dexter that you mentioned earlier. He is a serial killer that is only redeemable because he tries to do good. His urges are dark, so he turns those urges on other dark people and only kills other serial killers. Take Harley Quinn in this story, she causes mayhem and chaos wherever she goes. She doesn’t care about anyone and is only concerned with herself. She veers into being nearly irredeemable because she doesn’t care about anyone. But she becomes redeemable by finding someone to care about and nurture. She takes to Cassandra and we see that she is just wounded, not incapable of love. You need to balance your antiheroes so that they have redeemable qualities. Take that hurt that they’ve twisted into something dark, and make that hurt relatable. Make it excusable. And let goodness begin to heal that hurt so that we can see that they could become better people. Basically, dance that line between villain and hero.
Jeni: This month our query is for an adult novel with comic book themes and an antihero! How perfect! What are your thoughts on the query?
Carly: Wow this query could not be more perfect for this movie. The author should definitely watch this movie if they haven’t already. I actually thought the query was pretty great. It had a hint of voice and humor, a clear MC, and clear conflict. The stakes could be a little more amped up. I could use a little more anger and need to avenge her parents’ murder. The humor is wonderful but a little more tension and angst when we discover the main conflict will highlight her motivations.
Jeni: It’s important to be specific with your genre and make sure you have comps that match. These comps are both good for theme, but the genre feels a little off because they’re thrillers instead of superhero stories. There are some popular superhero stories out there though. Consider replacing one of your comps with one of those as a sort of X meets Y thing. There’s a hint of humor in this query that makes me think maybe James Alan Gardner’s Dark/Spark series might be a good comp, or maybe look at V.E. Schwab’s Villains series.