HBO Max’s Harley Quinn series is popular enough to not only survive the streaming service’s recent bloodbath, but manage to score a fourth season. If you watched the recent episode where the reformed family man Joker runs for Gotham’s mayor, you likely know why. But as good as Harley Quinn has been, I was shocked to discover the series could tell Batman’s origin story in a genuinely fresh way.
There have been plenty of comics that acknowledged Bruce’s career as Batman as an extended way of dealing with the trauma of witnessing his parents get murdered by a mugger during a poorly thought-out walk through Crime Alley. And there have been equally as many positing that Bruce feels responsible for their deaths, whether he wanted to watch The Mark of Zorro that night, or asked Thomas and Martha to take a walk. And so many movies and shows have depicted Batman’s basic origin story so many times that it’s become a joke — a joke Harley Quinn is in on, starting with the episode’s fabulous title, “Batman Begins Forever.”
Getting into the big plot isn’t necessary; just know that Harley Quinn goes rooting through Bruce Wayne’s subconscious and discovers there’s literally only one memory in his head starting when Bruce asked to take a walk and ending with 10-year-old Bruce kneeling in shock by his parents’ corpses. The killer, Joe Chill, seems to be a random but monstrous masked mugger who relentlessly follows the Waynes into the alley and guns them down, over and over and over again. In fact, Batman has constructed a town square, flanked on all sides by the Monarch Theatre (where they saw the film) and Crime Alley, so he can relive the most traumatic moment of his life every few seconds, torturing himself constantly.
It’s a scene that moves Harley not just as a person but as a former psychiatrist. When she can’t watch it again, she grabs a Bruce just so he can look away from the tragedy for once, at which point the various Joe Chills turn their gun on the 10-year-old and Harley, a sign that by mitigating the tragedy even for a second, Bruce feels the need to punish himself even further.
When Harley asks Bruce to try to think of a happy memory which they can escape to, all he can muster is the time he fell into the caves below Wayne Manor and was attacked by bats. It’s not a happy memory at all, because the closest Batman can come to being happy is in a moment that was formative to his endless war on crime and futile attempts to atone for his self-perceived sins.
Inside the cave are windows to some of the memories he’s repressed, none happy, but all leading up to his career as Batman — which Harley discovers in shock but realises is incredibly obvious in retrospect. When Joe Chill tracks them down there, the pair escape into a memory of Batman rescuing Robin tied up to a rocket by Joker and the original, Batman: The Animated Series version of Harley Quinn (Joker is designed after Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight, which is a wonderful contrast). When Chill guns down both villains, Harley turns to Batman only to discover he’s transformed into 10-year-old Bruce again, dressed in a now oversized Bat-costume. It’s a powerful image, and one I don’t recall ever having seen before.
There have been many, many Bat-tales that posit that Batman is his true identity and Bruce Wayne is the facade. But Harley Quinn knows that’s bullshit. For all its ridiculousness, the cartoon has always been great at depicting these well-known characters coming to terms with and trying to deal with their own problems, be they mental, relationships, pasts, traumas, etc., but I feel the moment where Harley asks little Bruce, “Do I have your verbal consent to become your licensed therapist?” is an all-timer. Imagine Batman… with a therapist. A Batman who is trying to heal and get better instead of continually punching criminals. Think of what could have happened if 10-year-old Bruce had seen a therapist after his parents’ murders, and what a happier, healthier person he could have been. Now that’s a Batman origin story I know I’ve never seen before.
Harley’s “first session” involves telling Bruce to search his mind for a truly happy memory, not a Bat-adjacent one, and to use mindfulness to transport himself there. They do, foiling Joe Chill again, arriving in Bruce’s last Christmas before Thomas and Martha’s death but Chill tracks them down anyway… because, of course, it’s Bruce himself under that mask. Adult Bruce. And he’s been murdering his parents in his head over and over again because that’s how he’s trying to deal with his trauma: “Everything I do as Batman is to make that one night right. Yet it is never enough. So why I must never forget. It is my penance. My bat-shaped cross to bear.” Being Batman is torture for him, but torturing himself doesn’t fix anything and doesn’t make him feel better, of course. It’s why he’s stuck, and why adult Bruce demands child Bruce be returned to Crime Alley.
I was genuinely moved when Harley reaffirms to adult Bruce that as his therapist, she’s promised to try to help him heal. And I was moved even more when Harley turns to child Bruce who asks, plaintively, heartbreakingly, “Help me” just before he’s escorted back to the moment he cannot escape from on his own. It’s not grim and dark. It’s not Batman’s origin story. It’s a horrific moment in the life of Bruce Wayne that has messed him up badly and it’s very, very sad — which, despite the zillions of retellings of Batman’s origin story, it’s never truly has been before.
The thing is, this was still an extremely funny episode of Harley Quinn, which is the show’s magic. So if you’re going to ever watch poor Thomas and Martha Wayne meet their fate ever again — and goodness knows you’re going to get the chance — make it this one instead.
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