Harley Quinn vs. Holtzmann? The Ghostbuster emerges with smarts, grace



Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) in the movie “Ghostbusters” by Columbia Pictures. (Hopper Stone/Sony Pictures/TNS)

By Michael Phillips

Chicago Tribune


If the summer 2016 movie season entered an Olympics sprint against previous summer movie seasons, it’d be struggling for bronze. And we’d cut to a commercial before the end of the race, going by the NBC playbook.

This nervous, tired summer movie season has been dominated by mild-to-moderate disappointments practically daring us to care the way we used to about Jason Bourne, or Kirk and Spock or, in this week’s preordained box office flop “Ben-Hur,” Judah and Messala. Here we go again. Hope you enjoy the same ride, again. Here’s another new adventure featuring characters and a title our research indicated you’d like to revisit.

It hasn’t been all bad: “Hell or High Water,” “Pete’s Dragon,” “Don’t Think Twice” and a handful of other fine American movies have reminded us how it’s done. And up against faltering competition, the baseline craftsmanship in the best of “Jason Bourne” and the newest “Star Trek” (aka “Beyond”) put these fast-fading franchise titles near the top of a puny heap this summer.

Margot Robbie in "Suicide Squad." (Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Entertainment/TNS)
Margot Robbie in “Suicide Squad.” (Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Entertainment/TNS)

Let’s leave the guys to the side for once. The key figures of the summer 2016 movie season tell a more intriguing if deeply conflicted story. I speak of Harley Quinn as played by Margot Robbie in “Suicide Squad,” and Jillian Holtzmann as brought to life, and how, by Kate McKinnon in “Ghostbusters.” These two share a single common trait, but it’s an important one. They both saved their movie’s butts.

I had issues with the Joker’s sex toy Harley Quinn long before the 10-year-old in our house came back from a birthday party sleepover with her hair in Harley Quinn ponytails. The girls saw “Suicide Squad” the night before and then played laser tag, and then a couple of them wanted to try out a modified version of the Harley Quinn look. That look, as rendered by Robbie in the film, may be the only retainable memory for audiences of any age, after seeing writer-director David Ayer’s DC Comics melee.

Whoever they are, kids embark on a perpetual treasure hunt for new personalities, new looks, new figures of fantasy to emulate. A few days later and just as eagerly, the 10-year-old in our house reveled in the superheroic achievements of Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles and Simone Manuel and Madeline Dirado, who all won gold at the Rio Olympics.

A couple of weeks before she saw “Suicide Squad” with her preteen squadron, she came home from her other PG-13-rated biggie this summer, “Ghostbusters.” She was crazy for one character in particular. Of course. You know. The one who actually emerged as a fully formed character: Holtzmann. Her mad fighting skills. Her goggles. Her big brain and quick wits and out-there live-wire charisma.

No “Daddy’s Lil’ Monster” T-shirt on this woman.

The royally sociopathic Harley Quinn served two functions in “Suicide Squad”: to crack skulls with a baseball bat like a boss, and to act crazy but hot or hot but crazy, setting up various male supervillain comrades for wisecracks about the crazy/hot tootsie in their midst. Robbie seized the role. As a performance, it worked. As a larger ensemble effort budgeted at $175 million not counting the marketing, “Suicide Squad” did not.

“She’s an abuse victim,” says Chicago-based writer Angelica Jade Bastien, who writes for Vulture, The New York Times, The Atlantic and other outlets including rogerebert.com. Her piece in The Atlantic on Jared Leto’s perversion of the so-called Method acting preparation, which he tried as he rehearsed and shot scenes of the Joker, garnered a great deal of deserved attention. Bastien’s coming at the movie “Suicide Squad” as a lifelong comics fan and DC universe aficionado.

“I never liked that character,” she says of Harley Quinn, the Arkham Asylum psychiatrist who becomes the Joker’s combination of gangster’s moll and mallet-wielding henchwoman. “The reason why a lot of young women respond to Harley Quinn is pure style. She catches your eye, and she’s ‘fun to watch’ no matter what version (of the DC stories) you’re watching. And I’ve heard this from a lot of people: One of the reasons they respond to her is she’s allowed to be weirder and messier than superheroines like Wonder Woman, who depending on the writers can seem a little too perfect to the point she doesn’t feel like a human being.”

Although “Suicide Squad” had haters galore (the line forms behind me), the movie had its messy, sloppy impact on the popular culture anyway. This was largely due to Robbie’s ravenous performance, and that skeezo-porno-schoolgirl outfit. We’ll be seeing “acceptable” variations on that outfit a couple of months from now, on every sidewalk. “All those young girls trick-or-treating in Chicago” dressed as Harley Quinn, “they’re gonna be cold!” Bastien says, laughing. “They’re gonna be wearing nothing!”

And maybe we’ll see a few Holtzmanns. Director Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” rode a river of prerelease bile from those who found the idea of a femalecentric reboot objectionable if not actionable. It couldn’t win, even if it were a better action comedy. And the usual heterosexual male gaze was nowhere to be found. The reboot’s freshest element, McKinnon’s begoggled, obsessive, flirtatious brainiac warrior, ran her own show. Feig eventually acknowledged that, yes, obviously but hopefully not all that obviously, Holtzmann was gay. But the character’s sexuality wasn’t the point of her narrative existence. It was just there, leave it or take it.

Frustratingly, “Ghostbusters” got lost in its own blockbuster imperatives. When you reach or exceed the $150 million production budget range, you’re likely to lose your headliners in a blur of expensive, time-sucking CGI, which is exactly what happened. The movie’s likely to hand Sony a loss in the $50 million to $80 million range. Holtzmann deserves her own sequel, but now? Good luck.

And good luck to us all, if “Suicide Squad” ends up being a heavily qualified maybe-sort-of financial success, depending on the overseas box office, paving the way for related DC Comics movies that truly can’t be much worse. The aggravations of “Suicide Squad,” both as written (pure chaos, no structure) and directed (pure chaos, no clarity), fight Margot Robbie and Will Smith and the other performers in every single scene. The movie is its own supervillain of mediocrity. After the Chicago press screening, writer Bastien recalls, “I literally held my head in my hands . this straight-up racist, sexist, poorly edited, nonsensical, ugly movie. And it was a bummer because, for once, the casting was incredibly diverse.”

Kids, like adults, like what they like. Harley Quinn represents an unusually combustible antiheroine, both victim and victimizer, a joker and the Joker’s brainwashed concubine who’s in love with a serial killer. Women and girls, and men and boys, can admire and enjoy parts of her persona, and try to ignore the degraded parts.

On walmart.com as well as many other sites, you can stock up on several different Harley Quinn action figures, some skewing very young. “Justice has a bad side,” touts one production description, “and these Super-Villains are on it. DC Comics fans will love these high-end, 12” deluxe figures from the new Suicide Squad movie . featuring 12 powerful points of articulation.”

The crazy-but-hot Harley Quinn toy’s ideal consumer? According to Wal-Mart: 5- to 7-year-old boys.

Whatever the medium, the messaging starts early.


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