WASHINGTON • It was already clear nearly a year ago, from the floor of Baltimore Comic-Con, that this month's Suicide Squad would be a hit. There in Charm City, as cosplayers flocked to the Inner Harbor, a costumed Harley Quinn could not swing her supersize mallet over her head without hitting, well, another Harley Quinn.
Some of the young women were in traditional full-jester Harley garb. Others were in popsicle-coloured pigtails and a ripped tee, rocking the full Margot Robbie. They outnumbered the usual Black Widows and Bat-characters and Wonder Woman lookalikes and served as a telling bellwether.
Among fans, the page-to-screen Harley - as the Joker's favourite hot mess - had already reached a critical mass.
Which is why all the fresh rants about "Do movie critics matter?" miss the more telling question about Warner Bros/DC's Suicide Squad, which, in the wake of mostly poor reviews, still opened over the weekend to US$268.4 million (S$360.2 million) worldwide.
No, the more germane query is: How massively did Harley rescue the entire production?
Now, there is no guarantee that Suicide Squad will have box-office legs, let alone hit the magic US$1-billion mark - the film could see a precipitous second-weekend drop approaching an eye-popping 70 per cent, as WB/DC's first superhero-world film this year, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, did.
But if the film can even earn anything like Batman V Superman's US$872.7 million worldwide, it will safely lead to Harley's next projects.
Thanks greatly to the character's inclusion, nearly half of this past weekend's audience for Suicide Squad trends female - a high percentage for a superhero-world film.
I've asked some female relatives and friends who are fierce feminists (including a mental-health therapist - the same kind of work that the character does): What is it about on-screen Harley that is appealing?
They acknowledge that her ever-shorter costumes can be viewed as standard Hollywood-issue sexism and cheap appeal to the young male moviegoer demographic. Yet the same refrain keeps popping up: "We just like her."
Harley is written to be flawed and, onscreen, how she is written is flawed. But she is the new film's safety net. Some other elements of Suicide Squad might be a hot mess, but Robbie's Harley - not unlike Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti's scripting of Harley in the current DC comic books - never ceases to command centre stage.
She is playful amid her profound wounds. She seeks to reclaim power amid abuse. She is actually textured and complex beneath the cotton-candy exterior and You Don't Own Me tune.
On the page and on the screen, Harley never ceases to compel. Which makes fans all the more eager to see Robbie's discussed all-female DC supervillain picture.
Thanks, Harley, for saving the squad.
• Suicide Squad is showing at cinemas.