Behind Spotify’s Growing DC Comics Audioverse

As James Gunn and Peter Safran reshape the DC universe at Warner Bros. Discovery, film and TV aren’t the only mediums where iconic characters like Batman, Harley Quinn and the Joker are taking on new lives.

Thanks to an expansive, multiyear first-look deal with Spotify, DC has attracted new and returning fans to its rich IP — without being beholden to the intricacies of a mapped-out multiverse, the same actors portraying its characters or the costs of a typical high-wattage and effects-heavy superhero production.

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The partnership kicked off in earnest last year, when Spotify and DC released an original story about Batman for an audio series penned by The Dark Knight scribe David S. Goyer. Starring Winston Duke as Bruce Wayne, Batman Unburied took on a decidedly darker tone as a psychological thriller that followed Bruce tracking down a serial killer and confronting his own demons along the way. The series was a massive success, at one point unseating The Joe Rogan Experience on Spotify’s top podcast charts and landing on the audio giant’s year-end Wrapped list for most-anticipated podcast in the US

This year, Spotify has returned with its latest installment from DC Homecoming writer Eli Horowitz. Starring Christina Ricci as Harley Quinn, Billy Magnussen as The Joker and (surprise!) Justin Hartley as his own version of Batman in a world separate from that of Batman Unburied. The audio show, Harley Quinn and The Joker: Sound Mind, serves as a prequel of sorts as it tracks the beginning of Dr. Harleen Quinzel’s journey from star psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum to the villain known as Harley Quinn. But unlike other depictions of Harley’s origin story, where the Joker is the one responsible for her transformation, Spotify and Horowitz’s Harley Quinn shifts the balance of power back to Harley. In this version, Harleen is driven by her desire to help her ailing father and influenced by her growing disillusionment with the inner workings of Gotham City and the power leveraged by the rich Wayne family.

The series also comes as Spotify is reevaluating its overall podcast strategy as the market matures. For its original programming, which the DC podcasts fall into, the audio giant is eyeing large reach while also having a “unique” story that cuts through the noise.

“It certainly doesn’t mean that they need to be IP-driven or celebrity driven,” Julie McNamara, who oversees Spotify’s original programming and exclusive partnerships, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But we really do have to be intentional about what kinds of things can break through the clutter. This is clearly a maturing market in audio, and we need to be smart about it.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a podcast with recognizable characters in Harley Quinn and the Joker and in talent like Ricci and Magnussen. Shortly after its Jan. 31 releases, Harley Quinn and The Joker beat out mainstay Joe Rogan for the top spot on Spotify’s podcast charts, and the series ends with enough runway that a second season would be a natural next step.

Eli Horowitz and Justin Hartley

Eli Horowitz and Justin Hartley, recording Spotify’s Harley Quinn and The Joker: Sound Mind

For Harley Quinn and The Joker, Spotify again collaborated with Warner Bros.’ Blue Ribbon Content for production on the series. Peter Girardi, who leads Blue Ribbon Content and Warner Bros. Animation, tells THR that Horowitz brought the initial concept for the audio series to the studio.

“I’ve worked on projects where Harley kind of earns her way into it and as she gets stronger and more confident, and as she has built her relationship with [Poison Ivy] or whoever it is, she kind of becomes the Harley that we know and love,” Girardi says. “Eli … knew that she was going to know what she wanted and be the manipulator and have the agency from the beginning, which I thought was great. It was a story that I hadn’t seen or heard before.”

When it came to casting the series’ lead, the team quickly closed in on Christina Ricci. “When I saw Misty on Yellow Jackets, I was like, ‘Holy shit, that’s Harley,’” Girardi remembers, referring to Ricci’s role on the Showtime hit series. “That kind of unhinged but calculating, unhinged but nefarious [role] — that’s real Harley energy there.”

Although Ricci says she was initially a bit “intimidated” to take on Harley Quinn, she appreciated the more feminist approach to the character and thought her outside perspective as someone who isn’t a megafan of the comics could help further humanize the role. “Harley is a real woman in this and an intelligent woman, an educated woman, and I really liked that,” Ricci says.

Recording for the series took place over the course of a few weeks in a studio in Burbank, where Ricci was at times joined by Magnussen and Hartley, as well as supporting cast members like Amy Sedaris, Fred Melamed, Elias Koteas and Stephen Root.

For his part, Magnussen says he took inspiration from Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger for his own interpretation. To achieve the iconic Joker laugh, Magnussen remembers sitting at home or being in the car trying out different versions of the villain’s maniacal cackle. “I probably looked like a maniac,” he says.

Hartley, whose role is primarily spent as Bruce Wayne rather than Batman, says the faster production timeline helped him flex a “different muscle” as an actor. And because there was no concern about wasting the film on rehearsals, he and his costars felt like they could really play around with their characters. “You don’t have the luxury of anything physical or facial expressions or anything like that. You’re playing with your voice, so a lot of things that you would normally do in maybe a physical manner, you have to make up for that in other ways,” Hartley says. “Just because you can’t see the actor doesn’t mean the actor’s not acting like a complete buffoon and they’re gesticulating and doing all kinds of weird stuff to get their mind in the right place.”

Spotify, which will host its Stream On event on Wednesday, has not yet announced its next project with DC. But all three stars of Harley Quinn and The Joker tell THR they’re interested in getting back in the recording booth for more. And for DC, bringing in new fans is always a win.

“The thing that always reinvigorates me and still surprises me is the many different interpretations these characters can handle,” Girardi says. “If we can bring people to these characters in a way that maybe they hadn’t experienced before, that’s great.”

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