Alright, so after all the wedding excitement this weekend (Congrats again to Jeff and Jen! It was such a beautiful day!!) Kalie and I finally got to the theatre to see Suicide Squad this afternoon. In fact, we just left the movies and have settled down in our favorite coffee shop to enjoy a snack and do some writing. While there’s a surprising amount that can be explored and deconstructed in the film, I’m not quite ready to do that yet having only seen it once. Rather, I’d like to discuss my thoughts on the film in the same light I explored Batman: Arkham Asylum and shared those articles from Kalie and Jeff last week. I want to talk about how the film presents the nature of evil in its cast of super villains. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t fret. The post will be free of any real plot spoilers.
Before I begin, a quick clarification. As regular readers of the blog will note, I’m not a DC guy (although, Andrew’s post has me exploring the Rebirth line and reading some DC for the first time in about twenty years). So I can’t discuss how closely the film ties to the comics nor how accurate the adaptations of the characters are as they’ve transitioned from page to screen. I have only read the free Harley Quinn and the Suicide Squad comic my local comic shop was handing out the other week and Rebirth: Suicide Squad #1. After those two issues, I can say I’m intrigued and I’ll certainly be checking out issue #2 to see if it could become a regular part of my pull list. And I can honestly say the film’s left me intrigued too.
I’m an avid avoider of spoilers so I’m not one for reading much about a film before I see it. I’m also one to form my own opinions as opposed to putting much stock in what critics say. But before getting to the movie I experienced essentially two waves of reactions to the film. First, I heard about the harshly negative reaction from critics. I felt it most likely resulted from a) the trailers/ads had people going in expecting Guardians of the Galaxy a different movie than it was and they judged it based on expectations versus reality, b) people were unfairly comparing Jared Leto’s Joker to Heath Ledger’s iconic take and judging the movie poorly because who could top that?, c) people just really enjoy hating on DC (which, to be fair, Man Of Steel and The Most Painful, Dull, Disappointing, Confusing Comic Movie I’ve Ever Seen Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice have given us cause to be trepidatious with the DCEU), or d) the movie really did just suck. Second, I read several pieces from WordPress blogs I really enjoy by authors’ whose views I’ve come to value and trust who said the movie really didn’t deserve the negativity it was getting. On that note, my brother David saw the film last Thursday, (not heading to Champagne, IL for the wedding until Friday with my parents) and was really impressed by it. David and I tend to have similar tastes regarding superhero movies so that increased my excitement too.
So when Kalie and I went into Suicide Squad this afternoon, I went in hopeful, excited, and with (what I hoped were) reasonable expectations. Would you like to know what happened? I liked it! Was it as good as Marvel’s movies? How can I answer that? My opinion will always be biased as I’m a Marvel guy through and through…and I want to try and let DC be its own thing. But this was the first entry in DC’s newly connected movie universe (or the DC Extended Universe (or the DCEU)) that has me looking forward to a second screening and eager for a sequel. As Chantale of Cupcakes and Horror mentioned in her review, Suicide Squad isn’t Oscar worthy – but it’s not supposed to be! It’s a big, loud, wild, comic book fun wrapped in a summer blockbuster experience. And as far as I’m concerned, I agree with David and those other blogs that spoke favorably of it – Suicide Squad delivers.
The very idea of Suicide Squad represents a fascinating trend in our popular culture. We – for some reason I can’t figure out even though I think about it allllll the time – as a culture love to root for the bad guy. Look at the Godfather series. Yes they are brilliant films, deserving of their Oscar credits…but it’s about the mafia! The Sopranos and Breaking Bad are two more examples. These are TV series that became HUGE hits and, regardless of the acting, storytelling, emotional depth, etc. focus on the mob and drug dealing respectively. How about our cultural fascination with the Dark Side in Star Wars? In the lead up to The Force Awakens Kylo Ren was EVERYWHERE. And, on any given day at any given display of Star Wars merchandise, it’s far easier to find a Darth Vader t-shirt (not to mention a variety of them, and exciting ones at that) than it is to find a Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, or Han Solo one. Also, as Chuck Klosterman points out in his essay “Hitler is in this Book” (from his brilliant book on our cultural fascination with evil I Wear The Black Hat), we’ve even turned the Devil into a being to have sympathy for, who we can beat in a fiddle contest, and can be portrayed by Al Pacino in a great film. When the Devil, the “placeholder of cognitive darkness” (to use another of Klosterman’s phrases) in our culture for centuries, has become so approachable, it’s safe to say we as a culture are fascinated by the darkness.
The trend is evident in comic books too. Villains are so often turned into antiheroes and then often outright heroes because readers want to follow their exploits so badly. On the Marvel side, easy examples are Venom and then Deadpool. Remember when the Merc with a Mouth, our current pop cultural darling, was just a cold blooded assassin in the early nineties? It is from our cultural fascination with the darkness that the Suicide Squad – the idea of a bunch of super villains taken from prison and forced to fight for us with the dangling promise of lessened prison terms – is born.
In David Ayer’s film, the Suicide Squad is comprised of Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Boomerang, Killer Croc, and Diablo under the guidance/command/control/watchful eyes of the unflappable Amanda Waller, Col. Rick Flag, and Katana. The idea behind Waller’s creation of the Suicide Squad (or Task Force X as she calls it) was to have a group of completely expendable super powered individuals ready to do the jobs the U.S. government couldn’t or wouldn’t do in a world of increasing metahuman activity. With supernatural activity tearing Midway City apart and the Joker haunting the background obsessively driven to get his “love” Harley Quinn back, the Squad is unleashed to do their thing. In regard to the depiction of evil specifically, the film does a few very important things.
The film is very clear in how it presents this group of super villains. There’s no mistaking they are bad people. We see flashbacks of their evil deeds. We see what they do to the guards in their prison cells. And we see the Batman intervening to capture several of them in the opening of the film, while Amanda Waller describes who she’d like on her task force. I didn’t get the sense that they were meant to be antiheroes…at least not in the traditional sense. No, these are all bad people who have done bad things and, for the most part, are unapologetic for their actions. Nor are their evil deeds dismissed (as I discussed in my post on Arkham Asylum) as the result of their being mentally ill. Harley Quinn’s called “crazy” a few times but it isn’t depicted as a defining trait of her character nor do I get the sense the mentally ill are being as poorly presented (or really, presented at all) in this film as they traditionally are in Batman stories.
On the Harley Quinn note, I find her character’s potential symbolism fascinating. Again, I’ve only read two comics with her in them (and only vaguely remember those days watching Batman: The Animated Series as a kid where she made her first appearances) but I am familiar with the Joker. I’ve written before, and I maintain, I think the character of the Joker is perhaps best described as an incarnation of evil. He’s not mentally ill, not “crazy”…rather he is evil. In that vein, Harley Quinn represents the seductive power of evil. Before becoming the Joker’s lady love, Harley Quinn was his therapist at Arkham Asylum, Dr. Harleen Quinzel. She falls for the Joker, aids in his escape, and becomes part of his criminal entourage. So perhaps, more than a picture of a therapist who’s simply gone insane, there’s more to Harley Quinn’s symbolic importance. Maybe she shows us how appealing evil can be. And how easily it is to let our guard down and be absorbed in evil. We think it’s healthy and equal, we may even think it can be love…but really it’s a destructive and emotionally abusive relationship.
Anyway, when Harley goes bad, she goes bad. And the film honors the super villain status of Harley and all the members of the Suicide Squad. BUT what the film does, and I think this is incredibly important, is present these criminals in a way that hints at the potential for redemption. Now, don’t get me wrong. First, I promised no spoilers and I’m standing by that. Second (and related), there’s nothing like a nice, neat homily in the film or a moment where all these “former baddies” rise up and become the heroes they always could be. No, they are villains and are treated and mostly act as such. But these are not one-note characters either. There is a complexity to them (well, at least Harley, Deadshot, Killer Croc, and Diablo…if not Boomerang as much) and the question of transformation and redemption is raised and explored through some of the films more nuanced moments.
The reason I find this so important is because we live in a dark world. It usually only takes a brief look at the news to see the darkness all around us – racism, sexism, police brutality, intolerance, hatred, violence, and a new terror attack occurring so often we have to become numb to it to a degree because to fully feel the pain every time terrorism takes more lives would rob us of the ability to ever function in the world. It’s easy to become bleak, cynical, and pessimistic. But what we need is hope, optimism, and the belief in our potential for transformation. Again, there’s no clear cut and dry moment of villains turning into heroes here (nor do I think it could work so well if it was). Rather it’s a theme that is hinted at and, in so doing, it hints at our own potential for transformation. I think, symbolically, that’s the real power of the Suicide Squad. You take some of the worst foes the Batman faces and you use them to raise the question of potential redemption and transformation. That’s important. And I thought the film handled that well, albeit filtered through a big, crazy, comic book movie sort of way.
Also, the film seemed to suggest (something that I will want to explore in future viewings and perhaps address more fully in another post somewhere down the road) that government corruption, our retributive prison system, and the military industrial complex are far more twisted and evil than your run-of-the-mill super villain. I really enjoyed that commentary and the contrast of all these competing shades of grey. There were no real “good guys” in the film. Everyone had an agenda. Everyone had a hidden hope or purpose. And I think that is also important to consider when you’re looking at the nature of evil in our world.
So there you have it, my thoughts on Suicide Squad. You’ll note I haven’t discussed the Joker (specifically Jared Leto’s version of the Clown Prince of Crime) in any sort of specific detail. That’s because I am still processing and trying to figure out exactly what I want to say about him. I enjoyed his performance. I think he presented the character in a new and unique way. And I look forward to peeling back the layers of his Joker as I consider it later. Actually, that’s a good way to frame what I think of Suicide Squad in general. It was the big, wild, explosive fun I’d hoped it would be. But, hidden beneath the explosions and lengthy bouts of super fisticuffs, there was more depth to be pondered than I expected. I appreciate that…and there’s another reason to look forward to a second screening!