Yes, the film is bad. Not unwatchably bad. But it’s bad. And other people are taking great delight in describing how excruciatingly awful various parts of it are, particularly Jared Leto as the Joker.
The other way to critique Suicide Squad is to move beyond how unfathomably ‘meh’ it is, and discuss instead what we can learn from the film. And I did this by rewatching The Dirty Dozen and rereading the introduction of Harley Quinn into the comics.
The Dirty Dozen is rightly a classic. The film begins in WWII with a Major expressing concerns about the use of the death penalty, but ends with the same Major pouring gasoline on to trapped Germans. His fall is not presented as degenerate, but as the act of a hero. Alongside him are the former death row inmates whom he has trained into a highly effective suicide squad, the eponymous ‘Dirty Dozen’. The Dozen are a motley crew of rapists, murders, and violent criminals, with varying degrees of justification. One of them is a lunatic misogynist who thinks God has been telling him to murder women; another killed two men who, fuelled by racism, tried to castrate him. The other ten plot somewhere along this line of virtue. By the end of the film, they’re killing the enemy, earning distinction through the same violence that had them facing the noose.
But the film is not flawless: having a squad of twelve people in a film necessarily means that we don’t care about three quarters of them. Too many faces, not enough character arcs. And we also don’t really care about their skills and aptitudes. The members of the Dirty Dozen are not really differentiated by their capacity (although it helps that one speaks German): they are just there to hold weapons and shoot as many of the enemy as possible.
And it’s a film with an extremely good structure. The first act is over rapidly: this is Major, here is the mission, and here is the Dirty Dozen. The film dedicates most of its time to showing the training, building them as a unit, and understanding where the fractures are in the team. The third act is also comparatively rapid: the invasion of the German chateau and the execution of everybody who was dining there. But it’s this act that causes the sort of anxiety that we are more accustomed to seeing in second acts: when you line up a group of racist, murderers, and criminals and a group of Nazis, do we care how savage either side is to the other?
It helps that the film is carried by amazing performances. Lee Marvin, Telly Savalas, John Cassavetes, and even the very young Donald Sutherland use every moment they’ve got on screen to squeeze everything they can out of their characters without reducing themselves to parody or mere quirkiness.
There’s nothing nearly that complex in Batman: Harley Quinn. In 1999, DC decided to bring the character over from the ‘DC animated universe’ into the mainstream continuity. The new psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum is already fascinated by ‘extreme’ personalities, hoping to produce research on the ‘serial killer mystique’. It’s this fascination that results in something of a one-sided infatuation: Harley keeps using her position to let the Joker escape from Arkham, and then Harley appears unannounced to interrupt a deal between the Joker and the Penguin that’s going sour. The dynamic between the two characters is asymmetrical: the Joker is opportunistically benefiting from having a side kick who has replaced her own desires with his. It’s when this relationship starts to become more symmetrical — with the Joker beginning to fall for Harley Quinn — that the Joker decides to kill her by launching her into space in a rocket.
It’s a dynamic which allows the writers to make the most of Harley Quinn’s character. There’s a violence to the relationship that’s based on Harley’s desires. It’s not that there was a loving relationship that turned sour, but that Harley has vacated her own sense of identity around an imagined relationship with a monster. When the relationship doesn’t work on her terms, she becomes violent towards the Joker (even concocting a plot to have the Batman beat him up). It’s this dynamic that makes the whole thing uncomfortable, and difficult to demarcate the lines that distinguish intent, desire, and consent. Added into the mix is the male-dominated nature of the comics industry and the extent to which Harley is sexualised.
There are no points for discussing the hypersexualised nature of comic book presentations of women. It’s bad. Everybody knows it’s bad. Anybody who disagrees is either confused or a monster. And so that’s how we got to the new look:
In the 1990s, audiences wanted violence. Now, we want eroticism. Even better if our erotica is violent and our violence is erotic. Thus, the harlequin with an obsessive crush goes from being a representation of the violence that underpins desire to being presented as an overt object of desire herself. Why are her legs chalk white? It makes no sense.
Suicide Squad does not have a simple structure. It really struggles to get going and we’re introduced several times to the key characters. We are also not quite sure what the dynamic of the prison is. It’s the lack of clarity about the characters and point that causes the film to flounder. These are villains presented the same way we present heroes. The Dirty Dozen, on the other hand, makes them a complex mix of mostly awful monsters. The DC prison system seems to be staffed by people worse than the inmates. This is especially true in the case of Harley Quinn, stripped of the characteristics (and clothes) with which we associate the character, she just seems like a psychiatric patient being abused by the prison industry. It is difficult to understand why Harley is in this prison. It is never explained why Killer Croc is either — the dialogue suggests that he’s in prison simply because he was found living in a sewer.
So the inmates of this prison are suffering abuse and we empathise with them. We are later informed that they have done some bad things, but the nature of those bad things doesn’t seem nearly as severe as the nature of their punishments. The film really, really wants them to be heroes, not expendable villains.
In Dirty Dozen, we had a unity of purpose. We needed a team of people that we were happy to sacrifice in the hope that they would take out a strategically important target. In Suicide Squad, we have the opposite. The team isn’t put together for the purpose of striking a particular target; it is put together in anticipation of some possible future threat.
This lack of target means that villains proliferate haphazardly. It seems like the real villain of the movie is Amanda Waller, the official who proposes putting the team together. But her story arc does not follow that of a villain. Quite the opposite, all of her villainy is tacitly approved and endorsed by recognised heroes. The next contender for villain is a character, Enchantress, who was supposed to be part of the Suicide Squad (maybe?) but went rogue. But why would we send in the Suicide Squad to deal with this threat when we know that the movie world is lousy with superheroes who can deal with it on their own? Enchantress creates another villain, Incubus, to act as her colleague. And then there’s the Joker.
I’m not one to complain ‘Boohoo, the movie wasn’t faithful to the source material!’ but there’s something really sad about the dynamic between the Joker and Harley that’s difficult to understand. Harley is no longer the obsessed fan-girl who loves Joker despite the lack of reciprocity, she’s instead a victim of brutal domination. He subordinates her while she’s his doctor. He tortures her with electroshock therapy when he escapes. He mutilates her by pushing her into a vat of chemicals.
So now we take the step back. What does Suicide Squad tell us about our society and how its audience is different from that of The Dirty Dozen and Batman: Harley Quinn?
The first is that we are now really comfortable — almost too comfortable — with prisoners being subjected to any kind of degrading treatment. In Dirty Dozen, the Major expresses alarm at the way prisoners are treated, and then has to weigh up if training them for a suicide-mission is better than simply being executed. In Suicide Squad, the conditions of their treatment are never questioned. And the treatment is brutal.
The second is that audiences aren’t really bothered if they don’t see the development of heroes. Dirty Dozen goes to — perhaps excessive — lengths to bring the characters together as a unit. In Suicide Squad, we have the exact opposite: people join the squad and become part of the team whimsically. One character is let out of a bag and immediately joins the crew. Another character pops up, lets everybody know that her husband’s soul is trapped in her sword, and is then part of the team.
And the third is that we now have a model for what we consider villainy, and violence towards women does not register as villainy. The Joker’s abuse of Harley Quinn is not portrayed as a reason for the Joker to be punished. It’s his murders that puts him on the wanted list. Instead, his torture of Harley Quinn is just rationalised as part of his character. Contrast this with the earlier Joker, whose interaction with Harley was disinterested. The difference between the two is why the audience seems comfortable with the idea of Harley being punished for being Joker’s victim. She deserves punishment for participating in her own torture, it seems.
The final message seems to be that audiences no longer find amoral justice to be a problematic concept. Will Smith executes a man who will testify at trial in one scene, then we’re cheering him on as he’s leading a team of villains to defeat a cosmic threat. The same character would happily shoot Batman to death, were it not for the fact that his daughter is there, proving that he’s got a heart of gold or some shit. The idea of them being agents of the justice system doesn’t seem to raise any issues for the audience. When pop culture has been presenting heroes as dark, brooding anti-heroes since the ’80s, it seems natural that we’d get to the point where we don’t actually question who is dishing the pain, provided that they’re doing it for ‘good’ reasons.
Suicide Squad is a mess of a film, but it’s a blockbuster made by a company that has done all the market research to understand what audiences want. Why do we, as the audience at large, want a film like Suicide Squad?