‘Sympathy for the Devil’ – The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad (2021) is pretty much what you’d expect a Suicide Squad movie directed by James Gunn to be like. What I mean is, it’s fairly ruddy decent. A brass-necked, uncensored, somewhat sentimental and occasionally contemplative tale about a villainous batch of twisted misfits unwillingly taking on the role of superhero for the day. Following on from his dazzling success over at Disney with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.1 and 2 (2014/2017), it is little wonder Warner Bros decided to snap him up when he became temporarily unemployed. Guardians successfully took a group of morally dubious misfits and turned them into lovable stars of their own show. Fans often commented on how Gunn had technically already made a successful Suicide Squad flick all the way back in 2014, when the Guardians franchise found itself regularly and aptly compared to DC’s then-developing supervillain project. Therefore it was something of a no-brainer for execs to invite him aboard when opportunity arose.

Successfully achieving the task of framing its antagonistic protagonists as likeable and relatable is no easy task, one that could quite easily trip over itself if not executed well. An attempt to reinvent monsters as saviours could become redundant or toxic in the hands of a less talented filmmaker. Fortunately, this isn’t the case here. The Suicide Squad doesn’t tumble into the usual trappings of glamorising or justifying the actions of awful people . The film refuses to shy away from that fact that the characters driving its narrative have all done unspeakable things throughout their lives. They’ll even continue to do a select number of unspeakable things even as the movie progresses. The film doesn’t automatically sympathise with them from the word go. Neither does it directly attempt to absolve them of their crimes. Gunn’s approach isn’t to explicitly side with its lead characters. Instead he take’s his applying context and logic to the thieves, murderous and psychopaths occupying the screen. They don’t simply become good guys by doing good things, t hey become unethical protagonists who are products of a deeply unethical world. They are bad people at the lower end of a chain of bad people, captured in a vicious and uncaring cycle.

The reframing of antagonists as protagonists doesn’t take place straight away, but gradually unfolds as the narrative progresses. Similarly to the way in which Alien (1979) doesn’t reveal who the lead star is until the third act, the leads of The Suicide Squad don’t earn their main-character statuses until a fair portion of their co-stars have been killed off. When the movie first opens, we are introduced to a vast array of nefarious folk stretching across the spectrum of sin. Their crimes vary wildly; from a man who was exposed to an inter-dimensional virus by his mother as a child, to a kid-slaughtering beast shaped like a weasel. With little time, the film goes about wiping a majority of these characters from the face the earth; usually in a dizzyingly brutal manner. Gradually, the cast is whittled down to a select few. From the fog of viscera, a band of leads emerge. All of them are still criminals who were locked away in a bid to protect the societies they belonged to, yet when the time comes for them to take control of the plot, Gunn has spent much of the film applying as much context to their characters as possible.

Let’s take Robert Dubois’ Bloodsport (Idris Elba) as our first case in point. Gunn’s depiction retcons the characters’ white supremacist background from the source material and reinvents him as a British mercenary serving time for shooting Superman with a Kryptonite bullet. This version of Dubois’ prime reason for earning a supervillain badge leans entirely down to his attack on Clarke Kent. On the surface, attempting to kill the Man of Steel is certainly not a decent act to commit. Not only is the person you’re aiming to injure capable of bursting Dubois like a balloon, he’s also perceived as a beacon of hope and justice across the globe. Shooting superman is a surefire way to soil one’s CV. Then again, we have no idea what context in which this particular battle was set in. What motivated Dubois to take such a risky shot in the first place? I ask this because we’ve seen Superman do some pretty terrible things over the past couple of years. That shiny, boy wonder image from the Richard Dinner movies isn’t the most dominant image held of Clark Kent in today’s culture. He’s snapped someone’s neck, caused unspeakable amounts of collateral damage while tussling with General Zod in Metropolis, and has even attempt to kill the Justice League in both cuts of their own movie. Who knows what skullduggery was kicking off to motivate Dubois to fire a Krypto bullet at him. Furthermore, we’ve even seen the Dark Knight himself attempt to commit the very same crime of trying to murder supes with Kryptonite weaponry app the way back in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). If we’re to buy the idea that Bruce Wayne can get away with this kind of act, surely it’s no stretch of the imagination to consider Bloodsport to be not the worst supervillain out there. I think Gunn was aware of the current perception of Superman when writing this plot point into this movie, allowing him to set up a villain who’s actions can simultaneously be considered reprehensible and potentially justifiable simultaneously.

Next up there’s Harley Quinn, who’s a fairly awful person among other things, but for the most part, is depicted her as a surviver in some form of recovery after being groomed by that gangster/Joker hybrid we saw her knocking about with several years back. Although she’s not going to win any awards for most well-behaved student anytime soon, The Suicide Squad distances her enough from her past to make her more sympathetic than before. When she kills, and boy does she kill, she does so to people who are either torturing her, or are assisting in the torture being inflicted upon her. She even outright shoots a man dead after he expressed a willingness to inflict harm upon children, which she expresses deep distress at. As with Dubois, Quinn’s brutality is somewhat muffled by the types of people she’s choosing to harm.

Another who inevitably survives this movie is King Shark (Sylvester Stallone). If you were to watch this movie on mute without any subtitles, you’d be forgiven for thinking Shark King was one of the most grotesque characters in this feature. Much of the promotional footage that dropped leading to its release showed this character devouring fully conscious men and tearing them to shreds. All that viscera and agony surely couldn’t be caused by a cuddly bundle of joy. Except King Shark’s depiction here is vastly different to previous iterations of the character, so much so, there are times in which he comes across as somewhat adorable. He’s portrayed as an extremely dangerous toddler incapable of comprehending the pain and suffering his actions cause. There appears to be so little going on in King Shark’s brain, it’s almost impossible to hold him accountable for his actions. He’s a big, dumb, powerful beast who’s been locked away solely for being a big, dumb, powerful beast. His actions aren’t driven by any form motive or malice. He’s more or less an R-rated King Kong. He may cause devastation, but he wouldn’t have done so had the nasty humans not put him there in the first place!

The most prominent example of the film’s surviving line up is Cleo Cazo’s Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), who perhaps serves as the movies emotional core. Cazo is the daughter of the decased Ratcatcher (Taika Waititi). Cazo was raised homeless, and her father suffered from a heroin addiction which would inevitably take his life. After escaping to America, Cazo attempts to survive by pursuing a criminal career, for which she quickly results in her incarceration. Cazo’s experience of rejection and imprisonment by the society she was born into led her has led her to where she is today. She is very much a product of a society that has failed and misunderstood her before long before she was even born. In a rather lovely flashback during the film’s final act, a young Cazo asks her father why he chose to control rats in the first place. Her father responds by proclaiming “rats are the lowliest and most despised of all creatures, my love. But they have purpose. So do we all”.

Ratcatcher’s response to young Cazo’s question cuts deep into the core of The Suicide Squad’s underlying themes of rejection and exploitation. Chewed up and spat back out by a society now using them as disposable weapons, the survivors of this mission may have been cast into the rouges gallery of their universe, yet for the most part, they are beings damaged and imprisoned by an unforgiving society which doesn’t think twice about using them as expendable commodities. While the surviving line-up who make the cut from supervillain to protagonist aren’t the most delightful of individuals, there’s an element of sympathy to them, warming us enough to them in time for the final battle. It’s a trick Gunn utilised in Guardians too, albeit through a more a family-based model than a societal one. It’s a solid way of making a concept like this function without too much it feeling too mean-spirited or ham fisted.

In spite of all his work to get us to side with these characters, however, Gunn also likes to remind us that we’re still watching a film populated with villains. In order to maintain the premise of the movie, a balancing act must be committed. On the one hand, we need to like these characters on some level, yet we must also acknowledge that they aren’t your traditional goodies. The Suicide Squad achieves this usually in the form of humour, which is the best way of allowing Gunn to have his cake and eat it. Want to depict the people you’re trying to get everyone to root for as devious supervillains? Serve up said reminders in the form of a gruesome joke.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this comes early on in the movie, in which audiences are treated to a lengthy sequence where our “heroes” brutally slaughter a group of perceived enemies. The violence grows more creative and grotesque as the minutes progress. The punchline of the joke comes when we learn of the colossal misunderstanding that’s occurred. The bad guys Bloodshot and the gang were mutilating weren’t bad guys at all, but members of a gorilla faction also trying to overthrow the same regime that they are. It’s an uncomfortably hilarious scene in which audiences are both reminded of the sorts of people we’re hanging out with here, whilst also reminding them how messed up the whole concept of a The Suicide Squad movie really is.

All of this is great stuff, and confirms Gunn’s talent at making these sorts of movies. Yet the film is far from perfect, however, as there is something of an identity crisis at its core which does cause it some issues at times.

First things first, I have no intention to bad mouth Suicide Squad (2016) in this post. It’s far too common to describe the 2021 version as “better than the last” when asked to offer an opinion. I’ll admit, I have also been guilty of this on several occasions. I’m now starting to feel a little bad at the idea of constantly throwing shade at a film that’s been repeatedly dragged through the mud for over half a decade now. I therefore have no more desire to kick a feature that’s already been pummelled to a pulp at every opportune. Nevertheless, because of this features’ frankly bizarre and confuzzled relationship with its predecessor, we will need to examine the pair side-by-side to some extent. Which leads me onto my next point.

After the critical failure of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad back in 2016, topped off with the divisive fan discourse pulling the Snyderverse vision apart, Warner Bros panicked and made a colossal U-turn with regards to it’s proposed extended universe. This resulted in various DC projects branching away from the interconnect concept and becoming standalone features instead. 2019’s Joker is perhaps the most noteworthy example of this to date, functioning as a film that aggressively adapts part of the Batman source material to make a feature as isolated as its main lead is from society. Though controversial, the film was a collosal hit, and since then, DC opted to stop trying to mimic the Marvel formula, focusing on developing a series of solitary projects instead.

Except this vision hasn’t been the most clear cut of decisions. Follow up features such as Wonder Woman (2017), Aquaman (2018), Shazam (2018), Birds of Prey (2020), and Wonder Woman 84 (2020) have all kind of taken place in the Snyderverse. At least we’re led to believe this is the case, what with all the returning characters and references alluding to a shared space. Only their lack of direct references and sketchy continuity to preceding movies implies they are only connected to an extent. To make matters even more convoluted, 2021 saw the inasne and entertainingly ambitious Zack Snyder’s Justice League release on HBO max, which further tried to allude to a wider interconnect vision that will never come to pass. Obviously Zack Snyder’s Justice League was intended as an expensive side-project for fans. Still, it’s existence further tried.to act as a hub for a redundant timeline that’s still kind of ongoing, albeit via a series of projects that partly distance themselves from the timelines they claim to belong to. If Wonder Woman 84 (2021) takes place in its own self-contained universe, yet is also follow on from a film that referenced and followed on from Batman v Superman, then how do all these films fit together? Also, if Zack Snyders’ Justice League does take place in a totally different timeline, why does it feature more references and connections to the Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman 84 and Batman V Superman than the supposed “canon” Justice League (2017)?While all of these semi-connected/semi-not-connect plots may have some “logic” applied to them after the upcoming Flashpoint movie gets made, at the moment, we’re left unsure as to what is a sequel or spin off, and what isn’t. While Warner Bros. aren’t the only guilty party in this respect (Sony and Marvel currently have their own continuity gaffs going on with Venom [2019] and Morbius [2022], but that’s for another post), a sizable chunk of their DC projects can sometimes feel as though they are trying to both be apart of something bigger while simultaneously trying to be standalones.

The Suicide Squad is another such film that suffers from this problem. Bringing James Gunn aboard was a sound creative and financial decision on Warner Bros behalf. After the negativity following on from its predecessor’s release, the studio wanted to do some damage control in order to save the property from slipping into financial turmoil. Their plan was to chuck out Ayer’s vision – or at least the studio’s initial vision – and bring in a filmmaker with a successful track record at making these sorts of movies. Fast forward a few years, and you have James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad; a fresh vision with a new story and direction for the sub-franchise. Except despite being a reboot, it’s also a sort of a sequel too. It doesn’t directly reference any of the events from the first film, but it also brings in a bunch of cast members from the first movie. There are few hints suggesting Ayers’ Suicide Squad happened in this timeline – such as returning characters acknowledging one another as old companions – yet all the emotional scarring or character development from the previous is practically non-existent.

This kind of sequel/not sequel approach can at times distract from the bigger picture. It wants to be a reboot constructed by someone with a vision separate from the original, but at the same time it occasionally forgets this and shifts back to being a sequel.  This wouldn’t be a problem if the film positioned itself as a sequel headed in a new direction, but the fact that both the story and the filmmakers refuse to acknowledge this in either direction creates an ambiguity that gives the feature something of an identity crisis. It disregards its predecessor while looting its corpse at the same time.

Perhaps this sequel ambiguity is more of a pet peeve on my behalf than a genuine problem with the film itself. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that The Suicide Squad sometimes suffer from the same franchise insecurity a number of its neighbouring projects share.

In any case, the film as a whole holds out really well. James Gunn is evidently in his element with this one, and the creative freedom offered to him helps to provide a thrilling new vision for the Suicide Squad series to bask in. Funny, entertaining, heartfelt and a film that has genuinely has something to say. Here’s to hoping Warner Bros keep Gunn on their pay grade. If we can get more DC flicks out of this guy, then Marvel will have to seriously consider upping their game.  

Published by Amber Poppitt

I'm a writer from the UK with dreams of someday becoming a professional screenwriter. I also happen to be a huge film/TV/novel enthusiast with an undying obsession toward Doctor Who.

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