Like its predecessors in the DC Comics Extended Universe Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, Suicide Squad (2016) is a bit of a mess cinematically. In all three of these films there are great moments and stunning individual shots, but there are real flaws in the story. In Suicide Squad in particular there seems to be scenes missing at various points where we are not being told essential plot information. Characters are engaged in missions whose activities we are never told. (What is the Enchantress’s actual evil plan for world domination again?) And there are too many characters. Katana, Slipknot, and Captain Boomerang could have been cut without affecting the story at all! I’m not even sure they needed Incubus (Enchantress’s brother) or Killer Croc.
But – also like its predecessors – Suicide Squad has more on its mind that just simple entertainment. Maybe that’s why the DC movies are not nearly as entertaining as the Marvel movies like The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy. The DC films are aiming for something more grown-up, more philosophical, than typical comic book movies. Many viewers feel these films miss their target and end up with ponderous instead of profound, but I’ll never begrudge a film for asking me to think.
If Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman were explorations of the nature of justice – fitting for films leading up to a Justice League team-up – Suicide Squad tackles the question of flawed heroes. Postmodern audiences have trouble believing in heroes as perfectly good as Superman or Wonder Woman. Most of us today find Batman more compelling, with his shades of gray and moral complexity.
Writer-director David Ayer is not a typical Hollywood liberal. He is an ex-serviceman who respects the military and the police (best seen in his film End of Watch), though he is not afraid to portray their failures and corruption honestly (as in Training Day). Moreover he is openly Christian and strives to portray religion as a normal part of life for some of his characters (most notably in Fury). So Ayer believes both in the sinfulness of humanity and in the possibility of redemption. His characters are flawed, but Ayer is not interested in reveling in depravity for its own sake. Instead he wants to explore the conditions in which flawed people – whether LAPD cops, WWII tank soldiers, or super-powered criminals – become genuine heroes. And for Ayer the key is friendship and the way comrades-at-arms band together during hardship.
The protagonists in Suicide Squad are hitmen, jewel thieves, gangsters, and psychopaths, but the the Government is the real “bad guy” of the film. Shadowy government official Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis) has super-powered people captured and sent to a Guantanamo Bay-style “black site” prison where they are tortured and otherwise mistreated. She targets what she calls “the worst of the worst” and then finds their weaknesses (often their families) in order to coerce them into working for her on dangerous secret missions. Criminals are the perfect soldiers for such “suicide” missions, since they are both expendable and disavowable if they are caught.
Waller admits that she doesn’t believe in friendship, “only leverage.” “Getting people to go against their self-interest in service of national security is what I do” she boasts. For Waller everyone is expendable in service of some vague greater good. At one point she shoots all of her own people, because they “were not cleared” for the classified information they accidentally learned. Witnessing this, hitman Deadshot (Will Smith) wonders “And I’m the bad guy?” In the final analysis the supervillains of the film – Enchantress and her brother Incubus – only exist because of a series of mistakes committed by Waller. She, of course, never takes responsibility. “They’re going to blame us for the whole thing,” the squad realizes.
With all due respect to The Joker’s girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the most interesting character in Suicide Squad is El Diablo, a former gangster from Ayer’s beloved South Central Los Angeles with the power to create fire. El Diablo enables Ayer to introduce explicit religious themes. “I was born with the Devil’s power,” El Diablo laments. His superpowers grew stronger the more he used them to acquire power on the streets in the gangs. Everyone was afraid of him, except his wife. “She used to pray for me,” he says. But it didn’t work, because El Diablo himself needed to repent first. “God didn’t give me these powers, so why would He take them away?” El Diablo’s own violent lifestyle enslaved him to his powers, and only his own repentance could free him.
SPOILER WARNING – If you don’t want to know about the plot of Suicide Squad, stop reading now.
When his wife tried to take the kids and leave him, El Diablo lost his temper and burned the whole house down with them inside. When the police showed up, he surrendered and vowed never to use his powers again. When he sees a video of him using his flame powers, he says, “That guy ain’t me. That guy’s dead.” He is now a pacifist. As the Squad begins to find themselves in battle, El Diablo stands to the side and refuses to fight. “I’m a man. I ain’t no weapon. And I’m going to die in peace before I raise my fists again.” Deadshot tries to goad him into action, saying “If you don’t stand for [anything], then you ain’t [nothing]”. El Diablo has turned into the worst kind of pacifist: one who doesn’t believe anything is worth fighting for.
At the climax of the film the Enchantress offers to give the Squad their heart’s desire if they “worship” her. “Why do you serve those who cage you?” she asks. “I know what you want.” They are each tempted by visions of being reunited with their families. They just want to live normal lives. But El Diablo sees through her false redemption. “I can’t change what I did,” he says, “and neither can you.” His family is dead and cannot be brought back. Deadshot and Harley Quinn, however, still have loved ones they might be reunited with. They are being tempted, like Diablo, to do nothing and not fight back, to go along with the worship of evil, in order to regain their families or to atone for losing them.
Throughout the film Deadshot’s moral transformation is always motivated by his daughter, in whose eyes he desperately wants to be a hero. “This is going to be like a chapter in the Bible,” says Deadshot. “Everyone is going to know what we did”. Yet the film argues that pacifism is only a half-way redemption. It is not enough simply to refrain from violence; one must actively pursue good. The characters all start out self-centered monsters and move toward family-centered penitents. El Diablo attempts to atone for killing his family, and Deadshot and Harley Quinn are willing to do whatever it takes to get back to their loved ones – even work with the “good guys”. Now they are being tempted to ignore evil’s threat to humanity, as long as their families are safe.
Their concern for their families alone can’t make them truly good. Loving someone other than yourself is a good first step, but they won’t truly become heroes until they widen their circle of concern, first to include their friends and then the whole world. Such heroism is a hard vocation in a world run by the likes of Amanda Waller and those whose pursue only “security” without concern for truth or justice (or the American way, for that matter). Harley is sorely tempted to worship the Enchantress, but Deadshot rebukes her. “She’s trying to take over the world”, he says. “So?” replies Harley. “What’s the world ever done for us? The world hates us.” She makes to kneel before Enchantress, but changes her mind. “There’s just one problem,” she says; “You messed with my friends!”
Suicide Squad charts a trajectory of love from self, to family, to friends, to humanity. But friendship is the key step. Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends. In the end it is friendship that functions to teach these thieves honor and transform villains into heroes.