By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
Just watched The Suicide Squad (2021) and while it is technically entertaining its way too long and way too confused and way too annoying, and way too gory. It just left you feeling frustrated, and empty. I was so perplexed I found myself liking the first movie – simply called Suicide Squad (2016). There are redeemable features, mind you, but the level of gore and the pointless side plots and wasting of time and the jaundiced political message make it hard to love or hate or even be indifferent about. I was looking forward to Margot Robbie reprising her role as Harley Quinn here – the best thing in the original movie after Will Smith (as Deadshot) – but here she is just overbearing and given super strength and super precision, things she didn’t have in the previous movie or any movie for that matter. Worse still I found myself liking Joel Kinnaman (as Colonel Rick Flag), something I swore to myself I’d never do after watching Robocop (2014). What an insane mess!
Paying the Pepper Spray
The movie begins with a suicide squad of supervillains, some of whom we know from the previous movie, only for them to get pulverized in the most hideous and gory ways possible. This automatically is a bad sign. It’s like what Last Jedi did to Force Awakens, shitting on its legacy so to speak by coming up with substitute heroes when there was nothing wrong with the original group. The director James Gunn, who has worked for DC’s rival Marvel, was brought in at the last minute to breathe some life into the DC universe movies and it seems he’s gloating at his own sense of magnificence, and it shows. What is worse is that he has nothing to gloat about, given that he sticks to the same ‘formula’ as the previous movie when it comes to denoting the villains as the lowest of the low (like rats) who nonetheless can redeem themselves, especially in the eyes of their offspring when up against a threat to humankind. Even the bar scene in this movie feels like a throwback to the bar scene in the original movie, just with a positive and supposedly original spin.
The opening sequence is also a bad sign for what comes next because you have one of the desperado characters (Michael Rooker as Savant) saving another – the badly animated Weasel – from drowning, which makes no sense afterwards because it indicates a sense of leadership and camaraderie on his part. (The weasel didn’t seem to object to being on a plane over a body of water too). And yet the exact same guy runs away and cries like a baby when things go wrong in the middle of the battle. Risking your neck to save someone you hardly know from drowning doesn’t sit well with him chickening out later on, never mind this happening in the same damn sequence. And what was the point of him killing that poor innocent sweet bird in the beginning if he’s such a nice guy deep down who’d save a lowly weasel, not exactly the most beautiful and sweet creations of God?
The sacrificing of this team also doesn’t make sense. Using expendables and sending them to their deaths is one thing, but having a regular military hero (Rick Flag) leading the charge and leaving him to his own fate just seems out of character. (The team at the HQ are placing bets on who will get killed first, I presume a hint that they know what’s going to happen; out of character again for Rick Flag’s sake, poor patriotic ‘flag’ waver that he is).
DEBUT MAN: Director James Gunn, the man on somebody else’s mission.
Enter the second suicide squad, sent to the opposite end of the same island, using the first squad as bait to lure the enemy away. Then we’re told through a flashback how this second supposedly better squad – one handpicked by Gunn himself – was forcibly recruited. It’s led by Bloodsport (Idris Elba) who is curiously similar, even in name, to Deadshot (Will Smith) from the previous movie. The ploy used to recruit him is similar. Bloodsport’s daughter is in trouble with the law so they use her as leverage whereas with Deadshot he wanted more time with his (cutesy) daughter and to prove to her he could be a hero, in additional to already being a cool sitcom-type dad. Here both Bloodsport and his daughter are obnoxious and you don’t have sympathy with either, in marked contrast to the 2016 flick.
His mission is to lead this new squad and track down a top secret bioweapon project involving extraterrestrial life and eliminate the threat. I like Idris Elba plenty but the only scene where he seemed to be in character was the bar scene, decked out in cool, funky clothes and chilling out. The rest of time he doesn’t convince you he’s a leader, even when he does decide to do the right thing. The main likeable character in the movie is actually Cleo Cazo aka Ratcatcher 2, played very competently and sweetly by Portuguese actress Daniela Melchior. (She bears a striking resemblance to half-Lebanese Egyptian actress Jamila Awad). She’s the conscience of the group and brings out the repressed paternal instincts in Bloodsport and she convinces one of their group, the sharkmonster, to be nice and stop treating other people as if they’re snacks. Her talent is akin to the Pied Pipper, having a technology that allows her to control rats, and with her own pet rat on her shoulder too. (Bloodsport doesn’t like rats, as if that’s a bad thing, and he learns to pet them at the end, but it seems empty to me).
This is not to discount the Polka-Dot Man, played competently and sympathetically by David Dastmalchian, and he’s a thematic victim of a whole other sort. His mother was a mad scientist who infected him and her other kids with a virus from another dimension, in a half assed effort to make them into superheroes – by force. So there is such a thing as doing the right thing for the wrong reasons and the line between superhero and supervillain is very thin indeed. Remember that the good guys, run by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), are incompetent bureaucrats who don’t live in the real world and are ultimately forcing bad people to do good things, in a bad way – killing and maiming for higher principles, regardless of the ‘collateral damage’ caused along the way.
Then there’s the leftover of the first squad, inexplicably being Harley Quinn, the least gifted and powerful of the bunch. Her character here just doesn’t make sense, at any level. When she’s up against the big alien monster at the end she can scale walls and jump up to rooftops effortlessly, but when she’s captured and kept in a shallow hole she can’t do a damn thing. When she shoots the dictator she says that she is surprised there is a bullet in the gun she conveniently found lying about – it looks like an heirloom from the 19th century – and this fits into the presentation of Harley Quinn in Birds of Prey as this happy-go-lucky person who always has fate on her side, not having to put any intelligence or effort into anything. Then you have her singlehandedly overpowering an entire prison full of guards, in everything from unarmed combat to gunplay. The sequence also doesn’t make sense for another reason. She was given a javelin by a dying hero in the first suicide squad, again a kind of gift from the gods, and she uses that spear to kill the guards and later to fight the starfish monster (unconvincingly since bullets don’t seem to pierce its iris but a lowly spear does) and yet she only gets that javelin after killing a truck load of guards, some with her bare hands. (Nobody fighting the starfish seems to have a bazooka or RPG or rocket launcher handy, for some reason as well). So what did she need the spear for and what was its thematic significance then? Absolutely nothing!
HARDLY A QUINN: Margot Robbie in her original incarnation from Suicide Squad (2016). Here in body but not soul.
Like I said it’s a confusing, confusing movie full of unnecessary things. I ‘suspect’ that these amateur heroics were done to make people like the Harley Quinn character, especially after the disaster that was Birds of Prey, but I seriously doubt it’s going to work. (Either that or James Gunn had the hots for you-know-who, something I can hardly blame him for. And Margot Robbie is a talented actress, notwithstanding the annoying choice of American accent she insists on using). More substantively this is also evidence of lack of focus on the part of the DC people because Harley Quinn is supposed to be a female version of the Joker, and the Joker was in no physical masterpiece. He’s quite frail to be honest, relying instead of his sense of madness which makes him take impossible risks and the fact that he’s an evil genius, consummate planner type. Harley should be this way – as Filmento points out, she’s originally a smart girl on account of being a psychiatrist and having a doctorate – but instead she’s portrayed as a mental flake on the Jack Sparrow model, as Filmento also points out.
There’s lots of plot conveniences like this. The sharkbeast creature, for instance, falls to his death from a great height, then gets riddled by bullets, but fails to die, and continues to fail to die after getting smashed through a building by the starfish creature. Can he really be that resilient? He almost got nibbled to death by those colourful fish and needed his mates to save him. Teeth can pierce his skin but bullets can’t, even at point blank range? Like I said, the story is a mess, and its’ way too gory for its own good and from way too early on in the movie, which desensitizes you to what comes next.
Politics of the Incorrect
I should be praising this movie for its political subtext, with ruthless American imperialists using Third World peoples as guinea pigs along with WMD allusions (the US ‘weaponizing’ the starfish creature), but I won’t. Why? Because it isn’t a subtext, it’s a supertext and you’re clobbered over the head with it from start to finish. Hence the annoying character of the Peacemaker who is willing to do what it takes, kill or maim anyone, in order to spread American style peace and justice. (Good casting with wrestler John Ceno, to be fair. He has that corn-fed all-American beefcake look to him and likes to parade his gonads for no good reason). Having an Englishman (Peter Capaldi) playing the mad scientist who does the heinous experiments on the civilians is probably an allusion to the special relationship with the UK, along with America’s own sordid history with Nazi refugees and war criminals. But it’s too blatant and spelled out for you. What is worse, you feel that these political niceties are all phony.
Remember my reservations about the Dune trailer and the whole gender and race swapping which has become endemic of Hollywood and the American entertainment sector. (I made a stupid mistake on Baron Harkannon’s weight problems, to be honest, but I still hold by my biased conclusions!) There’s mucho evidence of that problem here. You have the entire population of the Latin American island of Corto Maltese portrayed as a bunch of incompetents. Not just the bad guys, which you’d expect, but absolutely everybody. You have a silly looking junta of coup plotters, you have the secretary to the military cabinet with the oversized breasts (the Peacemaker was planning to shoot her at one point, seeing her as the unequivocal enemy), you have the old-age whores and S&M freaks at the bar, you have the poor rebels who get massacred by the heroes almost without a fight and who can’t even scream for help and then you have the contact man Milton (Julio Cesar Ruiz) who is so incompetent and cowardly he can’t even pick out a piece of paper or hold a shotgun properly or stand up to cops only looking for Americans. When Milton gets killed hardly anyone even notices, not even remembering his unusual name – Milton stands out in a crowd of Latin names, obviously. (The soldiers shoot at the giant starfish but for some strange reason don’t shoot at the smaller ones ejected out of its armpit, a clear weapon, even though the ruling general knows what the creature is capable of and what those smaller starfish do).
MOTIF MAN: Check out the squashed dove on the Peacemaker’s chest. A coldened heart that clearly needs a moral pacemaker!
Harley Quinn also can’t pronounce the name of the island either, which is hardly respectful or indicative of respect on the part of the moviemakers. The whole gag of the dictator having to marry her to popularize himself with the oppressed masses also seems passé, left over from The Princess Bride (1987) and Moon Over Parador (1988).
Then there’s the diversity card when it comes to baguys, which is also handled insincerely and sloppily. You have soldiers and guards from many different races, which is good technically, but the moviemakers forgot that Latin culture is creole culture and so people, individuals, are racially mixed. Here they look like they’re from distinct races that have never interbred with a culture that is exclusively Latin. You also have women everywhere, in the army and security forces, which doesn’t make sense for a Fascist dictatorship that consigns women to menial tasks. Hence the eye-candy secretary. And, if you look a little closer, you will notice that when Harley takes on the guards at the prison, all of them without exception are men; how come there weren’t any women soldiers or torturers at the prison? Can’t have women doing bad things like torture – they’ve clearly never heard of Abu Gharieb – or can’t have women fighting and being horrendously murdered, and by another woman? Either way, it doesn’t cut it. You can’t have an equal opportunity army of Fascist badies and have them belittling women and keeping them at home at the same time. The only person on the whole island who isn’t incompetent is Sol Soria (Alice Braga), the rebel leader. But, then again, she’s a woman so you can’t have her being stupid and ineffectual. But even there they mess up since one of her rebel team that gets killed inhumanely by the heroes is a woman. So much for affirmative action!
At the moral level the movie is problematic too. On the surface level it’s praising superheroes and holding out the hope that everyone in principle can be a hero, even a villain. That’s good, very good in fact, but… then what do you have? You have the sharkbeast creature thinking he’s found friends, those multi-coloured fish, only to discover they’re genetically engineered weapons that attack him – naïve to think you can trust others, like the stupid American astronauts who let the damn starfish thing into their vessel. You have the Polka-Dot man celebrating that he’s a hero at long last and one second later he gets stomped by the creature for letting his guard down. (You also can’t help but feel he’s being portrayed as unmanly, since he has mommy issues, seeing his mother everywhere, and not just in the people he’s fighting and killing). Notice also how the security goons in the armoured car get killed easily by the three men in the group because they likewise made the mistake of letting their guard down and sharing cigarettes with the American spies they’ve just arrested. (How stupid can you get?!)
One more quibble on badly handled diversity. The controllers for the suicide squad, at the HQ back in America, are a diverse group, including hot blondes and minority types and overweight men, and their ultimate boss is a black woman – the no nonsense Amanda Waller. They are not terribly competent themselves, to be fair, and they are meant to stand-in for the passive citizenry of the USA who let their leaders do whatever they want. Thank heavens one of them gets proactive and clobbers Amanda over the head, with a golf club, to save the life of the suicide squad. But it noticeable that woman that hits her is ‘half’ black herself, in contrast to Amanda. Bloodsport’s daughter also looks a little lighter skinned than you’d expect and the first (dumbass) soldier who gets a starfish on his face is black. Hrm. I wonder what they’re hinting at?!
Summaries in the Sand
Now to recap. There are good things in The Suicide Squad, such as the soundtrack and the funky visuals and large scale special effects and some good morality moments and the odd nice character, but way too many hang-ups and hiccups that get in the way of the enjoyment and of the story. I’m begging to worry that James Gunn is going to end up like Neil Marshall, losing his nerve and going for overkill in movies like Doomsday and Centurion. Gunn’s movie Slither (2006) was even gorier but it took its time so you didn’t get freaked out straight away. There were illogical things there too put the plot was streamlined and funny and the politics was a bit more subdued and in the background, especially early in the film. Marshall has gotten too gory too fast and lost his sense of pacing and timing, which is why he hasn’t done anything particularly big and memorable and for quite some time now. What a real, real shame.
So, in the end, I’m going to have to give the movie a thumbs down, and that’s not because I’m a Marvel comics fan. I haven’t watched Infinity War or Endgame to prefer one group of superhero movies over another so I’m about as unbiased as I can get. I miss the action movies of the 1980s and even 1990s and am not into the superhero genre of today with its overreliance on CGI and digital camerawork. And I’m opposed to many modern movies politically too, for its lack of sincerity and mishandling of things. I haven’t watched Army of the Dead but that movie strikes me as insincere and sloppy too, with a mixed cast of Hispanics and exceedingly blond characters, with the blonds being the morally repugnant ones, leaving the Hispanics to do the amateur heroics and save the day. (Even when the hero has to kill his wife, you’ll notice she’s blonde). Technically this is good, appealing to my biases as a non-white Global South dude, but you also can’t help but notice that when one of the blondey mercenaries sacrifices the Hispanic security guard as an offering to the Zombies, and the guard by pure coincidence looks stupid and effeminate and is ultimately corrupt anyway – as if that justifies his death. (Check out the effeminate badguy played by Paul Bettaney in Solo A Star Wars Story, or the original Feyd-Rutha in David Lynch’s Dune, or Chris Tucker in Fifth Element. Effeminacy is seen as a bad of dishonour in Hollywood circles; men can’t be allowed to behave like women so they are either degraded or killed off).
DOUBLE VISION: Portugal’s Daniela Melchior and Egypt’s Jamila Awad. Makes you wonder who’s the more Oriental!
So much for affirmative action, and I seriously doubt Zack Synder is anti-white or anti-blond given his own disposition, nor does he have any reason to be. I’m not too confident about his feminist credentials either. Amy Adams as Lois Lane just doesn’t fit. She’s too much of a cornflower girl for the savvy, sassy, cynical city chick that the original Lois Lane was – my heartthrob being Margot Kidder, although Teri Hartcher wasn’t half bad – and she ends up being the fumbling damsel in distress, Disney princess the vast majority of the time too. (For some reason the superhero men in his movies show off their naked chests a lot, and have dimples in their chins, curiously like the director). And don’t even get me started on Joss Whedon and his desecration of Ripley in Alien Resurrection – she says who do I have to fuck to get off this ship – a forerunner of the current controversy on his works from Justice League to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
This, again, portends badly for the Dune remake. Denis Villeneuve is a brilliant director but he gets more credit than he deserves for playing the diversity card. He hardly had an Asian character in his take on Blade Runner, which has been noticed by many an astute observer given how central they were to the 1982 flick, and I simply do not like the way he handled female characters in 2049. There were too many of them and they hovered around like bees circling you-know-who, for no particularly good reason; feels like psychological projection to me, or cheap trope tactics. Arrival (2016) was beautiful but clichéd – Amy Adams there too. Sicario (2015) was stunning but when you dig a little deeper you find the FBI couple – a woman and a black guy – are the boobs in the story, not just up against the CIA but in general, insisting on sticking to the law. The movie forgets that Al Capone was taken down by the IRS for tax evasion, and the strong arm tactics of Elliot Ness got him nowhere in end after ten long years of smashing heads and breaking laws. The legal ploy Emily Blunt’s character wanted to use against the Mexican cartels would have worked beautifully, but you have to praise the CIA don’t you who hump men to death to get them to confess and assassinate women and children in front of their husbands-fathers. (Another plus point for The Suicide Squad, since the Peacemaker wants to kill Ratcatcher 2 even after she hands him the data disc; his explanation, that he’s thorough).
I’m really hoping I’m wrong and the movie turns out to be great and true to the original novel, at least the soul of the text as opposed to the word of it. The original novel has its flaws, mind you, which I’ll talk about on another occasion but one of its strong suits is diversity, handled creativity through character choices and at the level of themes and world-building. You have the Fremen heroine Chani with her Elfin features and Zen-Sunni warriors and Arabic and Islamic terminology galore and the threat of genetic drift and distinct races forming through inbreeding – represented by the Harkonnans contra the Mediterranean Atreides. Art is about symbolism, subtlety and universality, as a single thing in a movie or novel (or a tune) can represent anything you want, and that means a white person can represent black causes by taking them up and learning from the oppressed people he’s representing. Look at the penultimate scene in The Suicide Squad with the rats, where Cleo Cazo says the city does not being to the starfish monster or to them the heroes, but ‘to them’. She literally means the rats but in reality she means the people, the downtrodden. Prior to that the rats were a stand-in for them, the suicide squad, because as villains they were the most disdained, whereas it’s being shunned by society that turns you into a villain to begin with.
Again, it’s a symbol, a motif, used for multiple things throughout the length and breadth of the movie. The quantity of diverse characters shouldn’t be the criteria but quality – Ripley is a one (wo)man army in both Alien and Aliens, and deservedly so – while the concept of representation itself can be transcended through non-literal identification. Do I have to be white to love Luke Skywalker? Do I have to be Nordic to identify with Beowulf? They have ‘universal’ features and messages that anyone can relate to. James Gunn may not have completely understood that here but he’s closer to the mark than the new Stars Wars trilogy ever could hope to be, let alone Mr. Villeneuve in his above-mentioned movies.
Oh hell, I’m biased. I want Jodorowsky’s Dune and to hell with everything else – even Frank Herbert!!!