Suicide Squad is a Good Movie, but It’s Also Three or Four Bad Ones

WTF is Suicide Squad?

Suicide Squad is DC and Warner Brothers’ latest shot in the dark in an ongoing quest to differentiate themselves from Marvel while also riding the coattails of Marvel’s success.

The titular Squad is a group of super villains from the DC universe, offered a chance to do black ops missions for the government in exchange for more lenient sentencing. As always, there are apparently a million comics about this that may or may not enhance your understanding of the story. In this particular incarnation, the Squad is assembled for the very first time and sent on a vague mission to kill some aliens. This later bleeds into a mission to kill another DC villain called Enchantress.

The two main Squad members are Harley Quinn (whom you will remember from roughly 98% of the advertising campaign) and Deadshot (whom you will remember from “Why is Will Smith in this movie?”). They, and a whole host of other characters, work for some psycho named Amanda.

Normally, at this point, I would tell you the main story arc of the movie but, even after the extensive editing and reshoots, it’s kind of hard to say what the story arc is.

What happens in the good Suicide Squad movie

The good Suicide Squad movie is about the Joker’s sidekick, Harley Quinn. After finding herself in prison, Harley gets tapped to go on a secret, dangerous mission with Colonel Rick Flagg, after the US government mishandles the situation with Enchantress.

Enchantress used to be an archaeologist named June Moore, but she accidentally unleashed an evil spirit and now she has it living inside her, making her do awful things. Rick Flagg is in love with June Moore, and he hopes that one day she can be cured somehow so that they can have a normal life together but, in the meantime, he has to track her down and stop her from destroying the world.

As it happens, Harley also hopes that the Joker can be cured someday so that they they can have a normal life together, and, as she grudgingly helps Rick Flagg to find Enchantress and save June, she’s reminded of how she fell in love with the Joker in the first place. She was his psychiatrist, actively trying to save him from himself, when he led a prison riot that ended with him torturing her and throwing her into a chemical vat, the seminal incident that warped her personality and made her into a super villain. Even as she’s trying to help Rick Flagg save his girlfriend, she’s holding out hope that the Joker’s on his way to save her, too.

When the Joker shows up, he calls Harley like a pet and she runs to him, but they’re immediately separated again and she thinks they’ve lost the chance to be together. Rather than be by herself, Harley goes back to Rick Flagg to complete the mission.

Once Harley and Rick Flagg find Enchantress, she tries to trick them by showing them illusions of how perfect their lives would be if the people they loved were not also monsters. They overcome her deception and realize that the only way to stop her is to kill her.

In an unexpected twist, killing Enchantress appears to free June after all, and she and Rick Flagg are reunited. After Harley returns to prison, the Joker breaks in to rescue her and she clings to him as she does to the hope that she can save him one day like they just saved June.

What happens in the other Suicide Squad movies

Everything I just said, plus:

  • There are roughly 800 other characters for some reason.
  • Deadshot has a story line about how he’s not such a bad guy and he wants to use this mission as a chance to go straight and prove to his daughter that he’s not a total scumbag. He forms a friendship with Harley over the course of a few hours and refuses to kill her when she tries to defect from Suicide Squad. In the end, he earns the right to visitation with his kid.
    • Also, there’s a flashback where his kid stops him from killing Batman.
  • El Diablo kills his whole family with his fire powers and machismo stereotypes before the movie starts. By the time he’s in prison, he vows not to use his powers again because he’s on a righteous path, but Deadshot eventually goads him into doing it so that don’t all get killed by the aliens.
  • Oh, there are aliens there.
  • Anyway, El Diablo is the first one who’s strong enough to overcome Enchantress’ illusions because he’s spent so much time thinking about his misdeeds that he sees the truth about himself and can’t be fooled.
  • Katana is not actually on the Suicide Squad, but she gets sent with them for some reason. She has a magic sword that was used to kill her husband, and his soul is trapped inside the sword, so she carries it with her and cries when she talks to him. Also the souls of the people she kills get trapped in the sword. So, there’s, like, aliens in there with her husband. Also, the sword is eventually used (by someone else) to kill Enchantress, which is possibly why it saves June.
  • Killer Croc and Captain Boomerang are also there. Killer Croc is racialized in a strange way that I don’t have time to unpack.
  • There’s a side story about the dark side of the justice system and the US government, in which the prisoners are tortured by the guards and in which June Moore is mistreated so that the government can use Enchantress’ powers.
    • The whole reason this movie happens, it turns out, is because Amanda fucks up in how she handles the Enchantress situation, and ends up setting her loose with a grudge.
    • Morgan from The Mindy Project is a corrupt guard who ends up working for the Joker but disappears completely from the movie after passing Harley a note.
  • Although most of the Joker scenes apparently ended up on the cutting room floor, there are a bunch of scenes involving the Joker, not all of which are super relevant to Harley’s story arc. In the lamest one, he meticulously lays out all his knives in an OCD circle and lies down in the middle of it like he wants a good instagram.
  • Rather than just saying that they’re going after Enchantress, the whole first leg of the movie is about going on a needlessly mysterious mission to fight a bunch of aliens and rescue a high-priority target who turns out to be Amanda. I don’t know why she couldn’t just tell them they were rescuing her, but everyone acts like it’s some huge, important surprise when they get there.
  • Amanda then shoots all her own guys in the head because no one knows why. I suspect it’s because the studio was concerned that it would be too hard to cheer for the Suicide Squad unless every single person they met was ten times as awful as they are.
  • There’s a confusing message about friendship, which seems to go against the idea that these are hardened, untrustworthy criminals, used to working on their own. But, anyway, Harley returns to the Suicide Squad because they’re her friends, and, before she stabs Enchantress, she tells her “You hurt my friends!” And El Diablo at one point says they’re family. At that point, they’ve been together for, literally, about a day.
    • The rap song that plays over the credits also says they’re a family. And that they’re bad guys trying to do good. Neither of those things seem true of the set-up but the rap is pretty catchy.
  • Enchantress does a bunch of stuff I didn’t pay attention to where she also brings back her brother’s spirit or something and they lament that the humans don’t worship them anymore and then I think the Suicide Squad also has to fight her brother at some point.
  • Also, when June summons Enchantress, she does it by whispering the word “Enchantress” to herself. Enchantress initially looks more like a swamp witch, though, and I think it would be really funny if she whispered “Swamp Witch” instead. Hit me up next time you want to add more jokes, WB!

My point is, there’s a lot of shit happening in this movie and it doesn’t all make sense together

And that’s not totally a surprise given that the director shot way more footage – like a weirdly large amount more footage – than he actually needed to use. And then went back and shot again.

The reason I picked the Harley story as being the “good” movie is partly because Margot Robbie gives the stand-out performance in the film and partly because the Harley/Joker stuff, as emo as it sometimes gets, is also the best example of the movie’s sense of style and aesthetics. More importantly, though, it’s because Harley’s story is the one that lines up most with the villain’s story and creates a (somewhat) coherent narrative.

The Harley/Joker stuff is pretty fucked-up, but it’s also the most interesting part

Here’s the thing: a lot of the feminist criticism of Suicide Squad is about how the movie seems to believe it’s a good thing that Harley’s reunited with her abusive piece of shit clown boyfriend at the end of the movie. That’s valid. Suicide Squad, at the best of times, has no fucking opinion about that relationship dynamic and, at the worst of times, seems to think it’s romantic. And, while I don’t follow the comics, I also recognize that this development extra sucks in light of how the comics have moved on in the last few years and started depicting Harley as a reformed villain who now helps battered women and plays in a roller derby and stuff. In that sense, Suicide Squad is a regression to this kind of dickish idea from the 1990s that Harley’s just the Joker’s stupid bimbo girlfriend and it doesn’t matter how he treats her, so shut up.

What I find interesting about this movie, though, is the direction they went with the Joker, and how that changes the relationship dynamic.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Joker’s hella lame. There’s the thing I already mentioned where he puts all his knives in a circle, and there’s the poster everyone made fun of where he has the word “damaged” tattooed on his forehead, and there’s a flashback where he paints a fake mouth on his hand and pretends to laugh with it, and, most importantly, there’s a scene where he stares into Harley’s eyes and goes, “Harley, would you die for me? No, that’s too easy. Harley… would you… live for me?”

He is more or less a fifteen-year-old boy who shops at Hot Topic, which is fitting, since Harley’s more or less a fifteen-year-old girl who shops at Hot Topic, and since Hot Topic carries a line of Suicide Squad-inspired clothes in real life. When you put the two of them together, you get a relationship that’s kind of gross, and based on the girl wearing underwear as shorts going “My boyfriend can beat you up!” while the boy enjoys having somebody mistake his general lack of EQ for being dark and complicated. I don’t support that as a model people should aspire to, but it is a thing that exists in real life. Suicide Squad doesn’t offer us a point of view on that thing, which is disappointing, but it does a good job of portraying that thing on screen.

I should also point out that our knowledge of the Joker as an abusive asshole is mostly based on things that happen outside this movie, in the comics, or the video games, or other parts of the Batman franchise. It’s entirely possible that the filmmakers intended for him to be a better partner than we’ve typically seen him be and that we should understand the part where he tortures her and throws her in a vat as symbolism within the heightened reality of the superhero genre and not, like, a literal instance of him doing her bodily harm.

I still think she’s better off without him, and I still wish the final shot in the movie wasn’t the two of them hugging, but I didn’t hate this story, and I’m cautiously looking forward to the promised Gotham City Sirens movie where Harley teams up with Catwoman and Poison Ivy.

In conclusion, I am conflicted

I fully understand all the reasons why I should hate Suicide Squad and I don’t disagree with any of those reasons, but I found that I kind of enjoyed it? I think it would have been a stronger movie if they’d just picked a story and stuck with it, and I think it would have been a more interesting movie if they hadn’t immediately abandoned the idea that the main characters are actually villains, but I think it more or less succeeded in being a stylish action movie that makes you want to shop.

If the entire history of Batman’s on the table as a critical tool, then this movie really sucks for all the reasons everybody’s said. If you entertain the idea that the only thing that’s on the table is what’s in the movie itself – minus the entire history of Batman and minus all the deleted footage that didn’t make the final cut – it’s still not a very good movie, but it’s really not as bad as it’s made out to be.

Image: Suicide Squad; Warner Bros. | May 9, 2017