Suicide Squad: 2016’s Most Cynical Summer Movie

With spoilers, we look at Suicide Squad's cynical edge, and ask: who is its true villain?

Right from Suicide Squad‘s first trailer, it was evident that Warner DC had a heady stew on the way, and so it’s proved. Writer-director David Ayer’s movie is a comic book movie laced with elements from war and gangster pictures, topped off with a bit of fantasy and science fiction, and spiked with a dash of horror.

You hardly need reminding that the reaction from reviewers hasn’t been kind, to say the least, though it’s arguable that all but the film’s harshest critics would agree that it isn’t without merit. As his superb screenplay for Training Day or his 2012 cop movie End Of Watch showed, Ayer is far from a hack, even if his films can sometimes fall on the wrong side of brutal and chaotic – such as his misfiring Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Sabotage, a film made in the same year, incredibly, as his fearsome World War II tank movie, Fury.

Suicide Squad is at its best when it deals with the kinds of incongruous images we saw in the trailers: the Joker’s army of henchmen wearing panda and goat masks; June Moone/Enchantress up to her shoulders in inky-black water, looking like a diseased Pre-Raphaelite painting.

Whether the rumors of a tug-of-war game in the editing room are true or not, Suicide Squad fares far less well in the story department. On paper, the narrative is simplicity itself: a group of mercenaries is assembled from the denizens of Belle Reve Penitentiary and sent to rescue a mystery person stuck in the Midway City – a metropolis infested with a horde of supernatural monsters. That simple story is almost entirely overwhelmed, however, by series of subplots and flashbacks: the origins of the crazed Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the parenting issues of Deadshot (Will Smith), who struggles to square his vocation as an assassin with the job of being a good role model for his young daughter, and on and on.

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Often great-looking, amusing or disturbing in isolation, these extra threads result in a fidgety, fussy movie overall – one that spends so long exploring its anti-heroes’ pasts that it struggles to find time to draw its villains, Enchantress and Incubus, in any kind of detail. Indeed, Suicide Squads storytelling is so chaotic that its underlying theme isn’t initially clear. X-Men: Apocalypse and Star Trek Beyond were entirely different movies united by the simple notion that there’s strength in unity. Suicide Squad‘s undercurrent is, inevitably, far murkier – and it was only after thinking for a while about Viola Davis’ character, Amanda Waller, that your humble writer began to see the theme hiding in the murk.

Waller’s a government operative working in an America reeling from the death of Superman. In meetings around long, expensive tables, military types panic about the possibility of a meta-human like Superman becoming a terrorist. What could be done to counter such a monumental threat? Waller has the answer: set up something called Task Force X, a collection of meta-human criminals who can be pressed into service as expendable soldiers working on behalf of the government. 

In creating the Suicide Squad, however, Waller unleashes a force that even her unblinking eyes and sharp tongue can’t bring to heel: Enchantress, an ancient super-being which possesses the body of Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevignne) and is capable of warping from place to place in an instant. Enchantress soon slips the leash and takes over Midway City, causing all kinds of chaos and destruction and prompting Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to send the Suicide Squad into action.

Amanda Waller is, in short, Suicide Squad‘s true villain. For all the bad things the anti-heroes have done in the past, they’re portrayed by Ayer as overwhelmingly damaged people with often tragic backgrounds. The movie doesn’t quite dig into the dark heart of Harley Quinn’s love affair with the Joker, but she is, in effect, the product of an abusive and psychologically ruinous relationship. The rest of the Squad have similarly sorry stories; whether they brought their misery on themselves or not (and El Diablo, who lives with the guilt of incinerating his own family, surely did), they’re a group of misfits pushed to the fringes of society.

Waller, on the other hand, has no such defence. She’s in a position of power and privilege, which allows her the luxury of treating other people like pawns with little cost to herself. Ayer’s use of Waller is akin to the President of the United States in John Carpenter’s action classic, Escape From New York – a movie with a plot markedly similar to Suicide Squad.

Like the anti-heroes in Suicide Squad, Escape From New York‘s Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is a criminal injected with explosives that will kill him if he doesn’t complete a deadly mission: steal his way into Manhattan, now a colossal prison island, and rescue the President (Donald Pleasence) who’s trapped inside. It’s only towards the end that Plissken realises that the POTUS he’s assigned to save is a snivelling coward obsessed with power.

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Similarly, the Suicide Squad are unaware that the person they’re rescuing from the chaos in Midway is Waller herself – the very person who’s  been manipulating and cajoling the Squad throughout the whole movie. If anything, Suicide Squad is even more cynical and anti-authoritarian than Escape From New York, a movie written at the height of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

Not only is Waller a cold-blooded murderer who inadvertently decimates an entire American city by unleashing Enchantress, but she even manages to get away with it all: the movie’s mid-credits sequence shows Waller making a deal with Bruce Wayne in order to protect herself from the political fallout of what she’s been up to. The group of meta-humans who rescued her, meanwhile, are thrown back in jail – albeit with a few privileges for their efforts. Without getting too embroiled in politics, it isn’t difficult to see what Ayer’s driving at here: the higher up you are in the social or political food chain, the less likely you are to be punished for your crimes.  

But even among all the cynicism, nihilism, violence, and choppy editing, Suicide Squad offers at least a ray of hope: whatever shortcomings the members of the Squad might have – and boy, do they have a lot of them – they’re at least capable of human feelings like guilt, empathy, sadness and regret. That Amanda Waller lacks all of these emotions makes her the most dangerous villain of all. 

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.