Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
There is promise to a story premise that takes a cadre of villains, against their will, and makes them fight for something bigger than themselves. If they refuse, they die, placing everything on the line. Along the way, they band together, discover the difference between universal right and wrong, and choose self-sacrificially to do the right thing. This is why I have, twice now, watched a Suicide Squad film. But I have also been twice disappointed. A story that centers villains as antiheroes and then redeems them could be a very good story, in the end. But villains as villains aren’t meant to be heroes, and the bungled execution of these films serves as good examples of why.
I’m not here to review the 2016 Suicide Squad, which was almost universally panned for a variety of valid reasons. Rather, I tuned in this week to the quasi-sequel/reboot called The Suicide Squad written and directed by James Gunn. I’m not sure what I expected from Gunn, who had expressed wanting to direct The Suicide Squad as an R-rated movie, and whose most notorious addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been how many sex jokes he can get away with under the banner of a PG-13 rating, but I definitely expected the movie to be better than it was. Or good at all. However, the moment early in the film when Michael Rooker’s head exploded and James Gunn had his graphics team spell out the title The Suicide Squad using the blood and entrails floating in the water, I knew I was going to have an unpopular opinion about the movie.
Despite the graphic nature of its opening act, I kept watching. Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1 is one of my favorite entries into the MCU, and I held out hope that there would be some redemptive quality in this one to explain the rave reviews I had been seeing in my social media feeds. By the end, my hope had not played out, and I was disappointed—not just in a couple hours wasted, but by the fact that The Suicide Squad is a genuinely bad movie. Why is it bad? Because it plays on war and death for laughs in irreverent, dehumanizing ways.
So many people die in The Suicide Squad—a really shocking amount. So many that I’ve struggled to remember what the storyline even was so I can attempt to write a cohesive summary. In fact, if I didn’t already know the premise from previous enjoyment of DC Comics, I would have been completely lost. In this go-round, basically a bunch of supervillains from Belle Reve prison are recruited to Task Force X (we’ll just call it the Suicide Squad, because that’s what it is) to infiltrate a super secret location on the island of Corto Maltese for… reasons. They have to fight their way in because Corto Maltese is ruled by a dictator. Along the way, they kill a lot of people—basically anyone and everyone who gets in their way. We’re supposed to kind of view the team as a ragtag group of misfits as their powers are individually revealed over the course of multiple killings, and they kill a lot of people by mistake because, you know, they’re just messed up like that. Finally we get to the ultimate showdown with the giant starfish monster from space where ultimate loyalties are revealed, ultimate sacrifices are made, and the most ultimate killings of all happen (have I said ultimate enough times?). Ultimately, The Suicide Squad is loud, brash, bizarre, and drenched in blood.
I understand and give space for differing opinions and preferences. Maybe this just wasn’t the type of film for me; maybe I wasn’t the target audience. But here’s where I don’t give a lot of space: I don’t think death is funny. I don’t find joking about death or using death as a punchline particularly appropriate in the same manner that I don’t think it’s appropriate or funny to joke about rape or abuse. Anything that uses dehumanization to gain a laugh? Maybe let’s just avoid it. And this sort of attempt at humor falls particularly hollow in a year like 2021 in the midst of so much pain and suffering and (of course) death.
That’s not to say it’s never appropriate to laugh at death. Gallows humor invites people to laugh in the face of death—when things seem the most dark and grim and all hope is lost. It’s a sort of way of making the best of a bad situation. But gallows humor works because death is the worst situation imaginable. It doesn’t diminish the seriousness of death, but rather uses humor as a device to cast death as the contrast in a, usually darkly ironic, joke.
Laughing at death can also sometimes work when used in parody. In the classic British comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we are invited on a paradoxical quest with Arthur and his knights to seek the Holy Grail. And there are plenty of scenes of comedic death to go around, from the Black Knight who gets methodically chopped to bits, to the famous “Bring out your dead!” plague scene, to the terrifying white rabbit with “big, pointy, teeth!” who rips out people’s throats. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is widely regarded as one of the funniest movies ever made in no small part because of these scenes. But Monty Python and the Holy Grail is also a study in abject absurdity—and that’s the point. It works as a parody of a Crusade quest because the exaggerations of all aspects of the adventure are so silly as to make it obvious that the irreverence is aimed at the Crusades themselves, not at things like death or the plague.
Parody is hard to achieve, and even harder to do well. And I’ve asked myself since watching The Suicide Squad if perhaps it’s intended as parody—if maybe that’s why it is so over-the-top in its glorification of death. Of course, the film is not without absurdity. They fight a giant starfish at the end! And the team includes an anthropomorphic shark, a man who emits and throws explosive polkadots, and a woman who controls rats. But in the case of this story, these absurdities don’t exist for the sake of parody; they are simply characters from the comics. They weren’t created to exaggerate, mimic, or ape superheroes from other films so that we can laugh at our current cultural obsession with the genre—they are part of the genre, members of the culture itself.
And their place in it is, as the expression goes, “Not great, Bob.”
They are villains, most of them. Antiheroes, some of them. But most of all, they just like killing. And they’re going to kill everyone who gets in between them and their objective because they don’t have the need to pull their punches, and they all have bombs in their heads, so it’s do or die anyway (literally). That’s the “convenience” of using a task force of villains: a lack of moral qualms. And Gunn was all too happy to show us as many kills in as many creative ways as he could fit on the screen in his runtime. Some of his kills are absurd, but not exaggerated enough to be parody.
The Suicide Squad invites us not only to laugh at death, but to marvel in it—to roll around in the blood and gore and violence of what Gunn calls “a war film” but is also clearly a comedy. Isn’t it hilarious that King Shark rips people in half and chews on their skulls like toothpicks? So funny that Polka-Dot Man imagines every person he kills looks like his abusive mother? Rad that Harley Quinn sees flowers and birdies when she decapitates and throat-slices people? But it’s not just that we’re being asked to laugh at the graphic violence on the screen that dehumanizes both the characters and the actors. It’s also that we’re being asked to laugh at their nudity. James Gunn said of his movie, “We see lots of penises, but not much female nudity, which I think is funny.” Nudity in films isn’t a zero sum game, James. Women don’t gain equality and better representation onscreen by men losing it. It’s not funny; it’s just sad.
Late in the film, Taika Waititi cameos via flashback as the original Ratcatcher to have a heart-to-heart with his daughter (the current Ratcatcher) about the value of every person, inspiring her to help save the day. But his speech, and her actions, fall flat after two hours of watching the Suicide Squad maul their way through hundreds of foes. Effectively the movie communicates that all lives are worth saving… unless you’re a bad guy. But that’s confusing, because the heroes of this film are bad guys, so shouldn’t the primary theme be that villains are not beyond redemption? Perhaps it’s just the right kind of bad guys who can be redeemed, but the wrong kind of bad guys can be killed by the Suicide Squad—and killed with vim for the audience’s entertainment and pleasure.
Except sometimes even good guys can be killed. There’s this one time in the film that the Suicide Squad messes up and accidently kills almost an entire battalion of freedom fighters because they thought they were bad guys. Oopsie poopsie! Oh well. It’s okay. Everyone makes mistakes, and the scene is played for laughs, so it’s all okay, amiright?
Except… it’s not. Killing a bunch of innocent people without any remorse would be a bad enough scene to include even if it weren’t for the amount of onscreen violence and bodily mutilation we’re invited to enjoy. And enjoy is the right word—remember, this film is a comedy. This is not a traditional superhero film or a dramatic war story where violence and gore are often used to convey the gravitas and the sacredness of human life. The Suicide Squad rather does the exact opposite, exciting in showing as many kills as possible because it has an R-rating and it can. People are discarded in comic-tragic ways because, lest we forget, these people on the Suicide Squad are not Batman or Superman or Wonder Woman, they are villains, and they don’t give a s—.
No matter what the story might be trying to say about the value of every insignificant (and villainous) person, it undercuts its own message in its delivery. You can’t try to tell us, in the film’s dialogue, how much every life matters while simultaneously showing us at every opportunity how little they actually do.
No matter what he might have been trying to say in The Suicide Squad, James Gunn spent his two hour and twelve-minute runtime treating the human body like garbage. Treatment of the body on the screen should matter to us as viewers even though we’re looking at special and practical effects. Have we learned nothing from the #MeToo movement and the stories celebrities have told about the psychological toll of performing certain acts on the screen? People don’t cease to be human just because they’re actors, and what they’re projecting through the screen impacts not just the actors themselves, but us, too—our perceptions and everything from how we go on to view things like celebrities as real people, to our view of the body, death, sex, race, and so much more. If we’re invited to laugh at things on screen that should instead evoke our sympathy, how does that subtly change us over time? I don’t want to laugh at things God calls me to weep over.
And that’s why I think The Suicide Squad ultimately fails. There’s irreverence that’s achieved through devices like gallows humor and parody, and then there’s irreverence that’s achieved through dehumanization. Remember Michael Rooker’s character, who lost his head for the sake of the opening title reveal? When we first meet him in prison, it is to see him kill a songbird with a bouncy ball. Later, an identical songbird perches on his floating carcass and eats his neck entrails. I guess that’s meant to be ironically funny, but all I saw was a movie director who was willing to use imagery of a dead human body to evoke a cheap laugh. Imagery, quite frankly, that reminded me of too many dead and dying people around the world today. I didn’t laugh, because I don’t think it’s funny. When a story crosses the line into dehumanization, I can’t in any way call it good.