Underneath its flash and sizzle, is Suicide Squad the summer’s most upsetting horror movie?
By now, any editorial either championing or damning David Ayer’s anti-hero blockbuster Suicide Squad is perfunctory, really. So pardon this writer’s tardiness, but the truth is, I only just saw it. Unless work demands my audience, I often wait until the smoke clears on “big” movies, choosing instead to observe the feeding frenzy and then coming to the film armed with arguments both pro and con, ready for me to make up my own mind.
So, I skipped the Suicide Squad press screening because my role here is primarily to talk about horror and since Suicide Squad is not a horror film, there was no professional requirement to rush.
Because Suicide Squad is not a horror film.
Not… a… horror film.
But now that I have seen it, I know that in fact it IS a horror film.
It’s a horror film on many levels, not just because of the dark themes at its core, nor its characters’ more malevolent, sociopathic leanings. It’s a film choked with ugliness on every level and one that has been so obscured by its studio in a bid to make it a palatable, easy to swallow summer blockbuster, that the aforementioned jet-blackness of it seems all the more dangerous.
As the colleague I saw the movie remarked to me after the movie ended “Kids see this sh*t.” Indeed they do. And God knows what they’re supposed to make of it.
Ayer’s DC Comics riff assembles a rogues gallery of human monsters and super villains and uses them as unwilling soldiers in an FBI sanctioned war against the “other.” Following the events of the turgid Zack Snyder-directed Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Snyder, of course, also co-produced this picture), we enter a world where Superman is thought to be dead and now, the feds – or at least the manipulative Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) – is worried that a less benevolent Superman-esque alien threat might rise up and bring mankind (or at least America) to its buckled knees.
Waller has the bold idea to pull a “Snake Plisskin” and round up these rag-tag miscreants to form a mega-force of anti-heroes who will put their talents to good use and fight the threats that the Government deems unsavory. The villains, of course, don’t have a choice. Like the Plisskin character played by Kurt Russell in John Carpenter’s 1981 action classic Escape From New York, the baddies have a liquid bomb injected into them that will blow their skulls apart should they dare transgress or try to flee from their superiors. The reward for this “suicide” mission is that the crooks will get a reduced prison sentence.
Fair enough and a great, classic set up for a roughneck neo-western comic book flick.
The grim stuff comes when we actually get to know the members of the Suicide Squad themselves.
There’s Will Smith’s Deadshot, an African American assassin for hire who never misses his target and charges exorbitant fees to do others’ dirty work. What led this man to become the callous creature he’s become isn’t fully explored. We just know that he’s dangerous. We also know that he’s divorced and has a little daughter who he dotes on and wants to have sole custody of. Smith is a murderer. His daughter and presumably his wife know he’s a murderer. And the film is asking us to see him as the responsible parent because his ex-wife… doesn’t make the kid dinner on time? Later, he helps his daughter with her math and the analogies they both use to solve the problems are centered around the mathematics of killing people.
Of course, this is played for surface laughs. And in something like the hyper-exaggerated (and hard R-rated) Kick-Ass movies, this dark domestic stuff works. But Suicide Squad isn’t Kick-Ass and the dark undercurrent of putting a child in harm’s way isn’t cute or subversive, it’s just kind of off-putting and odd. The darkness isn’t explored. It’s dragged up and left there before it evaporates, leaving a bad taste.
Then there’s Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a physically hideous mutant whose own life of crime is an obvious result of being mistreated, something that continues in prison. Croc is kept in a sewer-cell by his captors and thrown dead animals to devour. Like Waller says, “he looks like a monster so they treat him like one.” We’re never sure what made him this way. He has no substance. He’s just a wrecked thing, tortured by the sadistic penal system and further dehumanized. In the first half hour of the film (which is the best part of the picture, incidentally), we get rough character sketches of all the Squad, but that’s all they are, rough. When it comes to Croc, he’s a throwaway. Later Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag seems upset at the conditions in which the prison keeps the presumably diseased felon and he asks ” Why do they keep you like this?”. It’s a great micro-moment that suggests empathy and we are left hoping for that moment to expand, to perhaps see more of the pain behind this pitiful creature’s eyes and scaled skin. But, in the producer and enabling editor’s haste to speed the tale along and get to the meat of the picture, the “mission,” a deeper look is abandoned, again just leaving us with a queasy feeling.
Bad people. Broken people. And an even more broken world that builds them and then keeps them on leashes to use them. A system that condemns them and then manipulates them to serve their purposes when convenient. That’s what Suicide Squad is really about. And yet it tries SO hard to distort this. It opens many doors and when you get a glimpse at the horrors inside, it slams them shut again, hard, leaving you disoriented.
The central thrust of the picture – and the movie’s icky sex appeal – comes in Cosplay favorite Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). She’s Suicide Squad‘s poster girl, a former psychiatrist who, after spending far too long with Jared Leto’s maniacal punk-rock The Joker (Leto is barely in the film, but when he is, he’s great, damn the naysayers), falls in love with him, thus sealing her doom. I cannot vouch for the comics as I have never read them. But here, Quinn is positioned as the badass rebel-hero, a feminine force of nature and no doubt a hopeful Halloween costume for a legion of little girls.
But man, is Quinn busted.
In fact, she’s the most depressing female character I’ve seen in ANY movie of any genre in ages.
Here we have an educated woman who becomes in essence a “serial killer hag,” innocently falling under the Svengali spell of a psychopath who is left in her care. All of her education, her presumed wealth, her status goes out the window when she meets her “man.” Like many foolish film femmes who have come before her, she perhaps thinks she can “save” The Joker. Of course, when the carefully-controlled, manipulative version of himself is longer needed, The Joker reveals all and then opts to decimate Quinn. “I’m gonna make you hurt, bad” he says before he and his goons descend on her and literally shock her into submission. Whether or not she is literally raped is irrelevant. She is most certainly figuratively raped. Using the very tools of her trade to “heal” her patients, The Joker and his droogs brutalize her mind and body, scrambling her brain and leaving her a wild-eyed mess. And when she’s asked to go “all the way,” to fully completely surrender her soul to the vat of bubbling liquid that also helped birth The Joker, the film tries to position the sequence as “romantic.” It’s certainly an arresting visual and the most emotionally disarming scene in Suicide Squad’s running time, but it’s not romantic.
It’s hideous. It’s a murder.
The Joker is a vampire. Quinn is his victim.
Quinn becomes the Junkie hooker to The Joker’s controlling, dope-dealing pimp.
There’s even a scene where The Joker “offers up” Quinn’s ass to an associate.
There’s nothing liberating about Quinn’s transformation. She becomes the battered wife, she is enslaved and is in the thralls of the mother of all Stockholm Syndrome afflictions.
And Kevin Smith names his daughter after this character? Sheesh!
So with that, as the movie progresses, it has no idea what to do with Harley Quinn. She’s used to make young men horny, she’s positioned to make young women want to be her, she’s used as a dangerous psychopath, she’s used as a tragic hero, she’s used as a trophy wife to a sadist. In one scene, it’s even suggested that Deadshot sees her as his own daughter and he uses her to perhaps sublimate his guilt.
She’s used by everyone and everything, really.
The most honest illustration of her comes when she’s dangling from a rope as The Joker’s helicopter speeds away; her make-up smeared, striking poses with a cracked smile as she’s in the process of being “saved” by the monster that made her. We see her through the eye-line of Smith’s gun and we feel sad for her. A busted cheerleader after a drunken post-game assault from the home-team. Not in control. Not empowered. Dangling from a rope on the verge of destruction, a breath away from a death that she might even be pining for.
It’s sad. It’s scary.
My colleague was even more alarmed by a brief sequence later on, when Quinn gets “touched” by the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and “sees” the life that she really wants. In it, she and The Joker are “normal,” with a life in the burbs, smiling and happy with kids and a clean, white kitchen.
This is what Quinn wants. This is not a super-hero movie. This is f*cking Requiem for Dream.
And the damned movie just touches upon it, terrified as it is to “go there” and instead shifting gears back into blockbuster mode, all the better to sell more action figures and Happy Meals.
Watching Suicide Squad is like watching a madman whose meds have almost run out. You feel as though he may snap at any second and yet he never quite does.
And that’s the problem with all of this current crop of superhero movies really, especially those in the DC universe.
They only touch on the darkness. They cloak it in rubber suits and cod-pieces. They go too far but then they don’t go far enough. They tell the kids that there’s a boogeyman under the bed and then stick a lollipop in their mouths.
They become neither fish nor foul, trying to please everyone and pleasing no one.
But I will say that regardless of this bizarre, misguided attempt of the studio to water down the palpable darkness at the heart of Suicide Squad, the fact that I’ve bothered to blather about it at all signifies that it is a much more challenging creature than the average summer blockbuster ever dreams to be. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing (and what clothing it is! No matter your take on it, it looks incredible) and as such is worthy of multiple looks and discussion.
It’s A Clockwork Orange for kids. Yikes.
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