Culture

The Modern Allegories of Suicide Squad

The Squad’s All Here (Warner Bros.)
Cynicism and redemption in the comic-book wars.

Think metaphorically. The war between fans of DC Comics and Marvel Comics is almost as vicious as that between Republicans and Democrats. The current controversy over Suicide Squad — Marvel kids are going on the Internet to attack any proposed DC narrative, with the intention of dooming its box-office prospects — makes a useful analogy to the fracas in our political arena. It looks as if the two sides will never get together. Both parties need to see what they have in common, and to work to understand the precariousness of our shared history and future, instead of turning difference of opinion, style, and “tone” into hostility. Suicide Squad (aptly named, considering America’s current self-destructive divisions) takes that battle further by dramatizing — fantasizing — the unification that even the president has given up on.

U.S. intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) realizes the world faces an “insuperable” threat. Ordinary law-enforcement and military forces won’t do; Waller needs soldiers who are crazily efficient at chaos, malevolence, and fearlessness. So she coerces a group of convicts — supervillains — to fight for mankind. Picking from “the worst of the worst,” Waller enlists sniper Deadshot (Will Smith), psychotic psychiatrist Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), thief Boomerang (Jai Courtney), mutant Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and flame-throwing gangbanger Diablo (Jay Hernandez). This ethnically diverse crew represents the ultimate adolescent fantasy of rebellion — bad guys who are good at heart.

Suicide Squad (its members risk death on an unpromising mission) can be feared, admired, and rooted for — but only in juvenile terms. Those are the terms that rule contemporary Hollywood, just as they define the schoolyard bullying of contemporary political discourse. A lack of moral precept distinguishes Suicide Squad from previous depictions of patriotism and heroism. These comic-book characters emphasize snarky egotism (“political prisoner” Smith and “jail-bait” Robbie show the most swagger and sass).

But the Marvel kids aren’t railing against DC because Suicide Squad gets the genre wrong; they object to the opposition’s very existence — and to its ideology.

Yes, even comic-book franchises promote ideology. This may come as a shock to consumers still stuck on the idea that Hollywood wants to entertain more than indoctrinate. Even normally sophisticated folks who are unschooled in recognizing hegemony or realizing how the culture system functions today prove susceptible to the lure of apparently innocuous entertainment. They hold onto adolescent consumerist gullibility, and this is the ideology that Suicide Squad’s producer, Zack Snyder, is up against.

Snyder, who directed the reboots Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, confounds comic-book fans with his voluptuous, dramatic visual style, which is so unlike Marvel’s trashy, violent sarcasm. He’s a fantasist, but he’s also a moralist, and this comes through in Suicide Squad, produced by Snyder but directed by David Ayer. Ayer’s social sensibility (seen in Brad Pitt’s World War II movie, Fury, and in End of Watch, a rare cop movie with a credible sense of ethnic camaraderie) is compatible with Snyder’s. They both approach a childish genre like adults — and that’s what annoys the Marvel kids, whose bad rap on Suicide Squad has already gone viral.

If DC is the conservative comic-book universe to Marvel’s pseudo-progressivism, it couldn’t be more unpopular among kids who enjoyed the ludicrous platitudes of Avengers: Age of Ultron. And DC couldn’t have a better leader than Snyder, who even gives supervillains a human scale. (“Getting people to go against their own best interests is what I do for a living,” boasts the devious Waller.) They all struggle with the ambivalence of people who suffer life’s unfairness: Deadshot follows his young daughter’s entreaties; Harley’s love for the reprobate Joker (Jared Leto) makes her a manic-depressive tease; and Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag is pressured into the Squad to save his demon-possessed lover, June Moone (Cara Delevingne).

These comic-book characters are interesting in ways that abandon the nihilism Christopher Nolan brought to the previous Batman franchise, which merely continued Tarantino’s jokey, sadistic film noir. Snyder and Ayer are temperamentally opposed to such agnosticism and so find themselves competing against the most popular (commercial) aspects of the superhero genre. Yet they’re also more skilled filmmakers. Each Squad member’s backstory is introduced with a pop-song signature (Kanye West’s volatile “Black Skinhead” makes Deadshot’s the most powerful). This recalls Snyder’s surreal Sucker Punch, a memorable quasi-musical that should have gone all the way into epic karaoke. He also inserts the Smiley Face motif from his Watchmen film as a comment on comic anarchy (the perversion of noir). Plus, when June Moone is transformed into the Enchantress and turns her brother into a superfiend, it resembles the sibling tragedy in Snyder’s superb production 300: Rise of an Empire.

Snyder and Ayer are like presidential and vice-presidential candidates attempting to synthesize popular sentiment with their own feeling for aesthetic reform. Their message seems deliberately misunderstood by those who favor conventional Hollywood formula. Surely, it’s a joke to complain that one superhero sci-fi fantasy plot makes less sense than another. (Or that Leto’s wily Joker is not as repugnant as Heath Ledger’s. Blessedly, the Joker has less screen time, less validation.) Like a public accustomed to political pandering, the Comic Con fans who relish the ridiculous mix of humor and chaotic violence in Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool don’t realize when they’re being condescended to or cheated.

#related#It is apparent from the newly released “Ultimate Edition” Blu-Ray of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice that Snyder is constructing a large-scale morally serious epic that portrays modern man’s ethical struggle, giving comic-book characters the spiritual breadth of classical characters. Ayer acknowledges this when the Squad, facing supernatural evil, gets gung-ho and promises, “We’re gonna be a chapter in the Bible! Everybody will know what we do!” Snyder and Ayer pursue an interest in redemption and sacrifice using the comic-book and blockbuster genres that have replaced the universality of the Bible and classical texts. More is at stake in Suicide Squad than comic-book fun.

Think metaphorically again, and see that Suicide Squad entangles post-Vietnam and post-9/11 notions about heroism and citizenship. Deadshot does the right, patriotic thing, yet compliments Waller, his treacherous superior, saying, “That’s gangsta!” This use of hip-hop cynicism speaks more directly to modern confused ethics than most lines from other movies and most politicians. Suicide Squad is The Dirty Dozen for millennial viewers (and voters), who think their patriotic moral conflict is new.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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