Someone decided that making a Suicide Squad movie is a good idea. I first read about it in The AV Club1, and I was intrigued, because when I was a kid I used to read the comic book, and the idea of a group of C-list super villains forced to work for the government could be a cool spin on movies like The Dirty Dozen or The Longest Yard. I have followed the evolution of The Suicide Squad, trying to keep an open mind as pictures emerged of Jared Leto’s Joker and various other members of the perpetually scowling squad, including darkest timeline Captain Boomerang.
I will confess that I am one of those few who have resisted the boom in comic book movies, particularly those of the grim and portentous variety. I really don’t need to see Harvey Dent threatening Jim Gordon’s child with a gun2 or watch Superman listlessly level the city that he should be protecting3 in the name of more “mature” entertainment. Most of the recent superhero fare in theaters, particularly selections from the DC universe, has been PG-13 aspiring to an R. Even Guardians of Galaxy and Ant-Man, despite their significantly lighter tones, layered escapist fun with incongruous violence4 and plots mainly meant to connect them Marvel’s money leviathan5. Really, though, my reaction to recent superhero films has been disinterest rather than distaste. I’ve had to shrug a couple of times when asked about Avengers or the upcoming Justice League movie, but it took seeing the trailer for Suicide Squad to get me into full get off my lawn, shouting at clouds mode.
The reason the Suicide Squad struck me so wrong is probably why a lot of people will want to see this movie: the introduction of Harley Quinn. The character was introduced by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm in Batman: The Animated Series6 and initially resembled an actual Harlequin, both in costume and mischievous nature7. Over time, the costume has gotten much smaller, and the character has become increasingly defined by her desirability to the opposite sex. This in itself is part of the problem with comic book films and culture: there is an inherent need to make female characters eye candy rather than rounded characters.
And I know this is not a problem only in comic book movies; the introduction and continued fetishization of slave Leia, let alone the endless succession of Bond girls serve as adequate proof that women have often been placed in roles as sex objects in films made primarily to appeal to male audiences. In some cases, as with Leia and some of Bond’s creepier conquests8, the films heighten the sleaze factor by putting the female characters in a submissive role.
Suicide Squad might want to have the final word on the topic, as in the three minute trailer, the Harley Quinn character is shown licking the bars of her cell and doing a burlesque dance number, as well as showing off her highly technical crime fighting ensemble of high-heeled sneakers and hot pants. And this is without mentioning the two different scenes included in the trailer of the Joker menacing Harley: her gagged with a strap and laying on an electroshock table, and, in case there was any doubt, an end tag with the Joker advancing menacingly and promising not to kill Harley, only “to hurt [her], really, really bad. At a certain point, this crosses the line from character development to misogyny.
Apologists, director David Ayers chief among them, have already begun seeding the story that Suicide Squad is really a redemption story for Harley, as she breaks free from the Joker’s influence9. This is problematic for a variety of reasons. Even if Harley spends the entire film establishing her own identity, she still only became a kick-ass character after being assaulted. The Joker creates her, and no matter how far she moves from him, he will always be associated with her origin. The only way for Harley to really reclaim her identity would be to put down the bat, find a hair color that works for her and volunteer in a shelter for battered women. This could be a compelling movie, but probably not one that DC is interested in making.
The second part of Harley’s redemptive arc is also familiar: being changed by the love of the right man, in this case played by Will Smith. Ayer proffered that Suicide Squad would include a sort of love triangle between Smith’s Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and the Joker. The implication here is that Harley cannot move on without the Joker, but must replace him with a “good guy.” Given that Smith’s career is peopled with the blandest of white hats (underscored by his exhortation for the squad to “save the world” in the trailer), this casts the relationship in another, well-trod path in comic culture: the troubled, seemingly unattainable woman who finds happiness with the rescuing hero.
This trope has been portrayed benignly early in the Spider-Man/Mary Jane Watson relationship10; a more mutual version is showcased on screen in The Dark Knight Rises. The Harley-Deadshot relationship appears to be another iteration on this theme, but is complicated by the fact that Deadshot is shown in the trailer with his daughter, who probably meets a poor end, and that Harley’s ensemble, in addition to the heels and hot pants, includes pigtails and a shirt emblazoned with “Daddy’s Lil Monster.” Is the relationship romantic? Is it paternal? Is it complicated by the fact that a studio has already tried to sell a Will Smith/Margot Robbie romance11? Possibly. And this only covers the purely narrative problems with the relationship.
As a former comic store employee, I observed the damaging real-world effects of enforcing the woman in jeopardy scenario. While it would be unfair to blame Ayers for merely replaying the paradigm that has been long established in comics, if Suicide Squad is being sold as entertainment for adults, perhaps the pivotal redemptive, and possibly romantic, arc in the film should not be based on a decidedly adolescent conception of relationships between men and women. Women do not need to be rescued by a relationship any more than they need forced electroshock to find their inner bad asses.
The immediate response to Suicide Squad and other comic movies is to dismiss it as another harmless diversion in a sea of questionable entertainments. However, as comic movies have transformed into mainstream money factories, adolescent attitudes and fantasies have been sold as suitable for adults. There is nothing inherently wrong with super heroes, or even creating some super-heroes for an adult audience; it would follow that some of the kids who bought comics would want to continue with the hobby past simply collecting their childhoods.
Suicide Squad, however seems to think that merely cutting the lights, firing up the tattoo guns and turning up the “dark” factor on its female protagonist is the right answer to draw a mature audience. Perhaps, though, David Ayers and DC should offer something other than hackneyed back story and hot pants.