Allow me to get my obligatory credibility-building disclaimer in now. Suicide Squad is not a great movie. It is most notably hampered by its exposition heavy opening and self-causing conflict. Deadshot, Harley Quinn, and the concept of the Squad itself are introduced twice. It’s also through these introductions that it becomes clear that the assembling of this team of villains to fight evil is itself what unleashes the evil they have to fight. Amanda Waller, the progenitor of Task Force X, may claim Superman’s existence is the exigence for her project, but it’s really her own dark view of humanity. And that irony, though expressed in a messy plot mechanic, is the strength of Suicide Squad.
In an article on Tor.com, Alasdair Stuart writes “Suicide Squad’s…the first [movie] to clearly communicate the DCEU’s central conceit…Namely, that metahumans are the worst thing to ever happen to humanity. And vice versa.” This interpretation of the movie and “universe’s” theme is both disconcertingly incorrect and common. Suicide Squad does build on its predecessors’ (Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) ideas in interesting ways. A group of supervillains forced to do good is, in a way, an extension of Batman v Superman, which asks the questions why someone with superpowers should get to decide who to protect and who to punish (and how to punish them) and what’s stopping him from making the wrong choice when he does decide. Supervillains are characters who have always chosen to do bad, so when they’re forced to do good, they have to confront their own humanity.
At least, that’s the story that the third DCEU movie tells. Deadshot, Quinn, and the rest of their team must not only figure out how to defeat the movie’s villain, but why they should want to. The answers to both those puzzles is the same and a direct response to the Waller quote in the banner to this section. She sees the villain’s humanity as what caused them to be (or makes them) evil. The movie, on the other hand, shows that their humanity is what redeems them.
I won’t go into an in-depth thematic analysis of the story. (I already did a bit of that on my podcast episode about the movie.) What I will say is this: the movie shows humanity as the capacity to love others. This definition is a departure from the themes of Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, thought it still embraces the overarching narrative of hope that has driven the DCEU thus far. What fuels most of the characters’ drive to live on is the hope of seeing whomever they love again.
As you can see from the Jor-El quote in the banner, hope leading to goodness goes all the way back to Man of Steel. Importantly though, the link is not directly causal. In other words, a person having hope doesn’t mean they will be good. (A person without hope, however, will never be good). What makes a person good is clearly demonstrated in Batman v Superman, which crafts its heroes as embodiments of differing approaches to justice. Batman is focused on anticipating and punishing evil. Superman is focused on protecting his values. When the latter realizes his strength of conviction and is able to show it to the former, the pair’s conflict ends and they’re able to join forces to battle the true antagonist of the movie.
With this thematic foundation, Suicide Squad could be meant to show love as an expression of ones values as Superman stated to Lois in Batman v Superman’s climatic battle, “This is my world. You are my world.” Deadshot arguably treats his daughter the same way. The only problem is, whereas Clark Kent’s psychology and value system are clearly laid out in Man of Steel, few of the characters in Suicide Squad have such depth. Instead, it’s left up to the viewer to fill in the gap of whether they’re ultimately fighting for themselves or sacrificing themselves for others.
Stuart’s assessment of the DCEU is based on the principle of altruism, as shown by his contrasting Suicide Squad with Marvel movies: “Suicide Squad [is] a group of people powered not by altruism, but by guilt and self-loathing…[in the MCU], every hero…is fundamentally positive, generally altruistic, and in most cases, welcome.” Altruism is defined as “the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others.” The association of this approach to morality with positivity by Stuart is revealing, and it speaks well of him that he is able to express it on some level. However, he doesn’t realize that accepting it causes him to agree with Waller’s problem with metahumans. It’s why he sees the DCEU as being about how “metahumans are the worst thing to ever happen to humanity. And vice versa.”
The idea that heroism is, and superheros must be, altruistic is challenged in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman as Superman learns that he must fight for himself above all. In Man of Steel, he is taught the value of humanity–everyone is an individual that is free to make his or her own choices. This nature is what Jor-El means when he says “the potential of every person to be a force for good.” In Batman v Superman, Superman is taught that other people choosing to critique and attack him for his choices doesn’t detract from his choice to realize his goodness–to fight for his values. As he loses hope, his mother Martha tells him he doesn’t owe the world a thing. She is explicitly rejecting altruism. Superman is not obligated to save anyone, the act of doing so won’t make him good in itself. Rather, he should save who he sees value in. Fortunately for those other people who decry him (such as Lex Luthor), he regains his hope and what is embodied within it–“the fundamental belief in the potential of every person to be a force for good.”
Suicide Squad is the discussion of that fundamental belief. Is it justifiable? What does it mean to be a force for good? The Waller, the Squad’s creator, is actually the most evil person in the movie, holding the lives of people as bargaining chips and nonchalantly killing a room full of people because they know too much. What makes her so evil? She believes that the human part, caring about what and who you value above all (or, conventionally, selfishness), is what makes people evil. That belief is why she’s able to justify her action. She’s working towards the greater good (or, in other words, she’s necessarily a hero because her devotion is to the welfare of others).
The movie attempts to contrast it’s team of villains with Waller to illicit an irony that their humanity makes them more good than she who has lost hers. It just doesn’t quite succeed because the philosophies and psychologies of the team members isn’t as well defined as the characterization of its “leader.” For instance, Harley Quinn’s defining relationship with the Joker was notably edited down to a one-note sub-plot. Still, the movie is reaching for these ideas as it attempts to find its place in a deeply thoughtful and intricately crafted movie universe.
The DCEU has dared to ask what it means to be human and a hero rather than simply providing short term comfort for audiences’ insecurities and fears or mindless entertainment. It may not always reach the lofty peaks it is aspiring to, but it has dared to strive for them and in the process given general audiences and the mainstream culture a sorely-needed complexity to consider. That achievement is why it and Suicide Squad should be admired.
I know, it’s a lot to wrap your head around. Not for nothing, Harley Quinn did forewarn you that she’s known to be quite vexing.