Comics Vixen: Suicide Squad Was Not (All) Bad
Guys. I’m gonna say it. Take a deep breath. Get ready.
Suicide. Squad. Was. Not. That. Bad.
(Spoilers ahead, duh.)
Because I can already see the levels of flack I’m gonna catch for that, let me add that it wasn’t that good, either. But it was fine. It was alright. In my opinion, anyway. And this, like any review column, is ultimately an opinion column. It was a movie and I enjoyed watching it. I should also add that I preceded my viewing with a Corpse Reviver cocktail, in anticipation of a film that’s been loudly, ostentatiously, negatively reviewed by critics across the board. It sounded like the kind of movie best watched with at least one strong drink under your belt. And it is. If you want the short version of this review, it’s “See Suicide Squad, but see it drunk.”
The long version is more interesting, though. This isn’t the kind of movie that one should go into expecting some arthouse kind of experience. I went into this movie with low expectations. I wanted cool costumes, good fight scenes, maybe a few explosions. And the film delivered. More importantly, though, it delivered surprisingly compelling moments of relatability, something I really wasn’t expecting.
Much of the hate from reviewers stems from the film’s treatment of its two best-known characters: The Joker and Harley Quinn. Early promotional materials for the film showed Jared Leto’s Joker getting a lot of screen time. Viewers were somewhat outraged to discover that, in the film itself, many of his scenes were cut. In fact, the Joker is less an active presence in the film than he is a haunting shadow in the background, seen mostly through flashbacks and Harley’s romantic imagination. When he’s actually on screen, he’s not playing a significant role in the plot so much as actively fucking up Harley’s life, giving the audience insight into the character’s development.
In addition to folks being up in arms about Leto’s limited onscreen presence, there’s been a lot of hype over the fact that Harley and the Joker are so not #relationshipgoals. It’s an abusive relationship, and it always has been—in the comics, on T.V., in every iteration. But Suicide Squad isn’t really about their relationship. And it isn’t about the Joker. The Joker wasn’t on screen much because, simply put, it’s not his movie. As much as it belongs to anyone, it is Harley Quinn’s movie. (It’s also Amanda Waller’s. And Enchantress’s. And Deadshot’s. But we’ll get to that later.) The abusive-but-sexy-dude trope has had his own film plenty of times, and I don’t think he deserves another one.
And easily the greatest reason why I liked this film was because Harley Quinn came across so relatable and real, just as she does in many comics. No, her relationship is not goals. But that’s the point. She is every single one of my girlfriends that’s been through an abusive relationship and lived (or become single) to tell the story.
The Joker isn’t made out to be a winner in this film. He’s the creep who’s got everyone wondering what a beautiful girl like Harleen Quinzel sees in him. And we get to see how it happens, how he gets her. He hits all the right notes at first: establishes a connection, builds a world in which it feels like the two of them are united against everyone else. Gets Harley to admire him, to do him favors. Convinces her she has to do increasingly grandiose, self-sacrificing things to prove her love for him. He keeps pushing her, building up the importance and uniqueness of their relationship. And then he turns on her. All of a sudden she’s not good enough; all of a sudden he might abandon her. But she’s come this far, so she’s going to keep fighting for the person she built her new life around. He’s trapped her in a situation where her sense of identity is predicated upon being with him. And that’s only reinforced when he leaves her to fend for herself. Like many abusive partners, he rejects her as soon as it’s convenient for him, because he’s confident that she’ll come back when he wants her to.
It’s hard to sum up the complexities of an abusive relationship in a paragraph. But for a film, Suicide Squad does it pretty well. This shit is real. I’ve seen many of my girl friends, and a few guy friends, live through the exact same stuff, without the fancy costumes and supernatural abilities. The negging, the gaslighting, the mind control. When Harley jumps out of The Joker’s crashing helicopter and her friends (the rest of the Squad) find her sitting on a car, using the rain to hide the fact that she’s crying, and she gives them that sheepish “Hey, guys, sorry for ditching you for a man” look? I felt it. One hundred percent. Real friends pick you back up even after you’ve ditched them for a man. And real women feel the shame of realizing they gave everything up for a man who didn’t actually care about them—while at the same time knowing they would not have become the person they are without him.
Even the less drastically fucked-up relationships in the film got me in my feelings. Why did Cara Delevingne’s character, June Moone, call out for Enchantress in bed while her mustached dude-bro boyfriend (Rick Flag) eats chicken wings and stares pensively out the window? Although he goes in on the rescue mission, he was absent (at least mentally) when she needed him to be present, and she pays a price for it. There’s other ways to read that scene. But to me, it was a woman seeking a way out of a world in which she doesn’t have much power. Enchantress isn’t just an evil supernatural force, she’s an outlet from a life that feels mundane and hopeless. June relies on her boyfriend for support; Enchantress doesn’t need him at all. And Enchantress doesn’t turn to a lover when she needs help, she turns to family—her brother. Yeah, he’s another supernatural force hellbent on world domination. But I still found it touching.
Maybe what I’m trying to say is that this film wasn’t really about romance, and that’s rare, and refreshing. Although romantic relationships form the foundation for the plot—the Joker and Harley, Deadshot and the estranged mother of his children, June and Rick—the relationships that build the plot itself are between friends, family, or co-conspirators. The relationships that matter are between Deadshot and his daughter, between Harley and the rest of the team, between June and Enchantress, between Amanda Waller and…herself.
I could talk a lot more about this film, but I think I’ve said the most important things. There’s more to a comic book movie than perfect pacing between fight scenes or costumes that match the comics. Yes, there were flaws. Random characters that were on screen for only a matter of seconds; the fact that Katana hardly got to be a real character. The unnecessary bits of casual racism and stereotyping. Those criticisms are valid and I’d get into them at length if it weren’t for the fact that you can already read them here and here, among other places.
But I want to highlight the importance of putting abusive relationships onscreen in a way that’s straightforward and not romanticized. We don’t get much of that in the film industry. What we often get are popular films like Gone Girl, where the “abused” woman turns out to be crazy and a liar. Or films like The Notebook, which make abusive, controlling behavior look romantic. So, in my mind, Suicide Squad got at least one thing right. Never once do Harley and the Joker seem like a happy, enviable couple. But they do seem strangely, surprisingly, realistic.
I don’t want girls—I don’t want anyone—to look at the screen and think, “Yeah, I want a man like that, a man who will make me fall into a vat of acid and let me jump out of a helicopter while he saves himself.” But I do want girls to be able to look at the screen and think, “Yeah, I’ve been there. I know how she feels.” And if our icons, our Harley Quinns, are strong enough to walk away and fight their own battles, with the support of their friends, then maybe we will realize that we are, too.