4-Color to 35-Millimeter: The Great Superhero Movie Rewatch

“We’re bad guys, it’s what we do!” — Suicide Squad

The origins of the Suicide Squad go all the way back to 1959, as a feature in The Brave and Bold by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru featuring Colonel Rick Flag and a team of adventurers dealing with bizarre phenomena and monstrous opponents. In 1987, as part of the Legends miniseries, John Ostrander, Len Wein, and John Byrne revived the Suicide Squad as a government covert ops team made up primarily of incarcerated super-villains working off their sentences.

The Suicide Squad spinoff comic by Ostrander and Luke McDonnell was one of the best comic books of the late 1980s, and the team has been part of the DC universe on and off since. And in 2016, they made it part of their nascent DC Extended Universe in movies.

The reintroduction of the Suicide Squad three decades ago gave us arguably the most important and impressive non-powered, non-costumed character in the DC universe (if not all of mainstream comics): Amanda Waller. A tough-as-nails government operative, she’s also a plus-sized black woman, something almost never seen in any kind of fiction, much less superhero comics.

Waller is the head of Task Force X, which is deals with threats to the U.S. on missions that might be dangerous. Hence the use of super-villains: they’re expendable. Each is equipped with a bomb that will detonate if they get too far from Colonel Flag (or whoever’s in charge of the mission). The villains are given a chance to reduce their sentences—each mission that they survive shortens their time—and actually serve their country.

Versions of the Squad and Task Force X have appeared in DC’s TV adaptations in the past, including the animated Justice League Unlimited (with Waller, voiced by CCH Pounder, a recurring role in the series), and the live-action Smallville (Waller played by Pam Grier) and Arrow (Waller played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson). While the roster of the Squad has varied wildly, Flag, Deadshot, and Captain Boomerang—stalwarts of the comics version of the Squad—are in most of the adaptations as well. Waller also appeared in 2011’s Green Lantern, played by Angela Bassett.

Having the Squad in Arrow was specifically done as a trial balloon to see if audiences would respond to a movie. At that, they were very successful—in particular, Nick Tarabay was an excellent Captain Boomerang—and so a Squad movie was greenlit, bringing in Viola Davis to play Waller (Octavia Spencer and Oprah Winfrey were also considered), and Jay Kinnaman to play Flag after Tom Hardy had to drop out.

Both Boomerang and Deadshot were givens to be part of the roster for the film. Both D-list villains associated with, respectively, the Flash and Batman prior to 1987, Ostrander developed both characters brilliantly in the Suicide Squad comic book. Boomerang became the embittered comic relief, and also one character who remained unrepentantly evil and self-serving no matter what. Deadshot, though, became a much more complex character, given a background and a brutal past history. Jai Courntey was cast as Boomerang, with Will Smith (last seen in this rewatch in the Men in Black trilogy) playing Deadshot.

The rest of the team included Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnoye-Agbaje, last seen in this rewatch in Thor: The Dark World), Katana (Karen Fukuhara), Slipknot (Adam Beach), and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie).

The Enchantress was a mystical antihero/villain type from the 1960s—a split personality, she was both June Moone and another personality/persona, the Enchantress, who was not always on the side of the angels. El Diablo started as an Old West vigilante in All-Star Western in 1970, and there have been two different modern versions, one a costumed hero, the other—the one this version is based on—a villain. Killer Croc is a longtime Batman villain, born with a rare genetic condition that gives him a reptilian appearance as well as great strength. Katana was a founding member of the Outsiders, and has also been part of the Birds of Prey and the Justice League. Slipknot was a minor Firestorm villain from the 1980s who, like Enchantress, has become much more prominent since appearing in the Suicide Squad comic.

And then there’s Harley Quinn. Originally created for Batman: The Animated Series as Joker’s moll/sidekick, the character—voiced by Arleen Sorkin—became a massive hit, and quickly was brought into the comics continuity. Formerly a therapist named Harleen Quinzel, she became obsessed with the Joker while treating him and went over to the metaphorical dark side.

Her past with the Joker is used in this movie, with Jared Leto playing the Clown Prince of Crime. Ben Affleck also reprises his role as Batman in a small role capturing both Quinn and Deadshot. The intent was to set up Leto to be the Joker in an Affleck-led movie called The Batman, but what with Joaquin Phoenix now playing the title role in the upcoming Joker and Affleck no longer attached to The Batman, who the hell knows.

Besides Affleck, there’s also a cameo by Ezra Miller as the Flash capturing Boomerang. David Harbour plays Dexter Tolliver, Ike Barinholtz plays Griggs, Scott Eastwood plays GQ Edwards, and Alain Chanoine plays Incubus, Enchantress’s brother.

The film was a box-office success, but a critical flop. A sort-of sequel, The Suicide Squad, is being written and directed by Guardians of the Galaxy‘s James Gunn for 2021 release, with only Robbie and Courtney so far confirmed to be reprising their roles. Robbie is also starring in a spinoff, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), due for early 2020 release.

 

“Behold the voice of God”

Suicide Squad
Written and directed by David Ayer
Produced by Charles Roven and Richard Suckle
Original release date: August 5, 2016

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

Amanda Waller meets with two government officials to pitch Task Force X. While Superman was a good guy, he’s dead now, and the next Superman might not be so nice. The government needs controllable assets to bring to bear against the next threat. Waller already has five prisoners in the Belle Reve black site in mind: Deadshot, an assassin-for-hire, who is stopped by Batman (Waller got an anonymous tip to him identifying Deadshot as Floyd Lawton, and Batman stops him when he’s visiting his daughter); Harley Quinn, the Joker’s lover/sidekick, also captured by Batman; Captain Boomerang, a thief captured by the Flash; El Diablo, a super-powered gangbanger who turned himself in after he accidentally killed his wife and children; Killer Croc, a mutant who was driven out of Gotham by Batman and eventually captured; and Slipknot, another assassin, whose background is never provided because he’s going to be killed early on.

Waller also has in her custody June Moone, an archaeologist who was possessed by an ancient sorceress, the Enchantress. Former Special Forces Colonel Rick Flag works for Waller, and he has fallen in love with Moone, and Waller says she can control Enchantress two ways: (1) through Flag, who will protect Moone with his life, and (2) she has Enchantress’s heart in a box and will destroy it if she acts up.

The prisoners themselves will be outfitted with nano-bombs that Flag and Waller control—and if anything happens to Flag, all the bombs will go off. Supporting Flag is a team of SEALs and Special Forces personnel as well as a Japanese swordswoman named Katana, whose sword absorbs the souls of those it kills.

Griggs—the asshole in charge of Belle Reve, who regularly torments both Quinn and Deadshot—is also an inveterate gambler, and Joker uses that as leverage to get him to sneak a cell phone to Quinn and get information about the nanobombs.

Enchantress manages to sneak out on Flag and resurrect her brother, the Incubus, who possesses a businessman in Midway City, and then absorbs several other people’s life forces (a cop, a transit worker, a doctor) to give himself corporeal form and power. He starts to take over Midway, prompting an evacuation of the city and the government to activate Task Force X.

While the Task Force is gathered, Flag and Enchantress go to Midway, but Enchantress then reveals her duplicity, and abandons Flag to join her brother—and Incubus manages to reinforce Enchantress’s power so that Waller can’t harm her heart. Flag is forced to abandon the mission and leaves behind the bomb that was going to be used to blow up the bad guy. This will probably be important later.

The Task Force X recruits are implanted with their nanobombs and sent on their first mission: to retrieve Waller, who is covering up her own involvement in this disaster (she goes so far as to kill the other people in the safehouse with her). En route, they encounter people who’ve been turned into demon cannon fodder by the Incubus and the Enchantress. Boomerang convinces Slipknot that the nanobombs are a con, and Slipknot believes him, resulting in Flag detonating his bomb and killing him.

Joker has gone to the company the nanobombs come from and blackmailed the chief scientist into giving away the method for deactivating them. He then hijacks the extraction helicopter that’s supposed to take the Suicide Squad out of Midway and deactivates Quinn’s bomb. She goes off with her Puddin’. Waller offers to reunite Deadshot with his daughter if he kills Quinn, but he misses—Deadshot has explicitly said he doesn’t kill women or children, and he and the rest of the Squad have bonded over their mutually shitty situation.

Waller sends the Army in to blow up Joker’s helicopter, and it crashes to the ground, though Quinn survives. We never see Joker’s body, though.

Enchantress learns that Waller is in town and takes her hostage, complete with the box containing Enchantress’s heart. Waller’s files are left behind after she’s captured, and the Squad learn the truth about who they’re facing. Quinn rejoins them, and they all decide to go for a drink, as they’re fed up with being lied to. Flag joins them in the bar, smashes the tablet that controls their bombs, and says he’s going after Enchantress. The Squad decides to go along, since they’re no longer being forced. (In Deadshot’s case, Flag was carrying out the letters that Deadshot’s daughter was writing to him every day—yes, he was carrying all those letters with him on a mission for no reason the script can be bothered to explain—and Deadshot says he’ll help Flag but only so his daughter can know that her father isn’t a complete piece of shit.)

Killer Croc and a team of SEALs go into the now-flooded tunnels to retrieve the bomb, while the rest of them confront Enchantress and Incubus. El Diablo—who has finally embraced using his powers again—distracts Incubus long enough for Croc and the gang to set up the bomb. El Diablo and the SEAL team sacrifice themselves to destroy him.

That just leaves Enchantress. The team can’t really fight her on their own, but then Quinn says that she’s willing to join her. However, it’s just a ruse to get close enough to cut out her heart. Flag gives Croc a package of C4 which he throws at Enchantress, and which Deadshot detonates with a perfect shot. Flag threatens to crush Enchantress’s heart if she doesn’t bring Moone back; Enchantress refuses, thinking Flag too weak to do it. Flag then proves her wrong and crushes the heart—which, it turns out, frees Moone.

The Squad isn’t thrilled at the notion of going back to prison, but Waller does say their sentences are reduced, and she also gives most of them perks: Deadshot can visit his daughter, Quinn gets an espresso maker, and Croc gets a television. (Boomerang doesn’t get any perks because he mouths off to Waller.)

And then there’s a breakout—Joker shows up to get Quinn out of prison.

Finally, Waller meets with Bruce Wayne, who promises to protect Waller in exchange for her files (which includes dossiers on Enchantress, Flash, and Aquaman). He also says that she should shut down Task Force X, or he and his friends will do it for her. Almost like he’s forming a team or something…

 

“Normal is a setting on the dryer”

 

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

This movie starts out so promisingly and then goes so totally off the rails, and it’s frustrating.

The setup is perfect, and very well done, if a bit drawn out. The government responding to the death of Superman in Dawn of Justice with a government-controlled team of metahumans makes perfect sense. And the team as assembled is well suited to a covert ops team, with powerhouses in El Diablo, Enchantress, and Killer Croc plus the street savvy and murderous skills of Deadshot, Quinn, Boomerang, and Slipknot.

And then they piss it all away on a save-the-world-from-the CGI-monster plot that has been the go-to of far too many films in this rewatch.

The Suicide Squad is a covert ops team. In case we’ve forgotten that, Waller says as much when she’s pitching the notion to the Joint Chiefs. A movie starring them should feel like a Mission: Impossible movie or The Dirty Dozen.

Instead, David Ayer gives us a plot that would not be out of place as the plot of a Justice League or Avengers movie: heroes band together to save the world from a massive threat.

That isn’t what the Squad is all about, though. They don’t save the world from big-ass threats, they protect the country from subtle threats. They work in the shadows, not in big fights in train stations.

They’re also criminals who are only in it for themselves. Seeing them come together in the bar and decide to ante up and be heroes anyhow doesn’t feel earned in the least. The camaraderie among the team members is utterly unconvincing as well. It’s a good thing Deadshot said he didn’t kill women and children, because it’s the only reason I believe he didn’t kill Quinn when Waller ordered him to. I have a much easier time believing that Quinn would actually join Enchantress in helping take over the world than I would that she’d kill her to protect the rest of the team. El Diablo calls them his family before he sacrifices himself, and I just don’t see it.

The movie suffers from lukewarm antagonists. Cara Delivingne and Alain Chanoine are nowhere as the mystical villains, and Jared Leto’s Joker is—okay? I guess? I dunno, he’s got his moments, and he feels right for the part, but he’s underwhelming. He doesn’t dominate the action the way Cesar Romero, Mark Hamill, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger did.

Screenshot: Warner Bros. Pictures

Worse, though, is Jay Kinnaman, who is completely DOA as Flag. Robert Kanigher’s version of Flag from the original Suicide Squad was an un-nuanced stiff, but John Ostrander made him a tormented soldier with trust issues and a deadly mix of a death wish with a fear of death. Kinnaman is pretty much Kanigher’s incredibly boring Flag, and I really wish Tom Hardy had stuck with the role, because he could’ve given us Ostrander’s much more interesting one.

Will Smith is frustrating here, because Smith can act, but most of the time he’s just called upon to play The Will Smith Character, which costs us getting to see Deadshot, instead getting Assassin Will Smith. Mind you, The Will Smith Character is always fun and entertaining and gets most of the best lines, which Smith delivers with strong emotions and impeccable timing, but I really wanted to see Deadshot.

Viola Davis is the best live-action Waller we’ve gotten so far, though the script makes her frustratingly ineffective—the whole plot happens because she wasn’t able to keep Enchantress in check, and she’s captured and rendered helpless, needing to be rescued by her team, and in the end she’s asking Bruce Wayne for help. Still, she nails the character’s steel and resolve perfectly, and I hope they bring her back for The Suicide Squad, as the Squad without a strong Waller is pointless.

Jay Hernandez (currently being all charming in the new Magnum P.I. series) gives El Diablo heart, and you feel for him when he sacrifices himself. Jai Courtney doesn’t elevate Boomerang beyond “asshole,” but the script doesn’t help matters. (As I said above, Nick Tarabay was way more effective on Arrow in the same role.) Adewale Akinnoye-Agbaje is clearly having fun as Croc, and Karen Fukuhara is quietly effective as Katana.

But the star of this movie is Margot Robbie, who simply nails it, perfectly channeling Arleen Sorkin’s Brooklyn attitude as Quinn. She takes over the movie, absolutely nailing Quinn’s psychosis, her fatal attraction to “Mr. J,” her warped sense of humor, and her weird sense of loyalty. It’s hardly surprising that, three years later, conventions are still filled with cosplayers in “Daddy’s Li’l Monster” t-shirts and short-shorts carrying baseball bats…

Let’s hope that James Gunn, who pretty much did Suicide Squad in Space with the two Guardians of the Galaxy movies, can get it right next time.

 

After this, we turn the clock back a century to World War I, as the world is introduced to Wonder Woman.

Keith R.A. DeCandido compiled a collection of quotes by and about Batman for the Insight Editions Tiny Book Batman: Quotes from Gotham City, which will be out in July. Also coming in July is his Alien novel Isolation, based in part on the 2014 videogame of the same name.

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