A Feminist Perspective on “Suicide Squad”

Content Warning: Domestic Violence.

 

Confession time: I am a huge geek. I love everything video games, comic books, and superheroes; those of you who know me know that one of the staples of my outfit is a backwards Deadpool cap. When it comes to comic book universes, I’m partial to Marvel for a lot of reasons–but I can definitely still get into DC from time to time. So, like everyone else in the widespread superhero-movie-craze fandom, I was really excited to see the villain-centered Suicide Squad when it came out this summer.

Boy, do I wish I hadn’t been.

Look, I’m not totally naive; I know how problematic comic book storylines can be, especially the mainstream ones like Marvel and DC, which are typically marketed toward an audience that, for whatever reason, people seem to think is more misogynistic and dominated by men than it actually is. We often give directors and producers of comic book-based movies a free pass, because “that’s how it is in the comics,” while also allowing movies to diverge wildly from comic books in other ways. Take the Heath Ledger Joker in The Dark Knight, for example: he was wildly popular, even though he was nothing like the Joker that appeared in the comics, Batman movies, or even the Arkham video games. Both Ledger and the creators of the movie took “artistic license,” which, in my and many people’s opinions, resulted in a rich, complex character that paid homage to his predecessors while still moving forward a refreshing storyline.

It is this artistic license that I wish the creators of Suicide Squad would have taken with their women characters. Aside from the fact that the movie is generally poorly made, it totally ignores the complexity of its women characters. Amanda Waller, played by Viola Davis, has the potential to be the real antagonist of the movie: a hardass, ruthless government official who stops at nothing to get what she believes is right, caring little about casualties in the way of what she considers the greater good. Instead, she is a simple plot device, existing really only to form the Squad (and then some confusing plot interaction later on). Katana, played by Karen Fukuhara, is a hero placed with the Squad to keep them in line. She is a skilled swordswoman with a haunting past, a quiet, brooding demeanor, and a sword that keeps in it the souls of the people it has slain…aaaand the movie focuses on her once, maybe twice if you’re really looking. She serves no purpose whatsoever in the story, making her tragic backstory her singular dimension. Dr. June Moon, who is possessed by the evil Enchantress (both played by Cara Delevingne), is the movie’s attempt at a main villain. Although she could have represented a complex, Jekyll-and-Hyde type dichotomy between good and evil, the Enchantress is reduced to an abstracted, confusing villain and Dr. Moon to a plot-furthering device for her significant other, who just happens to be Rick Flagg, the military veteran in charge of the Squad.

These women, of course, are not intended to be the stars of the show; that role belongs to Harley Quinn, played by Margot Robbie. To her credit, Robbie did a pretty phenomenal job of making a complex character out of the ditzy, over-sexualized material she was given to work with. However, within Quinn’s character lies a darker sub-plot that can be very tricky to navigate: her romantic involvement with the Joker (played by Jared Leto). Suicide Squad did not delve much into this relationship except to confirm that it exists. This is concerning for a very important reason–the Joker is emotionally and physically abusive to Harley, in the comics and even in the animated TV series. There are talks of a Harley Quinn solo movie in the future, and I deeply hope that it will at least begin to follow the comic story arc in which Harley leaves the Joker and begins her healing process (and eventually develops a deeply supportive, polyamorous relationship with Poison Ivy!). For the time being, however, I firmly believe that DC has done a disservice to the young women in its audience, glorifying a relationship that should absolutely never be glorified. I can’t tell you how many “relationship goals” memes, and even merchandise, I’ve seen starring Harley and the Joker. DC has a serious responsibility to correct this glorification in subsequent movies.

Believe it or not, I haven’t even begun to discuss what disgusted me most about Suicide Squad. All of the characters I’ve mentioned above at least had some sort of voice or presence in the movie; one very important character, Diablo’s wife, did not get that chance. Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is the case in which I think creative license was most necessary in this movie. Both in the comic books and in Suicide Squad, Diablo, covered in tattoos with the ability to control fire, is depicted as calm, quiet, and reluctant to use his powers at first, having sworn off his life of crime. Initially, I wanted to like his character–he seemed to have a good setup for the complexity the movie had so far been lacking. Later in the movie, though, the audience learns why Diablo has decided to turn his life around. After brushing over what appears to be a very set pattern of abuse from Diablo to his wife, Diablo’s backstory scene shows the character burning his wife and children to death in a fit of rage over drugs and money. His blatant murder of his family, we find out, is what drives Diablo’s plot. This is problematic for layers upon layers of reasons. The other characters in the Suicide Squad spend a large portion of the movie trying to convince Diablo to let his temper, which is directly connected with his powers, loose to help them fight Enchantress. What may have been a successful reversal of abusive tendencies via meditation and isolation for Diablo is now almost certainly reversed. More importantly, though, Diablo’s horrific murder of his family is nothing more than trauma porn to further his story, rather than an attempt to accurately portray domestic violence and the consequences it can have on its victims. Rather than grieving the loss of Diablo’s wife and children, we are instead supposed to feel sympathetic for him, because he “couldn’t control himself” and has now lost his family. Let me tell you a little secret: abusers can always control themselves. Domestic violence is an active choice on the part of the abuser, and the fact that the creators of Suicide Squad chose to depict it as anything besides intentional is beyond harmful and misleading for their audience of young adults. I couldn’t help but think of all the survivors of domestic violence I know: brave, resilient, resourceful people, mostly women, whose healing processes I am much more concerned about than whatever guilt or remorse their abusers may or may not feel. It makes me sick to about how easily that people like them are erased in media. To put it frankly, after I found out that Diablo was an abuser, I couldn’t have given less of a shit about him. I felt nothing even close to negative when his character was killed. I didn’t care about his “redemption.” He was an abuser, and it is harmful that the movie’s creators tried to make him a more complex character than that (ironic, right?). I’m sick of popular culture trying to create sympathy for abusers while silencing the voices of survivors.

In case you couldn’t tell, I really, really was not a fan of Suicide Squad, and I regret contributing money to their box office sales. I hope Margot Robbie has the chance to better represent Harley Quinn in the future, but, other than that, I don’t think I’ll have anything to do with any Suicide Squad-related films.

–Jo

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