Wednesday, 10 August 2016
The Hidden Optimism of Suicide Squad - Murderous Heroism
It's saying something when a cinematic franchise has failed three times over and keeps going. In most other eras it might be unique, even a bizarre oddity reserved to Italian knock-off schlock, but Hollywood practically seems to run on it these days. Between the live action Transformers dreck, the Expendables films, and, well, you've probably already thought of a dozen other ones, it seems to make up a good third of big budget films these days. It's especially bad when a franchise screws up multiple internationally recognised icons of justice and hope, turning them into murderers, thieves and psychopaths in the name of financial greed. Hello, Warner Bros, how is that quick and easy path to a cinematic universe coming along, anyway?
To call Warner Bros' efforts inept would be like calling the sea "wet". It's just redundant by this point, and despite their demands ruining Green Lantern (which proved to be middlingly bad), Man of Steel (has points worthy of discussion) and Batman v Superman (What the hell were you thinking!?) they seem to have learned nothing. Yet, what makes it fascinating is just how their failure has taken on a new form with this new film, turning a group of unscrupulous murderers into sympathetic heroes even as they ruin the Justice League.
Naturally such a discussion requires spoilers so please consider yourself fully warned.
A key thing to consider here is where each protagonist started and ended in their films. It's not even a question of following the Hero's Journey or basic storytelling structure, but how they grew and what drove them. Simple stuff to be sure, but it's a key factor which has really hurt the founders of the Justice League many times over, as the writers seem to keep missing what makes them tick. Each and every film will show the hero overcoming an obstacle after all, but what makes it all the more satisfying is seeing them become a better person as a result of it. The problem is that, despite being something of an origin story, those from the Justice League have not so much grown as leveled out. Each took a few steps forwards, made their presence better known to the world, but in all their broody glory they have failed to be truly courageous.
Consider for a moment the lasting impression Superman left upon audiences as they left Man of Steel. What you had was an alien who had done little to nothing to truly save anyone even as a doomsday machine annihilated an entire city about him. He then made things worst by, after decades of refusing to use his powers to save anyone, getting into a superhero battle in the middle of a crowded location, putting hundreds of lives at risk. He murdered the last of his kind in an act which, as had been pointed out countless times before now, could have easily been avoided, even answering "Krypton had its chance!" upon annihilating the last hope for his people. So much for being a child of two worlds, eh?
There are arguments to be made in favour of certain points, yes, and there are even excuses to be put forwards in the name of a more positive view. However, there's no denying that many key points which could have depicted Sups saving lives were passed up in favour of big 'splosions. Throughout the entire film, the only person he seems to directly save are Lois and his mother, leading to the accusation this hero was driven more by personal needs than a true desire to do good. Even his basic character arc, while showing him rising into the public view, little was done to show him taking on true responsibility at the end of the day. An issue which would ultimately only get worse in the following film, with further needless murders and open hostility.
Batman is even simpler. Despite Ben Affleck's excellent performance, the jaded and exhausted caped crusader proved to be less Dark Knight Returns and more Midnighter. Well, that's not entirely fair, at least Midnighter has a few people to help him draw the line in places. The point is that we had an old and bitter hero get out of retirement, begin regaining his strength and prepare to defend humanity by attacking Superman of all people. Downright fanatically obsessed with annihilating him (resulting in famed lines like "if we believe there's even a one percent chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty and we have to destroy him.") what we got was a Batman who was an overly hostile prick. Even without getting into his downright murderous tendencies, poor writing made his feud with Sups seem akin to a petty grudge than justified via extreme circumstances.
Top off the metahuman dick-waving and murder with a near total disregard for civilian lives - no one is about to forget them dragging Doomsday across a populated city any time soon - and the Justice League looks as if they're as a big a threat to the world as the enemies they fight.
By comparison, consider for a moment where the Suicide Squad start off. While Batman had years of experience and Superman had vast powers to his advantage, this is a team largely bereft of all advantages. The few who truly have superpowers are either haunted by their presence or make them as big a threat to their allies as to the enemy, and are treated more as a curse or mutation than a true gift. While each of them are criminals, some horrific ones, others are victims of circumstances beyond their control, and by the time we meet them a few are even attempting to repent. Diablo, for starters, has to be pushed into using his abilities once again after an uncontrolled outburst killed his family and Deadshot's main motivation is to see his daughter again. Well, that and get her away from a mother strongly suggested to be negligent if not outright abusive. Already this is more than we see from either of the big two heroes of the DC universe in these adaptations, and Diablo seems to be the only one to truly feel guilt over the casualties wrought by his violence.
These are supposed to be the villains who fight bigger villains here, the ones we are supposed to root for despite being bad people, but if anything their story proves to be more hopeful than the prior DC releases. We are talking about a film where the government takes advantage of their desperation and desire for freedom after all, using them as expendable fodder for bigger superhuman targets, and throws them under the bus when it all goes wrong. Well, when they're not being used to cover up the government's own mistakes at any rate. Unlike the past two outings, the death toll itself isn't so much the squad's own fault as that of their employer Amanda Waller, after she fails to fully comprehend just what kind of forces she's messing with. After all, she treated an ancient magical force as little more than a personal toy, unleashing it upon Midway City and turning almost all those there into twisted humanoid abominations. This already means that the protagonists themselves aren't the fault of so many deaths, and are instead being sent to try and prevent more destruction.
However, what makes this stand out more than anything else is what happens towards the third and final act. When the squad learns that Waller is responsible for this mess, and that the very target they are sent to extract safely is her, they're on the verge of quitting. Flagg, the one meant to keep them in line, goes so far as to disable the explosives planted in their heads after things have gone truly FUBAR, expecting them to run. They talk and, with the admitted exception of Captain Boomerang the self confessed bogan, opt to instead stay. Without a gun to their head, without any reason to truly stick around thanks to someone else trying to fix things, they opt to instead try to do some good for once in their lives, seeing it as a chance to prove themselves. True, they are getting a few things out of it for themselves, but ten years off of multiple life sentences and a few bonuses is a small thing at best. Crazy as Harley Quinn is, even she isn't quite so demented to face the forces of hell purely to get an espresso machine in her cell.
Oddly enough, even as a bunch of lawbreakers, they're given more time to bond and come together as a team than the Justice League. They don't spend nearly so long trying to kill one another as the other films, stick largely to co-operating with gritted teeth, and the extended bar scene serves mostly to solidify their alliance than anything else. While the actual final act might be forced, and rushed through with a couple of very abrupt edits, it's more than anything we've seen elsewhere, and closer to what made the dynamic work in the Avengers than anywhere else. Plus, you know, it's at least not down to learning that their parents names are "Martha" and suddenly resolving all their problems.
None of this is supposed to truly excuse the crimes of the Suicide Squad, or to try and claim that they are the moral pillars of the setting. Instead, this is meant to point out the failure of the big expected names under Warner Bros. They seem to have their priorities and presentation of such figures so skewed that villains and heroes have more or less switched places, and this latest film has shown just how blurred that line has become. Yes, that can open up good ideas for storytelling, but half the appeal of Superman is the idea of someone with that much power being upstanding, morally unquestionably good and helping people. The closest we have seen to anything of the sort thus far is a very brief montage, which was likely only added in thanks to fan complaints against Man of Steel. Despite Suicide Squad's own numerous failings, from Harley's costume to the studio hacking this film to bits, it proves to be more of a genuine superhero film than anything they have done thus far. When that's the case, Warner Bros. really needs to slow down, then produce a few truly great films establishing their icons as heroes.
Well, that or quickly move onto a Secret Six film, whichever comes first.