Sunday, August 7, 2016

Suicide Isn’t Painless

No company or franchise has a perfect track record, but with movie adaptations of comics Marvel places more often than not. By contrast, DC since the turn of the millennium has struggled to find a winning horse despite its extensive stable of comic book characters. The big exception is Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, particularly The Dark Knight featuring Heath Ledger’s brilliant incarnation of the Joker as a nihilist anarchist philosopher-crook. Otherwise the night for DC indeed has been dark. Oh, DC actually made money from its bad movies, and one might think that is enough. But execs at both DC and Warner Brothers studios worry (with justice) that without better critic and viewer reviews the money train will stop, especially since most revenue these days is aftermarket (streaming and DVD).

Suicide Squad, now in theaters, was supposed to turn things around. It won’t. Reviews have been devastating. I’m certain this film will make money too, as the premise is an appealing one: a sort of Dirty Dozen with comic book villains. In Suicide Squad the villains are recruited to take on a superhuman adversary. All of us have a dark side as Freud noted academically in Civilization and Its Discontents and as R.L. Stevenson noted more colorfully in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Letting a viewer identify with a villain working (however opportunistically) in a good cause taps into both sides.

It surely is fatuous to complain when comic book characters are drawn cartoonishly. Yet, it is worth noting, and in this film they are.  There are only two partially redeeming characters out of a large cast: the amoral get-the-job-done Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). There is not much to say about Amanda other than that she is a very scary boss. Harley Quinn is the one character with a diagnosable mental condition. (Harley calls Deadshot [Will Smith] a standard sociopath at one point, but he isn't.) Symptoms listed in the diagnostic manual DSM-V for “histrionic personality” include 1) flirtatiousness, 2) suggestibility, 3) attention-seeking, 4) superficial speech, 5) provocative clothes, 6) overly dramatic self-representation, 7) incorrect assessment of intimacy. That’s Harley. Her completely inappropriate love affair with the Joker evokes Bonnie and Clyde.

Harley Quinn made her first appearance in the animated Batman TV series (1992) but was later fleshed out in DC comics. She was Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a psychiatrist at Arkham Mental Hospital where the Joker was imprisoned. Thanks to her own mental issues and a variety of Stockholm Syndrome she became infatuated with the Joker, helping him to escape and becoming his girlfriend/sidekick Harley Quinn. There have been some neo-Victorian complaints about the sexualization of the character, yet those complaints miss the degree to which Harley owns her sexuality as a tool – in the comics she is bisexual with a side thing for Poison Ivy. Her love for the Joker, as terrible as he is, is very much her chosen statement of identity.

I think many of us have been there. OK, maybe not with literal supervillains but certainly with inappropriate lovers.

Unfortunately this is not a movie about Harley – or Amanda. It is about the Suicide Squad and their recruiters. For the movie as a whole, despite the big budget mayhem, there is not enough there there,

Thumbs down.

Clip Suicide Squad


  1. Yeah, I had no intentions on seeing this one and really don't care to much about watching it on DVD either. I don't know if I'm going through comic book burn out or what, but something about it reminded me more of the 60's Batman TV show or the earlier Burton et al. Batman films. I've read there were a lot of flaws with the film, script problems for one. Like you said though, it'll probably make money anyway given distribution internationally.

    1. There was potential in the moral ambiguity not only of the villains but their employers. The script (despite a complicated plot) went for simplistic motives and cgi destruction. That might be enough for the box office.

  2. The trailer made this look like a lot of fun. And I've always liked Harley since the animated series days. Her twisted relationship with the Joker made for some very interesting afternoon cartoon antics. I was so looking forward to seeing her on the big screen. But this one just looks like a misfire. How great would it have been to just have a movie focusing on Harley and the Joker with Batman acting as their villain. Ah well. DC has a lot riding on Wonder Woman. We'll see what happens.

    1. It had unrealized potential.

      I understand there is a Harley movie in the works, but we'll have to wait until 2018 for it. I don't know if the character will follow her development in the comics where, oddly enough, she is a roller derby girl. She'd spend a lot of time in the penalty box.