I consider my life to consist of two parts: one before I saw Suicide Squad, the other after.
While unsure what type of film it is, Suicide Squad has a defined center. On the surface, it explores a truth about all men: We are at once terrified of the Joker and horny for Margot Robbie. Past this, though, are two subjects closer to my heart—racial science and family court.
I suspect the disjointed nature of this movie owes to the fact that it is two separate stories director David Ayer is doing a very half-assed job of trying to present as one. The first is a romance between the Joker and Harley Quinn. This element seems like the result of Jared Leto wanting to make a music video about how badass the Joker is, and Warner Brothers deciding they should build a movie around it using another film they were already shooting, a divorce and morality tale surrounding Will Smith, who must fight powerful monsters with his friends.
This latter story lays out what is purportedly the central conflict of Suicide Squad. Deep state official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has a plan to fight existential threats to the United States using superpowered “metahumans,” and to keep a lid on the most powerful of these supernatural beings, a witch named Enchantress (okay, whatever), she devises a foolproof system: Waller will keep the witch’s heart in a suitcase and send special forces commander Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to have sex with archeologist Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne), who is possessed by Enchantress.
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Somehow, this intricate plot doesn’t keep Enchantress at bay. The witch meets up with her brother, another nondescript powerful entity, and they devise their own plan to make a big hole in the center of town and throw the world into it. I’m not really sure. This possibly represents global warming.
Anyway, Waller must compile a group of supernatural villains and troops whose only superpower is the sense of honor all troops have. Many of the beings on Waller’s Suicide Squad (hell yes) correspond to some bizarre racial stereotype. We have:
Deadshot (Will Smith): The world’s deadliest assassin, able to pull off ricochet shots from hundreds of yards away from his target. But there is one shot he cannot seem to make: getting full custody of his daughter Zoe (Shailyn Pierre-Dixon).
Deadshot is in prison because his daughter told him not to kill Batman (Ben Affleck) when the raspy-voiced, voluntarily celibate hero went to arrest him. This represents fathers’ compliance with the law as opposed to going delinquent. Though he is in prison for approximately 4,000 murders, Deadshot is given the chance to have his sentence reduced if he helps the government stop Enchantress. He also demands full custody, as any good father would.
I consider Deadshot the moral center of the film, for reasons I will later explain.
El Diablo (Jay Hernandez): This Latino gangbanger can harness the power of fire when he gets really pissed off. When we first encounter him, he is in prison, as he has forsaken the ways of becoming pissed because he got so mad that he engulfed his wife and two young daughters in flames. He is enlisted in the Suicide Squad, and of course, becomes pissed once again and fights for good. We later find out he is some type of fire god, albeit the type that decided to be an extremely unimportant drug dealer in life.
Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie): A former prison psychologist who is now the lover of the Joker (Jared Leto, of course), Harley Quinn is in prison because Batman ruined their date night. Her main function in this film is to kill a monster or blow something up and then say, “That was fun!”
This is insanely twisted, and causes the viewer to turn to his or her seatmate and say, “Wow, she is really nuts.” She is in fact selected to go on such a deadly mission because of this quality.
Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje): A creature with crocodile skin who lives underwater and is in prison for unclear reasons. With about 20 minutes left in the two hour and 32 minute film, it is abruptly revealed that he is black, and that this will be portrayed in a way that would have been deemed racist if this movie had been made 40 years ago. At a crucial point in the film, he demands that in exchange for his service, the government broadcast BET into his prison cell, where he is being held for the crime of being a crocodile.
Katana (Karen Fukuhara): Colonel Rick Flag’s bodyguard, this highly-skilled masked swordswoman has made an oath of honor to her dead husband, whose soul is trapped in her katana, presumably due to a bureaucratic error. Most of her dialogue involves screaming martial arts motivational slogans in unsubtitled Japanese. We never really find out what her whole thing is. Cool, alright.
Digger Harkness/Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney): Offsetting concerns that the film is using crude racial science to inform its characters, Digger Harkness shows that David Ayer has advanced theories on white Australians, too. Digger may have the name of a Vine star, but he is the most stereotypical Australian man alive. He is inherently criminal, an alcoholic, rude, and racist. Digger represents the viewer of the film, who is also all of these things.
Slipknot (Adam Beach): While I got excited that Corey Taylor would make an appearance, this Native American wall climber (not a power, by the way) is hastily introduced just so he can be promptly killed off. Not a good look, Suicide Squad.
The Suicide Squad first meet in a prison yard, where the soundtrack (presumably all the songs David Ayer got for free when he joined Tidal) kicks into high gear with Eminem’s “Without Me.” Since Eminem makes music for Navy SEALs who are going to rehab on account of DUIs, this makes clear that this is a movie about badass redemption.
This is, however, a very specific type of badass redemption. For all of its hysterically twisted moments, race theories, and sick action, this is really a film about a man’s struggle with the tyranny that afflicts our nation’s most marginalized people: fathers.
As the film progresses, we return to Deadshot’s core desire: full custody of his daughter, who lives with her worthless mother. While one may think that it’s ridiculous for a notorious mob hitman who can seemingly kill anyone to be hamstrung by the ruling of a judge, this is the twisted yet true world of Suicide Squad, where family court can make even the most superpowered among us seem all too weak and human.
In a key scene later in the movie, where the dark protagonists are sitting in a bar and drinking bastardly bourbon, Colonel Flag commiserates with the eponymous villains. Warning: his words will bring tears to your eyes.
“The only woman I’ve ever cared about is trapped inside of a witch,” he says bitterly.
This is a clear allusion to divorce. What man constrained by the terror of child support law because the woman he married is now basically a witch has not heard himself utter these words?
Immediately after, Colonel Flag shows Deadshot years worth of letters from his daughter, sent while he was in prison but never delivered. This is another clear message for dads: The state (Flag) may keep us from our kids, but we will go through Hell (the plot and overall film) for them.
Opposite the classic disgusted dad/antihero is the Joker, the most shocking thing ever captured on film, including ISIS beheading videos. At first, we think that the Joker is the cunning rogue who will tell you straight to your face that bad stuff is good and laugh at his own evil. But the Joker in fact represents the mirror image of the downtrodden father: he is rebirth after divorce.
Rather than Heath Ledger’s rumpled suit and smeared makeup, Jared Leto dons the tailored blazers and gaudy jewelry of a man who has been through the wringer of unsympathetic family court judges and alimony and come out the other side, now stylish and confident. In fact, Joker even sounds like a pick-up artist alias.
When we first see him, he is seducing Harley Quinn in one of the film’s numerous flashback scenes. After catching his assigned psychologist’s eye with dope PUA techniques and butterfly knife tricks, he earns her undying love by being cool and insane. She becomes so powerfully horny for the twisted Joker that she helps break him out of Arkham Asylum and later submits to electrocution and a chemical dunk, signifying the ways in which an experienced lover who now knows how little society values dads can invigorate a young woman’s life.
The Joker spends most of the movie theoretically pursuing Harley Quinn. However, most of his scenes consist of him standing around really cool shit like knives or guns and laughing maniacally. This is divorced-man zen, which differentiates him from Flag (a man whose relationship started off beautifully but now sees the woman he loves reduced to a witch because of current divorce laws) and Deadshot (child-support badass), men who let the courts consume them.
With all of this going on, the monster quest that supplies the nominal plot of the film feels hastily added on. Also, absolutely none of it makes sense. We don’t know who the witch beings or her brother are. We know that they’re absolutely invincible when facing troops, tanks, and guided missiles, but can be killed by a combination of melee attacks and C4. Further, the central reason for the conflict between Flag and his fiancee/wife/polyamorous partner—we’ve been told that the only way to stop Enchantress from going bananas is to kill the body that she occupies—is completely discarded with zero explanation.
While these stories do such a poor job of forming a full film that the viewer actually feels like they are being given unreality issues, it is clear that while its individual parts may be dangerously demented, Suicide Squad has a moral: The most rebellious thing you can do is obey the rules and fight for good. (I would warn you about spoilers, but you probably knew that was going to end up happening.) With 10 minutes left in the movie, the Suicide Squad decides that they are best friends and would die for each other. After this, they voluntarily return to prison, even though the leverage the government has been using to control them—explosives planted in their necks—has been disabled.
(This development is also totally discarded in order to set up a sequel, by the way. Can’t wait!)
I think that this moral is director David Ayer’s own rebuttal to the freewheeling, divorced maverick Joker. During a scene where all the characters are shown their true desires by Enchantress, Harley Quinn’s ultimate fantasy is to be a normie mother of two kids with a sans-makeup Joker. Ayer is telling us that at the end of the day, women want to reform bad boys, and that this is good because holding to family values is actually what is truly insane in this twisted modern society.
In short, this is an adventure in Ross Douthat’s apocalypse of sexually liberated women and laws designed to harm families, but with a happy ending only he could write. Imagine if God met the man at Yale, but then took him to Hot Topic. That’s really what this experience is all about.
For all its problems, though, what matters is that Suicide Squad has completely changed the way I see the world. I now realize that the person I judge for having cool tattoos or being an antihero actually has a heart of gold. I realize that fathers need our help. And I realize that society is actually the crazy one.
Felix Biederman (@ByYourLogic) is a writer and cohost of the podcast @ChapoTrapHouse.