(image from DCcomicsmovies.com)
A Socialist Feminist Suicide Squad Review:
I love comic book movies. When I was young, I collected comic books. I created my own comic books. While I am not a full-fledged citizen of comic book geekdom, I am at least a traveller in the realm. So, of course, I went to see Suicide Squad. I knew it was poorly reviewed, so I expected the worst. I was surprised to find that it was better than I anticipated. It was better than Batman v. Superman, Antman, and Deadpool. However, it contained more overt sexism than other superhero films I’ve seen. More than other comic book films, it gave me some feminist food for thought. Thus, it is my duty as a feminist to pop any sexist pop-cultural bubble. It is my passion to rain on any patriarchal parade. I must be the ants in the misogynist picnic. There will be no fun and games where feminists lurk about. So, here it is, a review of Suicide Squad, or at least a review of some of the female characters.
I enjoyed Amanda Waller because she is a powerful female character, who, unlike the other female characters in the film is not sexualized. In fact, she is presented as fairly asexual character clad in professional clothing and a self-possessed, cold, and reserved personality. In contrast to Nick Fury, there is no point in the film where she comes across as a savior or hero. While both characters are powerful and duplicitous, Nick Fury, at least in the films, can be counted upon to do the “right” thing. He is generally on the side of the Avengers, or at the very least is not going to kill them or any of his underlings. Waller is on her own side. Unlike other minorities in the film, she does not adhere to common racial or gender stereotypes. In this way, she is a refreshing contrast to the other characters. She is a sturdy African American woman who ruthlessly pursues her agenda to control metahumans and promote U.S. security interests. To this end, she kills a group of employees who do not have an appropriate security clearance, puts herself in danger to better study Enchantress’ powers, and orchestrates her own rescue by the Suicide Squad. Waller is the villain of the movie inasmuch as she coerces a group of criminals to protect U.S. security interests. In this sense, the villain wins in the movie. After Enchantress is defeated, the Suicide Squad returns to prison with a few miniscule benefits such as an Espresso machine, letter privileges, and shortened prison times. These are token payments considering that they saved the world from destruction. Although Waller is responsible for the mass destruction wrought by Enchantress, her only consequence is having to provide Batman her files. I enjoyed that she was “evil” without being campy or maniacal. She represented the ordinary “evil” of militarism, capitalism, patriarchy, and bureaucracy.
With that said, her character raises some important issues. She is a strong Black woman in a non-traditional role. However, this doesn’t mean that her character promotes feminism. The inclusion of strong women in films is nice, but I wouldn’t consider it feminist unless it somehow challenges patriarchy. Amanda Waller is strong, but her strength comes at the expense of other women. She literally controls the heart of the Enchantress, which she uses to bend the witch to her will. In order to gain the approval of the old, white, military men, she demonstrates her control over Enchantress, treating her like a trained dog. She has her trained pet pick up a secret file from Iran. Her career depends upon navigating a white man’s world. To accomplish this, she must dress like a professional. She must talk like a white person. She must control women. She must use and abuse prisoners. She must threaten people of color with the death penalty (by remote control). She must live a solitary life. There is no room for kids, husbands, or people to care for. A woman can have a career or she can have kids, but it is hard to balance both. She is reminiscent of leaders like Condoleeza Rice, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, or Margaret Thatcher, who like Waller, do not represent gains for women in the sense that they are war mongers who step on the working class, minorities, women, and the poor in their promotion of imperialist interests.
Waller is an essential part of the film. She brings everyone together and is responsible for the plot (as disjointed as it is). The characters respect and fear her, which may send the message to women that in order to be respected you must be asexual and act/dress/think like a white man. While her character is not well developed, there is a sense that she has history and a vision. What is going on inside her head? What does she think of the Suicide Squad? In my opinion, I think she worked hard to get where she was. Perhaps she feels bitter about the hard road. Her intelligence, strategic mind, and composure helped her to succeed, but in doing so, she can’t identify with the plight of criminals, women, or racial minorities. She thinks she is better and different from them. Because she is better and different, she doesn’t have qualms with exploiting the exploited. Afterall, there’s room at the top of the hill if you can learn how to smile as you kill. She doesn’t smile, but she does restrain a smirk.
Enchantress has been reviewed pretty harshly by critics because of her revealing outfit, convoluted motive, and lack of character development. Really, I didn’t mind the Enchantress. I was happy to see a female villain in addition to Amanda Waller. I was not particularly bothered by her revealing outfit, but perhaps this is because of my own interpretation of the character. Little is revealed about her in the film, but it is mentioned that she is a witch from another dimension. An artifact containing her soul is discovered in an unidentified jungle temple. Now, based upon the fact that she was worshiped by a temple building jungle dwelling society, it could be extrapolated that this culture had private property and social stratification. After all, if everyone was equal, there would be no excess labor to build temples. It is also unlikely that there would be a sufficient population to build a temple if this society was hunter/gatherer. With that said, I imagine the culture having private property and therefore some degree of patriarchy. However, there may have been some elements of female power through respect or worship of female fertility. Perhaps Enchantress represented a female fertility deity to them. Or, perhaps she crafted herself as such to appeal to pre-existing notions of goddesses. The fact that she was worshipped alongside her brother is consistent with my interpretation. The society that worshiped her was patriarchal with one foot still in the matriarchal or matrilineal past. In any event, her skimpy outfit might have showcased her body, highlighting her sexuality and fertility, sources of female power. The fact that she kissed people or gyrated to perform spells would also support a theory that she was worshipped as a representation of female sexuality. Also, if she resided in a jungle, she might choose to wear less clothes because of the heat. Thus, I feel that it is possible that her apparel and behavior might have a historical/geographical context. Certainly the modern context is that it makes her visually appealing for the audience. However, the camera does not pan over her body in the same way it does for Harley Quinn. The camera does not zoom in on her butt or chest. Her body is often contorted or crouched, which obscures her figure. In other scenes, she is shown with debris, smoke, or magical aura around her, which again takes the focus off of objectifying her body. This may give too much credit to the film, but to me, she did not suffer the same longing and lingering gaze as Harley Quinn.
In any event, the Enchantress is revived in the modern world. However, her power is limited by the fact that Amanda Waller controls her heart. She is clearly a chaotic and independent character, as she is always eyeing the heart and obviously plotting her escape from Waller. To aid her escape, she revives her brother, who lends her his power. Her brother plays more of a sidekick role to her, as he is always off to the side or the periphery of her activities. Once free, she concludes that humans worship technology, so she must build a machine that punishes them for abandoning their old beliefs. Really, she could come to many conclusions. Maybe she could have decided that people worship money or possessions. She might have concluded that people worship men, after all, three major religions of the world worship a singular male god. Instead, she focused on technology. Perhaps she awoke to see young people wandering around parks, staring at their phones as they played Pokemon Go! And didn’t understand that it is helping them get outdoors and exercise! Ah, like so many she was so quick to judge what she does not understand.
Enchantress is rather powerful in that she can teleport, has telepathy and telekinesis, can materialize a giant machine, and can become incorporeal. She seems far too strong to be a match for the Suicide Squad. And, there isn’t a compelling reason for them to fight her. Like the rest of them, she was a prisoner of Amanda Waller. Only, she escaped. Unlike them, she is not a criminal and doesn’t have mundane goals. But, she also hasn’t harmed them. Her first major act of destruction is destroying various military facilities and an aircraft carrier. This isn’t a bad thing. She might even find some support among eco-feminists or primitivists. After all, she is basically a goddess who wants to destroy technology. She even shows mercy by offering to spare the Suicide Squad if they join her. Even she recognizes that the world has failed them and tells them as much. This is after they killed her brother. Now, I do think she has to be defeated. I don’t believe the solution to climate change or any of the world’s problems is reverting to a superstitious pre-feudal society. However, it doesn’t seem that the Suicide Squad should be the ones to do it. Really, I can’t think of any heroes who are up to the task. Batman represents capitalist interests. Superman represents American interests. It begs the question of how she was defeated in the first place? Did people organize or plot against her?
Another consideration regarding her character is the issue of national sovereignty and indigenous rights. Remember, her artifact was found in a jungle by an archaeologist! Well, what right does the U.S. have to use her as a weapon? What if Brazil or Guatemala, or whatever country that contained the mysterious temple, claimed that it was a stolen artifact? What if the temple actually exists in territory inhabited by indigenous people who are decedents of the people who originally used the temple? They too could demand that the artifact is returned. So, Amanda Waller is basically trampling on the rights of indigenous people and sovereign nations in the interest of U.S. security.
Finally, it is interesting to consider her weakness. Basically, she is a goddess-like sorceress whose only weakness is her heart. This sends an interesting, but not terrible message to women. In society, we tell many stories about love and romance. These stories aren’t always healthy or realistic. We idealize romantic love. For some women, this idealization results in bad situations, such as unhealthy or abusive relationship. While it doesn’t have to be, narratives of love reinforce feminine gender roles as selfless givers. A woman’s weakness can be her heart. Enchantress does not want to be limited in this way. She reclaims her heart at the first opportunity. She also tries to kill her host’s boyfriend by sending her minions after him. Like Amanda Waller, she really isn’t interesting in men, love, or relationships. She has a close relationship to her brother, but she is otherwise autonomous of men. In a way, perhaps she represents what men fear the most about feminism. Enchantress is a dirty (covered in soot), wild (tangled hair, glowing eyes, twisting body), powerful woman who wants to destroy modern capitalist society entirely. (The movie did not deviate from female beauty standards in that she is young, thin, pretty, and groomed.) She even teases Rick Flag that he doesn’t have the balls to attack her. This eye-roll inducing attack panders to masculine insecurity, and predictably, he does attack her. But, at the very least it uncovers the fragility of masculinity through his willingness to defend his masculinity with violence-even if it risks the death of his girlfriend. In sum, I think she is a likeable villain, even if she doesn’t have a story or personality.
June is the archaeologist who serves as the host to Enchantress. She has a terrible name. I also think she is a bland character. There is the potential she could be awesome! After all, she must be an adventurous, capable, independent, and intelligent woman to adventure into a jungle, alone, to search an unknown temple. To do this, she must survive disease, insects, heat, isolation, patchy public transportation, and… graduate school. Archaeology has traditionally been a male dominated specialization within anthropology, so she must be willing to challenge gender norms to some degree. Perhaps she is even a feminist archaeologist and this is what attracted to her the particular temple wherein Enchantress was entombed! Her ethics seemed a bit lacking, since upon finding an artifact she decided to break off the head! Who would do that?! Unless of course she knew that there was something inside…
Whatever the case, she does not come across as a cool, independent, adventurer in the rest of the film. Instead, she is the quivering girlfriend of Rick Flag. True, it is probably traumatic to be possessed by a powerful witch. Her fear, sweat, and tremors show her anxiety over being taken over by this dark entity. Yet, she could act as more of an agent on her own behalf. Instead, she depends upon Rick Flag to protect her. They seem like an odd couple. Assuming that she is both intellectual and adventurous, she might seek out someone similar, rather than a super soldier with an equally stupid name.
Zoe is Deadshot’s well adjusted daughter. Despite the fact that her father is imprisoned and works as an assassin and her mother suffers from addiction, mental health issues, and is perhaps a prostitute, she is mature, caring, and polite. She takes care of her mother and forgives her father. She is wise to the world, knowing full well that her father kills people. The fact that she is a good kid makes her a sympathetic character. This also makes Deadshot more sympathetic, since he wants to be a good dad to his likeable child. If she was rebellious, disrespectful, or angry, the audience might not care as much about their relationship and hope that she ends up in prison herself! Thus, she mostly serves the purpose of making Deadshot seem like a family guy with something to fight for. I will praise her for not being a racial or gender stereotype (she is seen doing math and is not presented as an at risk youth). But really, she seems like she could be one of Barack Obama’s kids…not the kid of an assassin.
Katana is a katana wielding Japanese woman who joins the Suicide Squad to assist Rick Flag. The character is faintly developed and generally just clutters the movie with another character. I suppose she might be interesting in that she represents a stereotype reserved mostly for Asian men: stoic and honorable warrior. But, a stereotype is a stereotype. There are things she could add to the plot. For instance, there could be more tension because she doesn’t like criminals. She is pretty dedicated to her dead husband, but probably sharp enough to cut through some of the sexist bullshit in the movie. Perhaps she could be a foil to some of the sexist statements such as the suggestion that Rick Flag spank his girlfriend or Deadshot is not above hitting Harley. Maybe she could have befriended Harley. This might help her find a life outside of the lonely existence of talking to her dead husband’s soul and might help Harley find a voice of reason who isn’t looking to exploit her. Harley did say that she thought she seemed nice and complimented her perfume. If she is going to be a killjoy, maybe she should be a feminist killjoy. Instead, Katana is invisible in the movie. She wears a mask and speaks in Japanese. While I am not sure why she was working with Flag in the first place, she eventually decides to leave the mission. As she becomes more comfortable with the Suicide Squad, she speaks more English and even follows them to the bar. In the end, she rejoins the team for the final battle, but her character is so peripheral this is hardly noticed.
Grace is El Diablo’s dead wife. He killed her when she confronted him about his criminal activities/arson and threatened to leave with the kids. In this way, she is a strong female character in that she was going to stand up against her husband, even though she knew he had horrible powers. Those horrible powers are used against her and the kids. El Diablo wants to atone for this. He turns himself in to the police and refuses to use his powers from then on (except when jumped in prison and egged on by Deadshot.) For the most part, he does own this past. He recognizes that the past can’t be changed and rejects Enchantress’ vision of a do-over. He sacrifices his life to kill Incubus. As for Grace, she mostly serves as a tragic character in his story of redemption.
Harley is the most polarizing character in the film. In the entire film, she was the most interesting character, both visually and in terms of development. There are certainly aspects of the character which were deeply troublesome. For one, the depiction of her mental health was portrayed as a joke. When she spoke about the voices in her head, this was supposed to solicit a laugh from the audience. Again, this occurred when she said she was off her meds and uncertain if Enchantress’ machine/magic was real. Each character made a point of remarking on how crazy she was. The terrible thing is that she was a psychologist, but because of the abuse that she was subjected to, she became mentally ill. This seems far fetched, but in my own experience at the shelter, there are certainly cases of professional women who lose their careers, health, children, houses, and otherwise comfortable lives in their abusive situations. Of course, unlike Harley they do remember what they once had and who they once were. Mental health isn’t a laughing matter. It isn’t sexy, adventurous, or fun.
Beyond the insensitive treatment of her mental health, is the portrayal of her sexuality. Because of her mental health, the audience should view her as pretty vulnerable. If she has mental health issues that are so severe that she hears voices, hallucinates, has flash backs, and doesn’t remember much of her past, she is not really able to provide consent in most situations. This isn’t to argue that she is incapable of consenting to sex or having a relationship, however, this would require a lot of communication about boundaries, safety, health, emotional needs, etc. It would require equality and security. Yet, all of the men, who all know that she has these problems, ogle and flirt with her. The camera pans up her body and focuses on her butt. The audience is therefore invited to gaze upon her and enjoy the show. She has some awareness that her sexuality is power, so she is not mindless. She uses her sexuality to tease the prison guard, for instance. But, the power between them is deeply uneven. He has the power to restrain her, electrocute her, and force feed her. Taunting and enticing offers her a tiny bit of leverage in an otherwise powerless situation. Granted, she might be seen as empowered insofar as she announces that she sleeps with who she wants, when she wants. And, she shamelessly flirts and taunts. However, in her fantasies, she is a monogamous housewife in curlers. Her sexuality is a survival tool. Despite this, she is treated like a broken sex doll to shamelessness fetishize. She’s so hot and crazy! Nevermind the fact that she is mentally ill and abused. Look at that ass! The audience’s lack of respect of the character was best demonstrated when Batman punched her. Both times I saw the movie, the audience laughed at this scene. Like the leering men in the movie, her humanity was lost of them.
The worst part of the film is the treatment of her relationship with the Joker. I was surprised to find the Joker treated as if he is Edward Cullen. He just loves her so much. Usually I think of the Joker as more indifferent to her. Instead, he rescues her twice and jumps into a vat of acid for her. He comes across as engulfed in her as she is in him. The depiction obscures the abuse. He is instead treated like a partner who truly loves her, can be depended upon, will make sacrifices for her, and will save her. Certainly abusers do charming things and loving acts. And this serves to keep her more committed to the relationship. However, since the Joker’s main role in the movie is to rescue her, it gives the impression that he isn’t that bad, there is a strong bond between them, and the relationship might even be admirable in its passion. I mean, they were pretty passionate as they kissed in the acid vat. Again, abusive relationships can be passionate and exciting, but giving too much emphasis on those traits and not on the negative elements sends a dangerous message about what relationships should look like.
There are some positive aspects of the character. For one, she is actually relatable. I can relate to wanting to be in a relationship with someone more charismatic, interesting, and magnetic than myself. I sometimes feel boring, shy, reserved, and timid. I would love to be vibrant and visible. In the past, I have felt attracted to people who have these things I lack…as if by some magic they could elevate me. In this sense, it isn’t implausible that a person could fall in love with the Joker. He is a fascinating, magnetic, visible, bizarre character. And, women give up their careers and goals all of the time for love. Love is a cruel mythology of self-sacrifice, patience, endurance, hope, triumph, and redemption. Harley believed what every woman believes: love is both real and magical. Few people approach it logically as a ploy to get people to reproduce and raise babies. This cynical world view doesn’t really lead to happiness or good movie plots. It leads to an exhausted nihilistic sigh. Thus, I think that women can probably relate to Harley, or at least more to her than Amanda Waller. Besides her relatability, she defeated the Enchantress by stealing her heart. This was a great moment for her character, as she feigned interest in Enchantress’ offer in order to get close enough to attack her. She also showed independence after the Joker presumably died. This should have made her into a sobbing, incapable mess. Instead, she wiped her tears, rejoined the Suicide Squad, and went on to defeat the villain. She also showed independence when she tried to escape the Suicide Squad. Of course, this was to join the Joker, but more than this it was a way to escape prison, Angela Waller, and the bomb in her neck. The Joker may be abusive, but he is no worse than prison or Angela Waller. It is trading one abuse for another, though the former offers the veneer of love and the pleasure of passion. There is no savior. Even Batman, the good guy, punched her. So, I would like to see the storyline continue wherein perhaps she has enough lucidity to question the relationship.
Sexism plays a cameo role in the film. While Sexism is not an official member of the Suicide Squad, it sneaks around many scenes. Sexism has some really awful scenes. For instance, when Slipknot punched a female prison guard in the face because she had a “mouth on her.” Sexism also appears each time a male character drools over Harley or when Batman punches Harley, then proceeds to give her sensual CPR. He checked her pulse, but not her breathing. He also didn’t say, “Harley, Harley, are you okay?!” and didn’t tilt her head back before he started breathing. I am not a CPR expert, but Batman was really being weird about it. When Deadshot asks what sleeping with a witch is like or tells Rick Flag to spank his girlfriend, Sexism appears again. Each time a man reacts to being called “pussy” it is Sexism. Why? Because they felt that they must violently defend their masculinity. This reaction is only possible if they believe that being female is inferior. Sexism. Racism also appears in the form of stereotypes. Classism also cameos in the depiction of criminals (lumpenproletariat) as inherently sexist. Of course, sexism slithers around in most films. It is the costumes, roles, lack of roles, relationships, etc. that establish or cement what a woman is. Usually it is an object or something to give meaning to the more interesting lives of men. So, I can’t say that I am surprised to see Sexism’s role in the film, but there were some truly shocking scenes.
This is my take on Suicide Squad. It is a little lengthy and certainly more could be said. So crows the feminist harpy. The end.