Review: The Suicide Squad

Today’s another interruption in the series of planned posts because I want to shout about The Suicide Squad. Dang, what a fun experience! If you’ve liked Guardians of the Galaxy, R-rated superhero movies, John Ostrander’s ’80s Suicide Squad comics, war movies, or the first Suicide Squad flick, you should find something to enjoy here. (I check a lot of those boxes but only started reading Ostrander’s series after watching the new movie–I’m up to issue 14 as of this writing, and I’m loving the experience.)

I’m very confident that no one’s going to ever claim that I have great taste in movies. As such, I’m sure no one is surprised that I mostly liked David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, and I also suspect that my soft spot for the movie isn’t likely to change any minds anytime soon. But after watching James Gunn’s crack at the squad, I’m overwhelmed with the realization that the premise and cast deserved much better writing and direction from the beginning. The characters who carry over from the original make this especially clear. Data point one: Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is a delightful chaos agent, more in the spirit of her depiction in Birds of Prey in autonomy and antics than the over-sexualized, under-dressed (but still well-acted and quirky) lead of the Ayer effort. She’s given more to do, but to be fair, Robbie’s portrayal of the character is consistent, not a dramatic overhaul. Data point two is what blew me away though: Joel Kinnaman was a generic, asshole commando type in the first Squad, but he gives a delightful and distinctive performance as Rick Flag this time around, charming and with excellent comedic timing and delivery, with enough emotional range to carry the heavier scenes too. Where was this Flag before? I wasn’t otherwise familiar with Kinnaman and had no idea he had this sort of performance in him! Third data point is Viola Davis as Amanda Waller, who similarly is given more to do than simply being cold as ice and intriguingly mysterious. And the final data point: Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang continued to delight me with his smarmy shitbaggery, but this time he was a little less one-note (only so much mileage to get out of Ayer’s pink unicorn joke, for instance).

It’s not just the returning actors offering improved performances, though. There are some great portrayals here from Idris Elba, John Cena (playing the incredibly hateable Peacemaker), David Dastmalchian, and Daniela Melchior were all excellent. I never expected that my favorite character would be someone named “Ratcatcher 2,” but Melchior’s presentation of intermingled naïve good-heartedness and deep-rooted trauma made her very easy to root for. Oh, and Sylvester Stallone’s voice-acting for King Shark makes for an adorable dullard you hope makes it out okay even as he’s gorily devouring his opponents.

This movie is also incredibly funny. I laughed so very, very much in the first fifteen minutes–before being shocked into awkward silence as so many of the squad members are eradicated in a botched beach assault. The movie would often alternate between goofy antics, hyperviolence, and emotional heart. I was shocked by some early deaths, not just shocked by how they happened but by who was killed, and this rattled me out of certain expectations. From that moment on, I feared that any of the characters could die. Even Harley Quinn, whose massive popularity surely provides IP, if not plot, armor, was genuinely imperiled at times. The balance between light and dark, humor and horror, and sentimentality and gore worked for me, but I’m sure that not everyone will agree.

I certainly had a good time and will probably watch it again soon!

Harley Quinn Fever

Thanks to HBO Max, my wife and I have now watched Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and the Harley Quinn animated series. We loved them both.

My wife prefers Margot Robbie’s depiction, and Robbie is certainly doing a fantastic job, really raising the profile of the character in the public consciousness and providing a fun, whimsical, zany take. She was fun in Suicide Squad, but that movie had plenty of baggage. Birds of Prey is starring, written, and directed by women and presents its female antiheroes as flawed, bizarre, unusual birds of a feather, portrayed as complex and whole people, with a general avoidance of the male gaze. Quinn is coming off a breakup with the Joker, bouncing back from heartbreak, moving on from a life in the supervillain’s shadow, and finding both freedom and danger now that she is out of the Clown Prince of Crime’s bubble. She quickly becomes wrapped up in the lives of three other women and a young girl who are all caught up in taking down the criminal organization of the chillingly psychopathic Black Mask. The narrative chronology is a little more twisted up than it needs to be, but filtered through the unreliable narration of Harley Quinn, the film’s a blast. While the Joker is a driving force behind who Harley Quinn is at the start of the film, he’s entirely absent. This is largely to the film’s benefit, as it can then be about Harley and her new “friends,” but it is a curious choice, given that the film presents itself as a continuation of the same character from Suicide Squad. Sure, the Joker’s not good for Harley, and he was just as monstrous to Dr. Quinzel as any other version of the character, but the two seemed closely bonded and reciprocally loyal. What changed between them?

I really enjoyed Birds of Prey, but I actually favor Harley Quinn. This show provides Harley, voiced here by Kaley Cuoco, a little more autonomy from the get-go, as it is she who breaks up with the abusive Joker. He puts quite a lot of effort into getting her back at first, and then trying to kill her, and then trying to use her, but thanks to her close friendship with Poison Ivy, she is able to persevere and move on, forming her own criminal crew first to get back at Joker and later to do her own thing. Cuoco endows the character with considerable up-beat manic energy, sometimes disrupted by a depressive low (often when finally taking a moment to contemplate how her actions have hurt someone else, or how the Joker or her parents have traumatized her in some way), and sometimes masked in her conversation with Joker in cutesy line delivery straight out of Batman: The Animated Series. One of the things I’ve enjoyed in the series is how it draws on a variety of past representations of characters to distill something new, like the elements of Quinn drawn from that older series, among other comic and film interpretations. Other great examples: Bane is basically a parody of his The Dark Knight Rises version (with some DCAU influence mixed in), Lex Luthor feels straight out of the DCAU, Joker’s appearance changes over the show’s timeline to mirror different versions of the character, Kite Man has his “Hell yeah” catchphrase from his more recent comics incarnation, and Mr. Freeze is given an arc that at first appears to subvert his tragic story from the DCAU only to ultimately play it straight. Some versions of characters are just wacky and new: Commissioner Gordon is a shadow of his former self, lonely and rambling, teetering on the edge of insanity; the Penguin is a hardened criminal mastermind but also something of a family man; the Riddler is a little unhinged, a little weird, quite the survivor, and eventually really buff. The mixing of backgrounds and characterizations, and references to deep cuts from the comics and shows, quickly establishes a rich and varied timeline, of which we’ve only seen bits and pieces. It makes Harley Quinn and her gang feel like just a small (though significant) part of a much bigger world, benefiting from the depth of accumulated storytelling to quickly achieve a sense of a lived-in setting in a way that Justice League Unlimited and Young Justice also used to great effect. And I especially like that under all the layers of comics lore, the show is still fundamentally about a woman figuring out who she really is as she sets out in a newly independent life and tries to set aside the traumas of her past. There are only two seasons so far, but I sure hope we get more of the show.

Both of these versions of Harley Quinn are very good. The former is a good movie and the latter is a good show. I recommend them both. You can easily watch them both on HBO Max now. (Blessedly, Warner Media is moving away from the DC Universe / HBO Max divide. For all the evils of these mega corporations, the least they could do is provide all their television and movie offerings on a single streaming service.)

Big-shot gangster putting together a crew: The Mandalorian 1.6

In the immediate aftermath of the sixth episode of The Mandalorian, I’m excited. It was great fun watching the second half, with plenty of tense action and twists. We have some of the greatest fight scenes of the season, with the Mandalorian really showing off all his abilities. There’s a tense game of deadly hide-and-seek involving the child. We get glimpses of the state of the larger galaxy, both in the criminal underworld and in the Republic. We also get a few more hints about the Mandalorian’s past. And I was delighted by the presence of so many enjoyable actors: Richard Ayoade, whom I remember fondly as Moss from The IT Crowd, voices an arrogant mercenary droid; Clancy Brown, who voiced Savage Oppress (among other Star Wars characters), plays the hulking Devaronian muscle on the team; Mark Boone Junior, memorable as Bobby in Sons of Anarchy, plays the outlaw crew leader who throws together the operation; and the directors of other Mandalorian episodes cameo as X-Wing pilots. Then there are the actors I didn’t recognize, who you might, like Natalia Tena (whose roles include Nymphadora Tonks from the Harry Potter films) and Matt Lanter (whom I did not recognize in his small though crucial part as a scared security guard in this episode, and who voiced Anakin Skywalker in The Clone Wars).

But I remember how I felt during the first part, when Mando fills in the last spot of a five-person job to bust a target out of a New Republic prison ship. During those opening moments, our hero (or antihero) felt more like a silent video game protagonist than usual. As we were introduced to characters along with Mando, we learned that some knew him and some didn’t, some hated him and some liked him; the other characters traded verbal jabs, made jokes, and eluded to shady pasts. Meanwhile, Mando did a whole lot of staring silently through his helmet. We’ve seen this plot many times before too, in television episodes (not to mention series) and films and video games and books: a group of undesirables gets together for a job that should be simple, and then things go wrong. The episode doesn’t set the characters up much–they’re archetypes. The boss putting the job together has seen it all and is too old to go out on jobs himself anymore; the point guy is agitated and arrogant; the pilot is an aloof and brilliant droid that no one else fully trusts; the muscle is exactly that, big and mean; and then there’s the acrobat archetype, who is also the only female in the episode, written as a “sexy psychopath” like Harley Quinn. At first, they felt like unlikable versions of characters in The Fast and the FuriousGuardians of the Galaxy, or Suicide Squad–though one of the things I liked about the episode is that the second half shows that they are supposed to be unlikable, that they’re not good people.

More than anything else, the biggest flaw of this episode is that it doesn’t really progress the show in any way. The show in general is slow-paced in addressing its overarching narrative concerns, more focused on episodic adventures. This episode attempts to demonstrate that the Mandalorian is a changed man now (while also showing how much he hasn’t changed), but we’ve really already seen this in all of the previous episodes. Perhaps he hasn’t had to directly confront his past since turning his back on the guild, but it still felt superfluous, thematically covering content similar to that of the immediately preceding episode. Other than that, we know that others will still betray Mando to get the kid, that Mando has no safe harbor, and that the kid won’t be safe until the bounty hunters’ guild is dealt with. These are things we already knew. I had fun watching the episode, and I was stoked by the end of it, but I’m a little disappointed that it feels like the full eight episodes of the first season are going to be spent simply tying up loose ends with the bounty hunters guild. I’m happy to see Mando taking on odd jobs and dealing with political and interpersonal spaces directly altered by his decisions at the start of this season, but I’d like to get through some of the central conflicts left unresolved from the beginning. At the same time, with only 8 episodes averaging just over a half-hour in length, compared to a traditional action-drama with perhaps 13 (or even 22) episodes running 45 minutes to an hour, I recognize that I must seem impatient with what has in fact been fairly economical storytelling. At some point, though, the show has to do something else other than telling us the same thing over and over again.

When the Joker gets serious

I saw Joker a few weeks back, and while it was a hard film to watch, it was an interesting film, especially when read as an homage to eighties-era Scorsese films. And of course Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck, the disturbed and isolated man who would become this version of the Joker, is fascinating. The combination of his delivery, the intensity and brutality and concreteness of the moments of violence on-screen, and the disconcerting music made watching it a rather distressing and memorable experience. It’s a good film, and there’s a lot to chew on about mental illness, societal responsibility, and the politicization of individual disaffection and violence. I don’t think it offers clear answers to these larger implicated questions; everything is complex, disturbed, and somewhat peripheral to Fleck’s awareness, and it is through Fleck, a very unreliable narrator, that we perceive his world.

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I’ve been meaning to say something, anything, about this film since watching it. But it’s been hard for me. Sam was very deeply affected by the movie, by its tone and its sounds and Fleck’s pathetic isolation and silent misery, his eagerness for approval even when perpetually faced with dejection. A particular moment hit us hard: when we see his notebook of stand-up material, with the page that reads, to paraphrase, that the worst part about having a mental illness is that people expect you to act like you don’t. Sam’s mental health struggles are nothing like Fleck’s, but there are enough connections to be made in the broad strokes that she could, as a naturally empathetic person who tends to believe the worst about herself, see elements of her own life and mental illness in his experiences. She actually had to walk out of the theater within the first half. While Fleck’s condition might not look, in particular, like anyone else’s, his experience is nonetheless grounded in that of those suffering with severe mental illnesses. And it is impressive that Joker makes us, whether we want to or not, sympathize (or even empathize) with this man until we reach a point where we cannot any longer. He crosses a line, many lines in fact, lashing out violently, going further than necessary, delighting in that violence, embracing the darkness and chaos, finding humor and delight in the suffering of others. We can sympathize with him until he shows us that he has no sympathy or compassion himself, that he has been twisted into something tragically evil. Still, Fleck is a man who needs help, and the system fails him at every critical step throughout the film.

It’s sad that so much of the conversation around The Joker was focused on whether he emulated or idolized disturbed, extremist white men like contemporary “incels.” If incels choose to idolize him, they are very clearly missing the point. He is not a hero. But this is reflected within the narrative events of the movie. Fleck is disturbed and violent; he’s not an icon of the oppressed or impoverished or disaffected. And yet we see people rallying around him, taking on his clown identity as though wearing Guy Fawkes masks. They misinterpret his illness as inspiration, all evidence to the contrary. Fleck cannot understand the political ramifications of his actions; he cannot accurately interpret why people are choosing to use his likeness. He sees himself as apolitical–this isn’t quite true, but his actions are devoid of a political purpose, and the political is broader than his individual situation, which serves as a single anecdote to showcase the failings of Gotham (a very obvious New York stand-in here) in its care for its most vulnerable members. Even the mob-like activism that forms around Fleck seems unclear about what exactly it is for. They definitely don’t want a Mayor Wayne, and they think that rich people suck. We don’t see any solutions, except for anarchic violence. And that violence seems to mostly come from white men. White men unhappy with the perceived elite, lashing out any way they want, with the goal of causing pain and terror, tearing down rather than building up. On the one hand, we have the unconcerned wealthy, represented in the white male mayoral candidate of Thomas Wayne, and on the other we have other white men who would choose to blow everything up when they feel slighted. It feels as much a moment of the eighties in which the film is set as it does a moment for our modern era.

I want to make a hard pivot here to the Telltale Batman games. Joker prompted me to give the first five-episode game another try, this time on the Switch. I plowed through it over about a week, playing roughly an episode a night. Then I moved on to The Enemy Within, again moving at the rate of about an episode a night. These games really shine in their narrative, their characterizations, their willingness to do fresh and wildly divergent things with established Batman lore as contained within their pocket-universe continuity, and their ability to give the impression that your choices really matter and that those choices often cause as much harm as good. But for this post, I bring them up because they also portrayed mental illness in a mostly sympathetic way. It’s interesting, though hardly original, to reflect on just how many Batman villains suffer from a mental illness, and how those mental illnesses often are totally distinct, even as the villains (and Batman himself) might just get labeled “psychopaths.” In the Telltale games, you have some choice in how you play your Batman and thus how you respond to others, but it’s hard not to see, for instance, how much Harvey Dent suffers with his compulsions. He’s driven by a series of very traumatic events that finally drive him to a psychotic break and a spree of violence.  I tended to play my Batman as merciful and focused on justice, so my Bruce Wayne often empathized with his foes, acknowledging their suffering, pleading with them to seek help.

I don’t know if a harder, crueler Batman wouldn’t have provided as many moments to view the villains compassionately. But my Bruce never gave up on Harvey. And in The Enemy Within, he never gave up on John Doe, the nascent Joker. In Telltale’s Batman games, John Doe is a known entity in Arkham Asylum. He’s intelligent, charismatic, and eager to please his heroes. But he mocks and subverts authority figures (at first, just behind their backs) and delights in violence. Over the course of the games, especially the sequel, you have the option to influence how John Doe develops; you in effect determine what sort of Joker he will be. He has three key role models: Batman, Bruce Wayne, and Harley Quinn. If you show him trust and respect, he will reciprocate. And he quickly learns that Batman and Bruce Wayne are one and the same, but he doesn’t let on right away. Because I quickly grew attached to this outcast, so lost on release from the mental institution and so eager to find connection, I was determined to try to help him find a path of stability. The two main outcomes are either a cruel, unhinged villain or an excessively violent vigilante. Either way, he eventually becomes so violent and destabilized that Batman must defeat him. At the end of my experience, a vigilante Joker finally went too far, feeling betrayed by Batman and gruesomely killing several law enforcement agents. Batman and the Joker had a brutal fight. In the end, when Joker was finally subdued, I still chose to reinforce to him, when he asked, that we had been friends. The worst thing for the Joker was that he had to return to Arkham, back to the beginning, which seemed to be a denial of his development as a person, at least in his mind. But because I had treated him as a friend, the final scene of the game depicts Bruce, as Bruce, visiting an obviously delighted Joker in his cell.

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The games did so many interesting things with new and established characters, but I just wanted to focus on their depiction of the Joker here. It was impressive that the game could clearly show that he was doing vile things, for which incarceration and (probably permanent) removal from the public was appropriate, while still showing that he was struggling with a variety of mental illnesses that propelled him down his path. Joker should not have been out on the street, unsupported and unattended to. As a result, he did horrible things. He was still a human, regardless.

Of course, most people with mental illness are never going to be violent. And there are many types of mental illnesses, most not creating a profile of the “criminally insane.” But there are some people out there with severe mental illnesses, who could hurt themselves or others, and the existing mental health and justice systems just aren’t adequately helping to avoid disaster. Arthur Fleck and John Doe are not representative of someone suffering from bipolar disorder or anxiety. But it was refreshing to see these properties seriously wrangle with the troubled mental states of the Joker and other Batman characters, rather than taking it for granted that they were reducible to terms like “evil” or generically “psychotic.” Think of other big-screen depictions of the Joker: Nicholson’s prankster-gangster, Ledger’s chaotic force rejecting any single narrative or any ability to understand him, or Leto’s abusive and animalistic thug. Even though Leto’s Joker has a defined background as a mental patient who escaped via manipulating and dominating a psychologist, his mental state is of no concern to the events of Suicide Squad. He’s melodramatic and high-octane, a caricature. Nicholson and Ledger are foils and obstacles to Batman. Nicholson’s version creates Batman by killing his parents; Batman creates the Joker by knocking the murderer into a vat of chemicals. Joker emerges fully formed as a lunatic with a deadly sense of humor. And Ledger’s Joker defies characterization; as masterful as Ledger is in the role, his version of the character is more a philosophical conundrum, a challenge to Batman’s attempt to restore justice and order to Gotham. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” and we are not allowed to understand such a man.

Works like Joker and the Telltale Batman games show us humanity in a deranged villain. We don’t need to defend his actions or provide excuses for his behavior; we don’t need to take his side (and we shouldn’t). But we should examine how our society allows these personalities to form, allows violence and bloodshed to be unleashed before we think to even get involved. And what of the many more who never become violent, who perhaps languish in poverty or homelessness, ignored by us all? The Joker forces us to see him, just as select offenders involved in sensational crimes force us to see them. But we so often choose to ignore the suffering of others, so long as they never redirect that suffering toward us.

Further Reading

Hoskins, “Justices sharply split on insanity defense case,” The Indiana Lawyer, 23 Dec 2010.

Mental illness and violence,” Harvard Mental Health Letter, Harvard Health Publishing – Harvard Medical School, Jan 2011.

Odendahl, “Indiana’s struggle with insanity defense mirrors coming SCOTUS case,” The Indiana Lawyer, 5 Sep 2019.

Raphelson, “How The Loss Of U.S. Psychiatric Hospitals Led To A Mental Health Crisis,” NPR, 30 Nov 2017.

DC Weekend

I’ve been dealing with a cold since the end of the week, and I definitely hit bottom after running a variety of errands during the snow storm in Indy on Saturday. Since Saturday afternoon, I’ve largely alternated between sleeping, imitating sleep, and watching dumb movies and TV while prone or semi-prone on the couch.

It’s at this point bedrock tradition for me to watch dumb television and movies while sick. I don’t normally like to sit for hours binging a show or movie after movie (though I’ll do the same for a book or game without complaint), especially if of only mediocre quality or worse, but sick days are my big exception to the norm. Brain idling, entertained by pretty moving pictures, waiting out the discomfort: it’s downright pleasurable to me at such a time.

Though not always the case, this sick weekend had a theme: DC movies and TV. I re-watched Suicide SquadBatman v Superman, and a good portion of the first season of Arrow; I also watched the 2017 Justice League film for the first time.

None of these things are great, but that’s the point. They’re dumb, and they’re enjoyable (enough) to watch. My Arrow re-watch might even continue, as I was surprised by how charmed I was yet again by the campy soap-opera take on superheroes. And, confession here, I actually like the DC franchise films. They’re not good, but most of them fall solidly in the B- to B+ range. They’re all overly long, overly dark (in terms of color saturation and narrative tone), and burdened by poorly considered plot contrivances. But they’re largely just a counter-cultural product to the smooth Marvel formula (counter-cultural to the extent that a big corporation can be counter-cultural, a Pepsi to Coca-Cola). DC movies are oddly ragged, ungainly films that all feel desperate to say something, if only there weren’t a dozen different creative and corporate hands meddling with the final product each time. And, well, I just like DC characters more.

I’m not a “comics guy.” I’ve read comics, and I will continue to do so. I’ve always preferred graphic novels to serialized comics, though, and not for particularly pretentious reasons, but simply because I prefer a more contained, tightly honed story. I prefer graphic novels to comics like I prefer films to television and like I prefer standalone novels to book series (not sure I’d go so far as to say I prefer short stories to novels, even though I do think I prefer the crafty efficiency of a good short story–I just tend to read novels more consistently). And I’ve typically preferred non-superhero comics to the superhero kind. I’m also largely bipartisan (or simply agnostic) when it comes to Marvel versus DC. That all said, my childhood rooted me in part to DC: the Tim Burton Batman films, the Teen Titans show, and the DC Animated Universe strongly influenced my tastes regarding caped crusaders and the like (the only Marvel counterpart I particularly recall in my formative years was X-Men Evolution). And in more recent years, Young Justice and the CW collection of shows carried my interest forward (even if the latter eventually became simply too much for me to keep up with).

What I’m trying to say is that, while I do have a familiarity with superhero franchises, I don’t feel like my identity is bound up in these characters. While the cinematic versions of DC characters have typically been darker than what I might prefer, I don’t feel like I have to treat anything in this territory as “canon” or a “defining” vision. It’s all just fun times, and these new films are at least offering something that does feel different.

In that context, I’d avoided Justice League for a while because it looked like a fairly generic superhero team-up film in a genre flooded with that type of apocalypse-punching, alien-invasion scenario. But I found that I greatly enjoyed the film, generic plot and all. Maybe I was just loopy enough to get peak enjoyment out of it. But Ben Affleck was absolutely delightful as Batman; this version of the Dark Knight not only provided a nice redemption arc from the previous title but was also one of the funniest versions of the character I’ve seen in a while. He was lighthearted; he smiled; he said authentic things. Plus, the film provided plenty of fodder for anyone partial to shipping Batman and Wonder Woman. For that matter, Wonder Woman continued to be a badass warrior, and she also had her own opportunity for inner growth that felt like a natural progression from her solo film–she was returning to the world, processing her grief and trauma from the Great War, and taking up the mantle of a leader. The Flash was hilarious and awkward and lovable, Aquaman was about as interesting and cool as Aquaman could ever hope to be, and Cyborg had enough screen time to feel defined if alien (though to the extent that Cyborg works, I’d credit Ray Fisher’s acting rather than the rather mundane dialogue that he delivers). Superman remained a weak point for me, though after some initial Super Dickery on his inevitable resurrection, he actually got to act like the superheroic ideal for the closing minutes of the final act.

Look, it’s not the greatest film out there. But no superhero film is. And sure, Justice League isn’t even the best superhero film, or the best of the new DC films. But it was a fun ride, and I’d watch it again. Especially on another sick day.