Suicide Squad: Don’t Listen to the Haters
Before I start this essay, I’m going to note that I spend a lot of time thinking about Chelsea Manning. I’m also a popular culture critic, and this means a couple of things. One of those things is that Chelsea Manning and I have almost nothing in common to talk about, by virtue of her having been locked away from all non-print media in a cell for what is approaching half of her life, and likely to constitute the remainder of it. The other is that I worry that the frames of reference I have to talk about issues like Private Manning’s heartbreaking torture and incarceration at the hands of the United States government are too… fluffy, useless, poppy… and that I’m being offensive for making comparisons. But when I went to see Suicide Squad tonight, I thought a lot about Chelsea Manning, and I feel like the parallel I’m about to draw is worth drawing. Disagree if you like, but it’s where I’m going.
Suicide Squad is a movie about people who, like Chelsea Manning, are imprisoned in inhumane conditions. Please don’t come at me with “but they’re Batman villains! They kill people! What Chelsea Manning did was right, and these folks are really evil!” Fuck that. From the mindset of the people who imprison and torture Manning every day, who deny her the right to express her own identity and who have taken even the ability to end her life away from her and punished a suicide attempt with thirty more years of solitary torture, Manning deserves what she got. And Suicide Squad takes place in a cinematic world where, Zak Snyder has showed us, body count is inconsequential. Yes, if this were literally the real world, these characters would be mass murderers, but a lot of other shit would be different. The part of the film that’s real and that stuck with me is that they’re prisoners, and every one of them is struggling to express some part of themselves — and is denied that, until the carceral system represented by Amanda Waller offers them a second chance.
By now, the critical naysayers on Suicide Squad have torn it apart. It’s yet another superhero flick. It’s set in that awful Superman vs. Batman universe everyone hates (that made a shitload of money). It’s got guns, and by golly, if this one summer blockbuster didn’t have guns, maybe people would stop randomly shooting up tons of places in our country! Bla bla bla. It’s basically a heist film. The plot isn’t anything special, the characters are. And as a trans woman, I hereby give you permission to say ten hail Julia Seranos for finding Jared Leto vaguely sexy, rather than going all the way to self-flagellation. The film is fun — it introduces a Joker who, however calamitously awful his actor may be, is pretty much just like the Joker in the comics- and it gives us Harley Quinn, who is a truly awesome and badass woman who doesn’t fit the “Strong Female Character” negative trope at all. Will Smith puts in a good job as always. But I really want to talk about what the movie says about incarceration and national security, and tie that back to my opening point about Chelsea Manning, who can’t make up her own mind about Suicide Squad because she’s going to spend the rest of her life in a tiny room paid for by our tax dollars.
Every anti-hero introduced in Suicide Squad is a prisoner before they are a villain. By the end of the film, they’re not “villains” in the comic book sense. Again, spare me the crocodile tears for the fictional characters they killed in their backstory — the point is these characters are willing to give their lives for the world. A world that, as Harley Quinn puts it, “never did anything for us.” At the start of the film, the characters are held in abusive conditions — better ones, I should note, than Chelsea Manning is given, but nevertheless abusive. They are fitted with remote-trigger bomb collars by the U.S. government, whose representative Amanda Waller has a lot to say about “shared values” with Superman. Personally, if Superman shares Waller’s “American” values, I’m with Harley Quinn and Deadshot. The film’s “villain” protagonists never repent their villainy, and why should they? They’re being tortured by their government, and now being forced to fight against their will for that very same government — much like Chelsea Manning is technically still Private First Class, but receives no pay and will likely continue her military “service” until her death. What the villains do do is act their conscience — and that conscience is to resist real evil and save the world. They show as much concern for innocent bystanders as Superman and Batman did in D.C.’s previous installment, and they’re much more stylish doing it. At the end, they’re returned to prison — in conditions which are now civilized, but are presented as extravagant. Because that’s the world we live in, the world where we torture those who we’ve deemed to be criminals.
The “good” people in the universe of Suicide Squad are bad. They may not shoot “innocents” (we’re never really given any details about who Deadshot, Will Smith’s hitman character, is knocking off and whether they might have it coming), but they imprison those who have defied them in subhuman conditions. Subhuman conditions which, I remind you, are still better than the real ones that multiple real people including Chelsea Manning are being held right now. The film presents characters we’ve already thoroughly dehumanized — and then teaches us to empathize with them.
Here’s what I have to say. Fuck expecting Hollywood to fix gun culture, that’s a dead end. And don’t ask me to judge the protagonists of a comic book plastered onto the screen — masterfully, I might add — for engaging in the kind of violence they do in the comics. Instead, reflect on how our real government is really consuming real people’s actual lives in pursuit of national security, just like Amanda Waller does — and how much it would count if Chelsea Manning somehow, magically, got the kind of second chance Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Killer Croc, and others are offered.
I wish I could have seen this movie with Chelsea Manning, had she wanted to see it. I want a lot of things for Chelsea, and she’s currently in a living hell. I don’t expect she’ll leave it alive. This film, for a moment, allowed me to imagine those my government has deemed beyond redemption free and saving us, as Chelsea felt she was when she committed her “crime.” That alone was enough to sell the movie for me.
Also, the movie has hot people wearing clothes from Hot Topic. Just go fucking see it.