The sneaky politics of "Suicide Squad": A popcorn movie for the prison-industrial complex era

Inside even the worst-reviewed comic book movies, there's a struggle between good and evil as we define it today

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published August 5, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

"Suicide Squad"   (DC Entertainment)
"Suicide Squad" (DC Entertainment)

[Note: The end of this essay contains spoilers for the ending of "Suicide Squad."] 

If the critics at RottenTomatoes are to be believed, Suicide Squad is a terrible movie with “a muddled plot, thinly written characters, and choppy directing.” (Salon's own Andrew O'Hehir calls it "profoundly second-rate ... at every level of conception and execution.") This puts me in a distinct minority when I write: I actually loved this movie.

I thought the characters were colorful and entertaining. The plot, though a tad formulaic, was far more streamlined and coherent than a lot of the cluttered fare we’ve seen in recent superhero films (including many outside of the DC Extended Universe). Based on the screening I attended, I can attest that audiences seemed to genuinely enjoy the jokes and get swept up in the action sequences.

Most notable of all, though, is the fact that this movie had a pretty daring political subtext.

How else would you describe a movie in which, during the opening scenes, we see prison guards blatantly abuse their power so they can sadistically torture characters like Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie)? Or how about a plot that moves forward because a sociopathic government official (Viola Davis) brags about her skill at coercing people to work against their own self-interest for the national security of the United States? What is the message of a film that depicts the state itself as, at best, incompetent, at worst, no more trustworthy than the super-powered beings they fear?

The mind wanders to our current national debate over the prison-industrial complex. America has the largest prison population in the world, with 1 out of 110 adults incarcerated in a prison or local jail and 1 out of 35 under some form of correctional control. A disproportionately large number of these are African American or Hispanic, and even Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton have been responsible for draconian legislation that has lined the pockets of private corporations that build prisons at the expense of the civil liberties of those who commit even non-violent offenses (like breaking our drug laws).

And this doesn’t even touch on the rise of #BlackLivesMatter in response to growing concerns that law enforcement officials, despite swearing to equally protect all citizens, have a history of violence toward minorities.

None of these themes are directly broached in “Suicide Squad” (aside from a passing joke by Deadshot that a government official “white people that thing” to help his daughter inflate her grades), but they’re unmistakably embedded in its overall atmosphere. The film itself feels gritty and anarchistic — a seedy group of characters in an even seedier world — and law enforcement, instead of striving to serve and protect, seems determined to act as the most ruthless and powerful gang of them all.

Viola Davis’ government agent callously disregards the lives not only of the Suicide Squad members but of ordinary people as well. When one character jokes that she is “God,” his jab works because she is indeed all-powerful — so much so that, despite her heinous actions, she alone among the major evildoers never receives her ultimate comeuppance.

This socio-political commentary is not entirely out of place in the work of “Suicide Squad” director David Ayer. His filmography is full of crime thrillers, including the acclaimed 2012 cop drama “End of Watch.” Ayers also wrote “Training Day” (2001), which, like “Suicide Squad,” depicts a world in which the difference between the hardened criminals on the streets and the law enforcement officials who claim to police them is often non-existent. Although Denzel Washington’s police officer Alonzo Harris (a role for which he won an Oscar) claims that his unorthodox behavior is a necessity born of having to control a dangerous neighborhood, it quickly becomes clear that he is simply indulging in his own most corrupt instincts because he has the power to get away with it. Ayer makes this same point in 2005’s underrated “Harsh Times,” in which Christian Bale stars as a former Army Ranger with PTSD who is disturbingly comfortable with violently abusing whatever power he is given. Both of those movies, like this one, challenge the quaint notion that there is a clear line of demarcation separating those who use violence to break the law and those who do so in the name of upholding it. From Ayer’s perspective, both groups are moral equivalents, and dramatically speaking, their tale is that of a bald power struggle rather than a battle between good and evil.

If the politics of “Batman v. Superman” were distrustful of power concentrated in the hands of individuals (a theme I analyzed in a previous article), then Suicide Squad extends that theme to look at how it can be abused when concentrated in the hands of a government. To balance this, it also establishes how the villains in the Suicide Squad — though undeniably nefarious — still have their own humanity. This seems to be a sticking point for many critics, who seem to have wanted the villains to be more unambiguously dark and sinister, but as I watched the movie I thought it made the power dynamics more complex and intriguing. Instead of allowing viewers to perceive the Suicide Squad as monsters who need to be kept in place, it forces us to see that they had hopes, dreams, loves and fears of their own — that even the most vile “scum,” as they are frequently regarded, are still human beings.

Perhaps this is why the film resonated so deeply with the audience which saw it with me. Critics may have already settled into their anti-DC bias in our comic book movie era, but I appreciate any film that upends our established understanding of social structures, even if it is only for the sake of telling a superhero story with a punk aesthetic.

Warning: Spoilers to follow. Stop reading now if you don't want to read about the ending of "Suicide Squad."

Not surprisingly, the movie ends in a very traditional way: the state re-incarcerates those members of the squad who haven't died during the course of the film’s events. That said, while some of the characters are given little trinkets of compensation for their work, none are offered the full extent of what was promised to them by the government for their help. Even though "Suicide Squad" can't allow the villains to be outright released (this would go against the grain of the comic book movie format), it establishes that the government can only keep them behind bars by breaking its word. As the characters often state themselves, there is no honor among thieves. One can easily infer the judicial system is just as much of a thief as any of the criminals.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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