‘The Suicide Squad’ Is a Dark Parody of America’s Imperial Fiascos

The supervillain movie demonstrates the possibilities—and limits—of the genre.

By , a freelance writer in Chicago.
Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2 and Idris Elba as Bloodsport
Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2 and Idris Elba as Bloodsport
Actress Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2 and actor Idris Elba as Bloodsport is seen in “The Suicide Squad.” Warner Bros. Pictures

The DC superhero universe’s Suicide Squad team, created in 1987 by John Ostrander, were always a critique of the American state. In the comics, the government recruits imprisoned supervillains via bribes and intimidation to take on jobs superheroes can’t or won’t—often tied to the murky corners of the late Cold War. The villains have bombs implanted in their skulls; if they try to escape, their handlers execute them without trial. The concept seems to have been lifted from the most paranoid left fantasies, echoing 1970s radical movies like Punishment Park. You end up rooting for prisoners, disdaining the simple morality of the super-cops, and questioning the motives of the feds.

The new movie The Suicide Squad picks up on anti-superhero and anti-security-state stories like The Boys, Invincible, and Watchmen to create the most cynical Suicide Squad story yet. Stylishly directed by James Gunn, the movie is steeped in a bleak and brilliant cynicism. The U.S. prison system and the U.S. intelligence services are presented as vicious, corrupt, and remorselessly stupid. And yet, for all its dark wit, the movie can’t quite help but end with a validation of imperial logic and American decency. The movie shows just how far a big-budget mainstream superhero film can go—and just how far it can’t.

The broadly panned 2016 film Suicide Squad was an unconscious brief for American global domination. The United States enslaves a foreign god, and when she breaks free and threatens to overthrow the hegemonic world order, super-prisoners mistreated by the same government nonetheless leap into action to righteously defeat her. It’s the story of a slave revolt that encourages you to sympathize with the slavers.

The DC superhero universe’s Suicide Squad team, created in 1987 by John Ostrander, were always a critique of the American state. In the comics, the government recruits imprisoned supervillains via bribes and intimidation to take on jobs superheroes can’t or won’t—often tied to the murky corners of the late Cold War. The villains have bombs implanted in their skulls; if they try to escape, their handlers execute them without trial. The concept seems to have been lifted from the most paranoid left fantasies, echoing 1970s radical movies like Punishment Park. You end up rooting for prisoners, disdaining the simple morality of the super-cops, and questioning the motives of the feds.

The new movie The Suicide Squad picks up on anti-superhero and anti-security-state stories like The Boys, Invincible, and Watchmen to create the most cynical Suicide Squad story yet. Stylishly directed by James Gunn, the movie is steeped in a bleak and brilliant cynicism. The U.S. prison system and the U.S. intelligence services are presented as vicious, corrupt, and remorselessly stupid. And yet, for all its dark wit, the movie can’t quite help but end with a validation of imperial logic and American decency. The movie shows just how far a big-budget mainstream superhero film can go—and just how far it can’t.

The broadly panned 2016 film Suicide Squad was an unconscious brief for American global domination. The United States enslaves a foreign god, and when she breaks free and threatens to overthrow the hegemonic world order, super-prisoners mistreated by the same government nonetheless leap into action to righteously defeat her. It’s the story of a slave revolt that encourages you to sympathize with the slavers.

At first, the 2021 reboot/sequel seems even more gung-ho about imperialism. The mission is to raid the island nation of Corto Maltese, where a coup has put an anti-American government in power. The new authoritarian rulers have access to an alien supervillain of mass destruction. The hard-nosed and ruthless agency director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) recruits the reluctant Bloodsport (Idris Elba) to lead a ragtag band of supervillains, super-weasels, and super-sharks to destroy the weapons program and protect the United States from a rival power.

The parallel here with the logic of the Iraq War is obviously intentional. And the movie presents U.S. intervention on Corto Maltese as every bit as disastrous as the 2003 Iraq invasion.

In the first place, Waller vastly overestimates the competence of her forces. Practically the first thing that happens is that the strike force realizes that one of the recruits they dumped into the water for an amphibious landing can’t swim. Things rapidly deteriorate from there as the film gleefully throws a bunch of big-name actors onto the body count—both for shock value and to illustrate that the people you thought were heroes absolutely aren’t. The Squad members are actually good at killing and surviving but are as likely as not to shoot the wrong people. They pile up the corpses with smug efficiency before realizing that they’ve made a boo-boo.

The United States isn’t just inept; it’s also corrupt. Given the usual tropes of superhero films and the cosmic nature of the threat, you at first assume that Waller is sending her team in to save the world as a whole. But through a series of expertly orchestrated twists, it soon becomes clear that the U.S. government absolutely could not care any less about the people of Corto Maltese. Waller is happy to see the civilian population tortured and murdered if it advances her vision of U.S. interests. More, Waller’s nationalist cruelty toward overseas rivals is explicitly linked to her equal disdain for the rights of domestic prisoners. The American security state chews up people at home and abroad with the same ugly relish.

And yet. Even as it portrays U.S. power as bumbling and brutal, The Suicide Squad can’t quite help but enjoy it. The movie carefully shows one prisoner behaving cruelly so his punishment at Waller’s hands seems like poetic justice; when he gets his, many people in the theater with me laughed. That belief in essentially just punishment is exactly the logic of the carceral system, and of prison rape jokes.

As with prison, so with imperialism. The heroic villains demonstrate their awesomeness throughout by mowing down large numbers of mostly faceless foreign adversaries. In perhaps the most breathtaking battle sequence of the film, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has her pale skin set off dramatically by a bright red dress as she spins and slices her way through dozens of nonwhite adversaries. Cartoon birds and flowers literally spray across the screen to underline her feminist empowerment, which is also, in this case, white American empowerment.

As this suggests, for all their faults, the Suicide Squad members are ultimately the heroes of the film. That means that the people of Corto Maltese are saved not by Corto Maltesians but by U.S. intervention. Superheroes kill people overseas or save them. Either way, their super-awesomeness is illustrated by—and built upon—overwhelming those people over there. A superpower is a superpower because it dominates the world.

There are some superhero stories that expose and reject the allure of imperial superpower. The TV show The Boys features the Homelander, a Superman-like character who is a rabid white nationalist sociopath. His imperialist fantasies are explicit, and that makes him both a beloved American celebrity and a terrifying villain in the show. The Filipina superheroine Darna has historically featured in narratives that downplay “violence and aggression” in favor of “redemption and salvation,” according to the scholar Cherish Aileen Aguilar Brillon. As a postcolonial superhero, Brillon suggests, Darna offers an alternative to American fantasies of superhero colonial power.

The Suicide Squad almost gets there. It tells you imperialists are corrupt; it tells you imperialists are incompetent. It tells you that when imperialists say they are going to save someone, it’s generally just an excuse to inflict violence and seize power. But at the end of the day, a big-budget American film is going to show you big-budget American heroes saving some grateful global populace. The Suicide Squad, rather admirably, turns its guns on its own super-self. But the bullets just bounce off, ricocheting inevitably toward the rest of the world.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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