One reliably amusing thing is to see pompous blowhards online complaining about “superhero movies” and how they’re effectively destroying originality in Western culture. It’s amusing only because it’s the exact same uninspired snobbery against “comic book movies” that we’ve been seeing for decades, but forced to be more specific about precisely what kinds of comic books are and aren’t appropriate. It’s kind of fun to imagine how snobbery will evolve into ever-increasingly-specific genres of disdain.
The Suicide Squad is kind of a superhero movie, but it is absolutely — almost fetishistically — a comic book movie. That’s the one thing I like best about it. The specific thing I like best about it is the above scene, with Peacemaker and Bloodsport casually murdering an encampment full of soldiers, and I don’t think anything else in the movie ever achieves that level of over-the-top nasty fun as effectively as that scene.
But it’s more consistent in its overall attitude, which is recreating a specific feel: a Vertigo comic from the late 1980s and early 1990s.
I don’t think the Suicide Squad comics ever actually got the Vertigo treatment, and from what I’ve seen of them, they didn’t have the same types of stylistic flourishes as books like The Sandman, Hellblazer, or Swamp Thing. But The Suicide Squad feels like a faithful adaptation from an alternate universe, in which a “For Mature Readers Only” re-imagined version of the comic series was coming out right alongside Preacher and the Grant Morrison version of Doom Patrol.
For better and for worse.
One reason the movie feels so “Vertigo-like” is that there’s a real feeling of freedom behind it. I think the biggest distinction between Vertigo and the rest of the DC comics wasn’t the Mature rating, since the regular DC line had been getting more “mature” for years. The bigger difference was that the regular comics felt aimed at an audience of 14-28-year-old dudes, while Vertigo felt like it was a playground for comics creators1Mostly 24-38-year-old-dudes to make the stuff they thought would be “dope as fuck.”
The Suicide Squad feels like giving James Gunn big-franchise money to make a movie as raunchy and violent as a trashy B-movie. With the exception of having to include Harley Quinn, it seems that he’s not beholden to do anything other than what he thinks should go into a comic book movie. For me, that meant that all of it felt sincere, even though not all of it worked.
For instance: the chapter title text that appeared throughout the movie. It felt like an homage to Will Eisner’s The Spirit — or, more likely, an homage to any of the dozens of comics that themselves paid homage to The Spirit — putting them in the environment, but too large or too prominent to be mistaken for in-world text. Putting it half in-world is one of those “only in comics!” flourishes that makes it feel even more fantastic and less connected to the environment than if they’d just overlaid text on the panel or screen.
But in this movie, it never really worked for me: it kept distracting my attention towards figuring out whether it was supposed to be in-world text or not, so that it didn’t register as a chapter title. Still, even though it didn’t work for me, it is undeniably a choice, and I like that the movie committed to it.
Contrast that with the previous Suicide Squad movie. I haven’t seen it, but I have seen clips of the movie introducing its different characters: it freezes the frame and puts up the character’s name and a list of bullet points with character details. I can’t remember where I first saw that gimmick, but for a few years there, everybody was doing it. Until everybody stopped, and the people behind the first movie didn’t get the message that it was no longer a thing.
One felt like following on a trend, the other feels like a more sincere homage. Vertigo was full of stuff like that: stylistic flourishes designed to please only the artist or the writer, moments of extreme gore coming out of nowhere, casually nasty or nihilistic subplots, direct (if not particularly sophisticated) political commentary.
It’s inevitable to compare this to Guardians of the Galaxy, even though the comparison on its own isn’t all that interesting or productive. But it does lend some credence to the simplistic and stereotypical idea of “Marvel Cinematic Universe” vs “DC Extended Universe,” though: both are working within a franchise, obviously, but the constraints of the MCU feel a lot more visible. DC has been more experimental, building its movie and TV franchises by throwing everything at audiences and seeing what sticks. I’m not a fan of Zack Snyder’s movies, but they undeniably feel like movies he wanted to make.
Meanwhile, Disney and Marvel have been so controlling of their franchises that even one of their OG superstars famously railed against the lack of creative freedom. And yet, at least in this case, I think the more controlled version is much better. Without knowing much about the actual productions, I’ve got little doubt that the Guardians movies were a lot less about artistic freedom and a lot more about design by committee. But I enjoyed those movies a lot more than I did The Suicide Squad. They didn’t feel quite as uniquely distinctive or uninhibited, but I think they work better overall.
I still think that the inclusion of Harley Quinn feels more like an artifact of the previous movie, or a mandate from Warner Brothers, than a real artistic choice. Margot Robbie is fantastic as the character — pretty much all of the performances are great, with Robbie and John Cena being stand-outs in particular — and her individual scenes range from pretty good to excellent, but it just barely feels like she belongs in the story. Her story doesn’t do much of anything to advance the plot, and even her best scenes feel like part of an obligatory side story. It’s an odd contrast, since there are so many characters that are clearly only in the movie because James Gunn wanted to include them (and wanted to cast his friends and family).
It’s probably not a good idea to extrapolate some grand unified theory of auteurs vs studios from The Suicide Squad, especially since the failure of the previous movie has been blamed on too much invasive studio control. (I’m skeptical). But it is interesting how much of a Vertigo vibe I got from this movie, and how nostalgic it made me feel, despite having absolutely no affinity for the license or any of these characters.
And it’s especially weird realizing that, just like with Vertigo comics, I would’ve probably lost my shit over The Suicide Squad if I’d seen it in the late 1990s, but feel that it doesn’t really connect with me in 2021. I don’t know whether it’s a sign that I’ve gotten hypercritical and jaded, or if it really is a product of a mindset that’s over 20 years old at this point, that I liked the movie but didn’t absolutely love it.
- 1Mostly 24-38-year-old-dudes