Sunday, August 7, 2016

JLU Scene-by-Scene: Suicide Squad Themes and Characters

This episode of the Justice League Universe podcast contains my initial reactions to Suicide Squad, directed by David Ayer.

  • Themes versus Subjects in Literature
  • Initial thoughts about themes in Suicide Squad (recognizing love as a human connection, friendship over leverage)
  • Waller as the villain
  • Comments on characters
  • Connections to the broader Justice League Universe
John Ostrander review
Mark Hughes review
Themes in the JLU
Thanks to @theLupeXperienc and @NickdeSemlyen on Twitter
Man of Steel Answers, Suicide Squadcast, DCU_Club subreddit

<Transcript of the episode>
Welcome, fans of the Justice League Universe. My name is Sam. In this podcast, I share my analysis of the Warner Brothers films that are part of the Justice League Universe. That universe has now grown to three movies, as we’ve added Suicide Squad to the list along with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Suicide Squad is the first film not directed by Zack Snyder, although Snyder was involved as a producer. But the direction here was done by David Ayer, who also wrote the script, drawing primarily on the initial volumes of the Ostrander run on Suicide Squad in the comic books, but with a healthy dose of New 52 Suicide Squad as well, and some of the filmmakers’ own ideas, of course.

If you’re new to this podcast, we usually focus each episode on the analysis of particular scenes and we make our way through each movie chronologically. I say we because Alessandro Maniscalco contributes to the analysis, but he is on vacation right now and so it’s just me for this episode. Anyway, our analysis tends to focus on character arcs and literary themes because those have been so rich in the DC Films thus far. We also touch on main plot beats, of course, and we will respond to some criticisms as they come up for particular scenes. But we don’t spend too much energy responding to critiques or nit-pickers because we’d rather focus our attention on appreciating all the work and creativity that go into these films.

So yes, we might be accused of having a positive bias toward these movies, but what’s wrong with coming at a piece of art from the perspective of trying to enjoy it and glean what we can in terms of depth and meaning?

Anyway, for the past 33 episodes, we’ve been focusing on the masterpiece that is Batman v Superman. With this episode, we enter the next phase of the podcast where we will be, for the next several months, analyzing Suicide Squad alongside the remaining scenes that we have for Batman v Superman. Also, by the winter, we want to mix in at least a handful of episodes about Man of Steel, because I absolutely love that movie and haven’t been able to feature it yet on the podcast. So from now until Wonder Woman is released next summer, we will be analyzing Suicide Squad, finishing up our thoughts on BvS, and also bringing in some episodes that focus on Man of Steel.

In this particular episode, I am going to kick things off on Suicide Squad by sharing my overall reactions and my initial thoughts on the themes and characters in the movie. This is based on only one viewing of the movie, so I’m sure there is a lot that I’m missing and I may even totally change my mind about certain interpretations when I see it again or have more time to process it. So please forgive me if, when we go through our detailed scene-by-scene analysis of Suicide Squad, some stuff doesn’t quite align with this initial episode.

So this episode is going to focus on my in-progress thoughts about themes and character arcs. Oh, and by the way, if you want to hear more from me about plot elements, events and production design, and more general, less literary analysis, you can check out my YouTube channel where I posted a reaction video with my friend, Jason Book. In that video, I explain that I thought the movie was very good but not great, and I gave it a 7/10, though I want people to know that I’m a pretty harsh grader for movies --- it’s very rare for me to give an 8 or higher. And I also want people to know that this 7/10 is only based on one viewing, and so I reserve the right to change my rating once I get to see it again and think about it a bit more.

Now, without further ado, here is somewhat of a brain dump following my first viewing of Suicide Squad, and based on only a day or so of process time, which consisted primarily of discussions of the movie with my wife.


So let’s start with themes. And coming from a literary perspective, recall that themes are different than the subjects of a movie or piece of literature, even though many people mistakenly refer to things like “identity” or “jealousy” or “family” as themes. Those things would be subjects -- they are an idea or concept that is at the center of the creative work. But a theme has to go further than that -- a theme is a statement or conclusion that is made about the subject, and the theme is articulated through multiple story elements, usually through  at least one main character and also some implication of the plot itself. So with, for example, Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, a subject of the novel is clearly justice, but to have a theme the novel needs to make some sort of statement about justice. Themes are often open to interpretation, but one theme for which there is some evidence in Crime and Punishment is the following: Justice need not be accompanied by condemnation. This is now making a point about justice, that to bring justice onto a guilty party does not mean we need to condemn them nor that they have to condemn themselves. The main character struggles to learn this lesson because his guilt is overwhelming at points, but there are also some characters who stand by him even knowing he’s guilty -- they help him face justice but do not condemn him wholesale. Anyway, that’s just meant to be one example of a theme being more than just a subject of the work, and that you should be able to point to evidence in the work that supports the theme.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that many works of popular fiction or popular cinema do not really rise to the level of literature -- they are focused more on just some characters with interesting personalities, or a sequence of events that is kind of interesting or shocking, but they don’t deeply explore a part of the human experience or a philosophical question. Luckily for us, the Justice League Universe is working hard to set itself up as literary works, even if people keep insisting that they be judged on a rubric based around non-literary action flicks or superhero films.

With Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, I honestly think that Zack Snyder and the writers kept the themes they were exploring at the front and center of their creative process. They designed Zod, for example, to directly explore themes of the natural versus the engineered, and to pit his vision of Krypton and Earth against Jor-El’s vision. In BvS, they designed Bruce and Lex to explore humanity’s reaction to god and power and the relationship between mankind and god, whether that be a hateful or a vengeful relationship.

In Suicide Squad, on the other hand, I think what was front and center for David Ayer and the studio was to adapt a comic book onto the big screen. I think they picked characters that would make for interesting team dynamics and designed a villain and a plot that would allow the team to move forward through action scenes and display their skills. There was a focus on personal backstories, which is a big part of the comic book genre, and those characters came to resolutions by the end of the movie, but it was more about personal character arcs than the characters representing larger philosophical ideas or themes.

I think Suicide Squad pursued some genuine emotion in the midst of the action and comic-book plot, but I don’t think they centered in on themes as much as Zack Snyder tends to.

Now, to be fair, even though I prefer Snyder’s thematic approach, I have to say that a lot of people probably prefer this Suicide Squad comic-book-based approach. It’s more accessible and it’s easier to feel like you grasped the movie upon the first viewing, and many people only expect to ever watch a movie once.

Nevertheless, I do think Suicide Squad touches on a few themes. So here I’m going to talk through a couple themes, and then when Alessandro is back and we do our complete analysis, we can check them out further and also maybe identify some other themes. The subject of the first theme is love and the subject of the second theme is friendship.

So let’s talk about the love theme first --- I’m still trying to figure out how to phrase it concisely, but here’s the idea. Love is a powerful basis of human connection -- and by this I don’t mean that the characters in Suicide Squad all fall in love with one another. What I mean is that if characters have love, and if others recognize that love, then that can be a basis of connection and respect amongst people. In other words, a theme that Suicide Squad puts forth is that you don’t have to love your neighbor or your enemy, but you do have to be open to the idea that they have people who they love and who love them, and once you recognize that love, it’s impossible to disregard them or view them as evil.

In looking for the evidence of this theme, I think we can definitely see it in the main characters. Deadshot has a sincere and deep love for his daughter, Diablo has love for his family, Flag has love for June Moon, and Harley as sincere if somewhat disturbing love for the Joker. We are shown these loving relationships, but more important is that others in the Squad eventually come to learn about these loves and this allows them to form bonds with one another. They can respect and empathize with one another when they recognize the love that the other has.

The theme is also reinforced by its counterpoint in Amanda Waller. She is largely a loveless character. Even when she’s describing the painful backstories of some of the squad members, she does so without any indication of empathy. Even when presented with the evidence of that love, she doesn’t actually recognize the love or connect with it. She also doesn’t seem to have any love for her coworkers, at least not the agents who she guns down mercilessly. She cares primarily for herself and the integrity or prestige of her ideas, even above others’ lives.

I think it’s also significant that we do not get a backstory for Waller like we do for most of the other characters. This absence of a backstory means that the other characters do not connect with her, and neither can we as the audience, so it sets her up very effectively as the main villain of this movie.

That makes me think of a related theme that might be at play in this movie -- if you know someone’s backstory, it’s harder to see them as evil. This is why we can come around onto the side of Deadshot and Diablo but not Waller. Even the Joker may be somewhat sympathetic, because we see in that scene with the acid tanks that his cruel joke to trick Harleen Quinzell into releasing him and then to trick her into killing herself actually turned around on the Joker himself, as he realized that he actually did love her and wanted to be bonded with her just as much as she was bonded with him. So even though he’s violent and unpredictably ruthless, he is capable of love, at least a twisted form of it, but it’s something.

Anyway, back to the main theme about love as a human connection, there is also evidence in the climax of the movie when Deadshot shoots with Harley’s gun and the chamber rotates around to show “love.” That seems like a clear decision on the part of the filmmakers and it’s a very important part of the movie, so that’s always a spot you want to look carefully for connections to major themes.

I also think the climax, with Harley’s big moment at the end as she defeats the Enchantress, connects to the second theme about friendship. Because she specifically refers to Enchantress messing with her friends. Harley also earlier had a moment where Deadshot knew Harley was communicating with her friend on the phone, and Harley said Deadshot was her friend too. The very first scene in the movie contained the lines, “You ain’t got no friends, Floyd.” And of course, the Squad actions overall and the bar scene show them developing a sort of reluctant friendship, as is expected in these sorts of team movies.

So what is the actual theme with regard to friendship? Well, I’m still working on it, but right now I would phrase it like this -- Friendship is more powerful than leverage. An alternative phrasing would be -- Friendship is more powerful than manipulation, but right now I’m going with friendship versus leverage because of Waller’s final scene with Bruce Wayne. She says, “That’s the difference between us. You believe in friendship, I believe in leverage.”

There is a lot of evidence for this theme. In addition to the stuff I mentioned earlier, there is also the main plot itself where the bombs are inserted into their necks and the Squad’s prison sentences are used as leverage over them. For Enchantress, it’s literally the heart in a box. Waller is the queen of exerting leverage over people. So the app that detonates the neck bombs becomes a physical representation of the idea of the power of leverage. But the team does not really gel and become successful until Rick Flag destroys the device containing the app and decides to rely on the friendship amongst the team. That’s a key moment and I can’t wait to analyze the scene in more detail.

The exciting thing is I also think the Justice League film is going to tap into this same theme, because we’ll be able to contrast that team that Bruce recruits based on trust and self determination against the team that Waller built based on leverage. Yes, the Squad was successful in the end, but it was not because of Waller’s leverage, it was despite it. Waller’s approach is actually what led to the Enchantress breaking out and causing all the Midway City havoc in the first place.

Now a few more quick comments about themes. I think there’s really something to dig into with respect to the false happy endings that Enchantress tried to push into the Squad’s mind before the climax, compared to the more realistic happy endings that we see with the Squad members still locked up but with a bit more of a sense of dignity and contentment. We’ll have to get more into that later.

I also read Mark Hughes nice review of Suicide Squad at ( and he alludes to a theme that I have phrased this way -- If people are still in touch with their humanity, then they still have a chance at redemption. Also, there was an interview with Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje on DC All Access where Adewale referred to an idea that I think could be a theme of the film -- namely, that even villains have souls.

So those are a few more ideas to think about, and I’m sure we’ll get into them in future episodes analyzing Suicide Squad. Or if you have thoughts on the themes, please leave them in the comments. I am also collecting all the themes that we identify for the Justice League Universe films over on my blog at


Now, with our remaining time in this episode, I just want to make a few quick comments about the characters in Suicide Squad. I really think the characters are a strength of this movie -- the characters and the performances, more so than, say, the action or the plot. So I’m going to run through most of the characters pretty quickly here.

First off, I thought Will Smith did really well as Deadshot. He played him as a believable assassin with an emotional core, and I like that he was more of an assassin than a murderer because we saw that part of it was just business because he was trying to make a better life for his daughter. It’s not like he was a deranged killer.

I also liked that there were allusions to his ex-wife but most of that was left unexplained, for us to infer or fill in the gaps. And I really liked how David Ayer made the drama around Deadshot as being based on whether he was going to take the shot, not whether he’d be able to make the shot. We know that Deadshot will hit his target, so the dramatic question is whether he will or he won’t actually pull the trigger. This type of drama was used early on when the clock was ticking down for his assassination job. It was also used with him and Batman, whether he’d be willing to shoot in front of his daughter, and also with Harley flying away on the rope, where he did take the shot but he intentionally missed. And then again at the very end of the movie where it echoed the scene with his daughter.

I think these were nice writing decisions because it would’ve undercut the character to actually try to make us think that he could possibly miss a shot and build drama that way.

For Harley Quinn, she was just very fun to watch and she brought a cool energy to every scene. I especially liked the quick glimpses back to her origin story with Joker and, as I alluded earlier, I thought the scene with the acid tank was brilliant. I also really like the normal family life scene with her near the end -- the way I reacted to that scene really showed that I had connected with the character and her desire to reunite with the Joker, and that maybe she does still have a part of her Harleen self underneath Harley.

But I think this was a good take on the character, and Paul Dini, one of the co-creators of Harley, said Margot Robbie “nailed it perfectly. … She just seems to have really channeled the true spirit of the character.” I also think there’s a lot to dig into between her and Joker and I look forward to checking that out in our detailed analysis.

Speaking of the Joker, I thought this was a fascinating new take from Jared Leto and David Ayer and I thought they used him just enough, because this wasn’t a Joker movie but he was an effective side-plot. But I thought he was creepy and deranged and I never quite knew what to expect from him and I couldn’t take my eyes off him during his scenes. I especially liked his scene with Common in the nightclub. Just like Common, I would’ve been terrified if Joker put me in that situation.

I didn’t like all the musical choices in the movie, but I do like the inspiration that Ayer and Leto drew from in creating this version of the character. There’s a bit of David Bowie and @NickdeSemlyen on twitter also pointed out that David Ayer made the Joker-on-the-floor scene based on inspiration from Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

Amanda Waller is another of the major characters and I thought she was one of the best parts of this movie, from her first scene eating that bloody raw steak to her final scene with Bruce Wayne. She was tough and ruthless and really the true villain of the movie. All of the events are thrust into motion because of her -- first because of her desire to form a team of meta-humans, which she chooses to do based on manipulation with those locked up rather than through above-board cooperation with the more wholesome superheroes, and then the main conflict arises because Waller got too cocky with Enchantress. Waller was basically playing with fire and the fire got out of control and then Waller was forcing everyone to risk their lives to save her and clean up her mess. The reveal that she was at the center of Midway City really raised my dislike for the character, but in a good way, and then that was topped with the scene where she takes out the innocent agents. Really classic Waller stuff.

I thought Viola Davis was great casting. And the famous Suicide Squad comic book writer, John Ostrander himself, who co-created Waller, said Viola Davis “embodied her to perfection.”

With Waller being the main villain, that repositions Enchantress as a kind of secondary villain with her brother, Incubus. I thought the June Moon stuff was pretty good and I liked the smoky witch version of Enchantress, but like a lot of people, I wasn’t really thrilled with the Midway City mystical version of Enchantress when she was partnered up with her brother.

But the important thing here is to realize that Enchantress is not really the main villain but instead is Waller’s mess that the Squad has to clean up. As @theLupeXperienc on twitter put it, the villain in this movie is just a personification of Waller playing with fire.

The link with June Moon was Rick Flag. I thought Joel Kinneman did a very good job as Flag. He balanced both the tough military guy who has to be the straight man to the personalities of the squad but also the love connection to Moon. I thought Flag had a pretty good arc, even if it was a bit cliche.

El Diablo was really good, I thought. He is a character who, instead of having a love that is still out there like Harley and Deadshot and Flag, he had a love that he’s lost. So that leads to his reluctance to use his powers, but then it also makes sense for him to be the one to make the sacrifice at the end because he is not leaving loved ones behind, he instead probably believes he is joining them, and in making that sacrifice, he saves his newfound friends who he knows have loved ones of their own.

Boomerang was funny -- the audience I watched the movie with laughed several times at his comedic moments. I also think he worked well as a bit of a foil to the love-based theme because he’s more of a straight-up criminal whose cynicism and self-indulgence serves to emphasize the connections of the others. It was also great that Boomerang being in the movie allowed us to see the Flash. Some people have said they wanted to see more of Boomerang, and although I agree that more would’ve been good, I really don’t think it was necessary for the story or the themes that were going on.

Katana had the love of her dead husband, and I liked the character design and some of her action, but I really don’t think she was essential to the movie. I have nothing against her, though.

Killer Croc also had a very good look, I thought, and I liked a few of his scenes but he obviously didn’t get as much development as other members on the Squad. But I did like the subtle mini-arc that they gave him. Early on they talked about him looking like a monster, getting treated like a monster, and then basically turning into a monster. Even though he didn’t get much development, I think that it kind of worked because I think Croc’s arc was that the Squad just accepted him for who he was and was proud to have him as a member of the team. They didn’t treat him like a monster or an outcast. So the point there is that if you accept him as a friend or colleague, then he can be one. And this point comes across without giving him a bunch of attention in the movie because the whole point is you don’t need to give him a bunch of attention, just treat him like a regular person.

Croc maybe could’ve had a few more good bits of action that made use of his special skills, but there were some nice moments with him, and I think I might even catch a few more upon second and third viewing.

Slipknot was great. I actually thought it was brilliant how quickly they just killed him off, because everyone knew it was coming anyway. And it was perfect to have it be Boomerang who was the one who talked him into testing the neck bombs.

I also really liked the prison guard in the first part of the movie. Really good comedic timing and chemistry with the other characters.

I also thought Batman was used just right in this movie. So kudos on that. It makes me very intrigued about what they might do with Affleck and Johns’ Batman solo film.


  1. Hi Sam,
    i would like to post you some readings that attempt to explain why critics don't like suicide squad. I'm kinda conflicted about it because some of what it saids is true regarding on why critics don like suicide squad. If you don mind i would like to send the link to you and I would like to hear your opinion about it?

    Here you go:

    Let me know what do you think?

    1. Thanks. I'll try to check that out after work today. Upon first viewing, I had quite a few things that I thought didn't work well (e.g., some emotional moments that didn't quite resonate, some aspects of Enchantress and the eye-guys that could've been better) but I didn't focus on them here, because my attention usually goes to the bigger ideas and trying to understand what the filmmakers were going for.

      But I'll take a look at what you sent. Thanks.

    2. Thanks. Looking forward for your comments

  2. So is Alessandro going to be part of the Suicide Squad Analysis as well?

    1. Yeah, I think Alessandro will continue to partner with me going forward. It's just that he happens to be on vacation and out of contact right now. (I don't think he's even been able to see Suicide Squad yet.)