Read at your own risk! I had the opportunity to see Suicide Squad on opening weekend, and there will be some spoilers in this post. (Although with how discussed the reviews have been, I’m not sure there is much left to be spoiled…)
Before going to the theater, I stated to my friends there was one thing that would vastly tip my opinion of the movie between favorable and unfavorable: How they handled the group of villains, specifically if they would be true to them as villains throughout the movie.
I enjoyed watching Suicide Squad. I think it was a strong showing from DC, even with the problems in the film. If you haven’t seen it, you should. The reviews aren’t wrong persay, but I think (unlike Batman V Superman) that it did a hell of a good job for what a tall order it was. It introduced an entire cast of characters we’d never met while showcasing a fresh aspect of the world that is the DC Extended Universe.
Encouragement to see it aside, there were problems with the film. Which really is not surprising when you consider that it features a cast of characters who have motivations that don’t mesh with the idea of teamwork. Handling one villain, let alone the seven that are on the Suicide Squad (Deadshot, Harley, Diablo, Killer Croc, Captain Boomerang, Enchantress, and Slipknot) is a daunting task . The rest of the crew are of questionable character, including Colonel Rick Flag, the named leader of the Squad while they’re on the mission, or simply military grunts – for lack of a better concise descriptor – that had a limited role in regard to the plot. Katana, the last member of the Suicide Squad, had unclear motivations, and any connection to the version of the character that has appeared on the TV show, Arrow, is pure speculation.
When I’m editing a story, most of my first questions focus on what the villain/antagonist wants, and what lengths they would go to in order to achieve their goal. I want to know if there are lines they won’t cross, or if they have secondary goals that will influence how they decide to go about thwarting the protagonist. I also need to know what kind of villain they are – there’s a cornucopia of types. The Mastermind. The Crazy One. The Zealot. The Narcissist, just to name a few. And lastly, I need to know what their flaw is. The Lover. The Parent. The Hot Head. The Desperate. The Beholden. I think it’s fair to say that villains are a significant part of my bread and butter. Better, more three-dimensional villains make for a richer story conflict.
To date, I’ve also edited a book series that features a villain-turned-anti-hero (anti-villain?) as the protagonist. One of the core conflicts he fights through as a character is his struggle to “do the right thing” while feeling no emotional connection to the idea. For any villain-turned-protagonist, I think this is a necessary component for their character arc, especially to contrast the typical hero’s arc – heroes often do the right thing regardless of the cost to themselves, because they feel so strongly about right versus wrong. Right versus wrong are vastly different to a hero than they are to a villain. Writers who are tempted to pen a villain-protagonist should make character consistency a priority.
The big thing – the only real thing – that Suicide Squad did in its plot to address the collection of villains all acting against their self-interest was to implant a small explosive device near the base of their skulls. This was handled in a fairly straightforward no-nonsense approach. They highlighted [many of] the character’s reactions and even went so far as one character (Captain Boomerang) goading another (Slipknot) into becoming a guinea pig to test both if the devices worked, and if the person holding the controls was cold-blooded enough to actually kill them over an attempted escape. The answer is yes, they work, and yes, the person with the controls is that cold-blooded.
One other large question I had regarding the devices: how did they manage to implant Killer Croc? There are certain versions of him that have impenetrable skin, but unless I fell asleep for a few minutes, I don’t remember there being any added fuss to him implant than to anyone else’s. This could have benefitted from a bit more detail, and wouldn’t have taken much effort to resolve. Instead, it’s a dangling plot point that adds another tick mark against his mishandled character.
At the finale of the film, the plot point of the explosive devices became completely useless. Flag, who had earlier killed one of the Squad members – had a remarkable change of heart and tossed out the threat of the implants just before the final battle. Yep. The one thing keeping all those villains on their best behavior, and the person with the controls just let them go. The idea, at that point, was to highlight what the villains would do when left to their own decisions. In order to do that, the story placed all its eggs into a single basket – that the villains liked having the world as their playground. In other words, they’d save it from being destroyed because it was the world they knew.
This idea breaks down so fast it should make your head spin. Any character would have complex motivations, and villains are no exception. Depending on the kind of villain they are, keeping the world as it is just wouldn’t factor in. Plus there were characters that fell woefully short in expanding on their motivations.
There were four characters that the plot worked for, mostly: Rick Flag, Deadshot, Diablo, and Katana. Of those, Rick Flag and Katana are closer to “mostly works” than any sort of “definitely works”. Captain Boomerang and Harley are both maybes. Killer Croc is a flat no. Enchantress ends up being their main antagonist, so I won’t include her in the breakdowns.
If I was anywhere near the story plot discussion for the movie, here’s what I would have said: First, it’s simplistic. Second, it’s cliche. Third, I think it vastly downplays the villainous nature of those in question.
Deadshot has a daughter that he cares about, so wanting to keep the world as it makes total sense. The movie should have done a better job of showing how screwed up an affection like that would be for a career assassin. In the grand scheme, though, it’s more of a dropped ball than an actual plot problem.
Diablo had used his powers for personal gain for years, but he only ever tapped into a fraction of his real potential. He knew this, but he’d also slaughtered enough people that the idea of what he could do at full power terrified him. This was established exceptionally well in the story, making Diablo my favorite of all the villains. He had a solid character arc, and very clear boundary lines on both what he would and wouldn’t do.
Katana was barely established. In one scene of backstory, we learned that her husband’s death was why she’d become a badass with a sword. If she had unfinished business tracking down her husband’s killers, or some greater reason for living the life of a superhero beyond her husband’s death, then her presence in the Squad works. But if you give me a character who had spent years on revenge, or even just the fact that she could be resentful of her calling considering what had set her on the path, then I could show you a Katana who was not so attached to the world that she’d be willing to lay down and die for it. Yes, the greater likelihood is that she would want the world to keep on spinning. But it’s possible she might not have minded the end of the world if it meant having peace.
Colonel Rick Flag is a trained special operative who is tasked with leading the Suicide Squad. His relationship with June Moone, aka the Enchantress’s human host, is exploited by Amanda Waller, the Squad’s creator. Because he must listen to Waller’s orders, nothing about the mission is his decision. And while the villains decide to do the right thing because they want the world to keep spinning, it’s the opposite for Flag. Everything hinges on his ability to sacrifice June in order to kill Enchantress. Sacrificing his principals – whatever they might have been – for his love of June should have had him on such shaky moral ground that needing to see her die would not have been in the realm of acceptable, at least to him. And yet, he’s the one who kills her in the finale. The movie did not make a solid enough case for me to believe that Flag was capable of that.
Here, we come to Killer Croc, who had very little given backstory. Of all the squad members, he has the weakest motivation to keep the world as it is. Croc calls himself a monster. People are cruel to him even if he never threatened their well-being. The movie tried to build his motivations in the finale as tangible – that the Squad accepted him, and he was participating in the saving of the world to save them, not for the world. However, that predicates his character on a faulty lay-line. The decisions that led to his imprisonment meant he’d given up trying to fit in with people. Croc’s cynicism should have been deeply rooted, and it shouldn’t have been possible for him to put enough value on the Squad’s acceptance of him to risk his own life.
Whew, that got long winded, and we haven’t even gotten to all the members of the Squad. We’ll leave it here for this week and come back again for another post to wrap up.
Despite all the details above I thoroughly enjoyed the Suicide Squad movie. The plot does work, it just would have benefitted from some more well-thought-out attention to what motivates a villainous character. I might include a post about what I would have done, in the future.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What kind of plots disappoint you? Do you ever find yourself yelling at characters on the screen or in a book, wondering why they are doing (or not doing) something that seems painfully obvious? Have you ever wanted to rewrite a scene, or a climax point, to make it even better? What would you have done differently, in a favorite book, show, or movie? The comments are always open.