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Suicide Squad: Dark brooding film in need of salvation

September 12, 2016 No Comment

by Ted Giese

suicide-squadIf the heroes of the DC Extended Universe are flawed characters, then the anti-heroes of the Suicide Squad are damaged losers. They are criminals and killers, deemed unredeemable by society and by heroes like Batman who rounded up most of them for incarceration. They are the dregs of the meta-humans.

Following the apparent death of Superman at the end of Batman v. Superman, the government is wondering how best to address the issue of superhuman conflict. “What if Superman had decided to fly down, rip off the roof of the White House, and grab the president right out of the Oval Office,” the question gets asked. “Who would’a stopped him?” An enterprising government operative, Amanda Waller, makes the case for a team of men and women with superpowers which the government could deploy clandestinely to tackle situations beyond the ability of other federal agencies or branches of the US military.

Waller had been gathering “the worst of the worst” super-villains in Belle Reve Penitentiary for this very purpose. The penitentiary is a secret government site run by a staff as rotten and morally bankrupt as its inmates. From this location, Waller plans to run her black-ops program, coercing into service the likes of the fire-wielding gangbanger El Diablo, the genetic abnormal Killer Croc, and the psychotic former psychiatrist Harley Quinn—girlfriend of the infamous Batman antagonist Joker. These and a couple more ‘disposable’ assets, along with their handlers Captain Rick Flag and Katana, are sent somewhere very bad, to do something that will probably get them killed. But if they succeed, they are promised some perks in the penitentiary as well as time shaved off their prison sentences.

The disposable nature of these coerced operatives is the thing Waller finds so attractive. They are fitted with explosives injected under their skin, they are told they will die if they disobey their handler Flag or try to escape. Motivated by a desire to continue living (and, in the case of the assassin Deadshot, a desire for his daughter to think well of him and for her to succeed in life) they agree to work for Waller. Together they take on an ancient witch called Enchantress, who is possessing the body of June Moone an archaeologist and girlfriend of Flag. Enchantress and her brother Incubus plot to use magic to destroy the modern world with its machines and computer technology so that mankind can again worship them as ‘gods,’ just as the Mayan Civilization had worshiped them in centuries past.

The whole story is far-fetched but at its root there is something worth thinking about: the way in which the Suicide Squad are taken advantage of. While they act macho, they are actually broken people, often self-aware of their sin. El Diablo, as one example, feels deep remorse for having burned his wife and children to death in a moment of anger. He seeks a life where he is able to resist the temptation to use his ability to conjure fire out of thin air.

Their hopeless state is brought out clearly in an exchange between Boomerang and Harley Quinn. Boomerang says to the other: “You’re amazing and gorgeous on the outside but you’re ugly on the inside.” Harley Quinn responds, “We’re all ugly on the inside.” This is as close as the film comes to an outright acknowledgment of original sin.

Harley Quinn responds, “We’re all ugly on the inside.” This is as close as the film comes to an outright acknowledgment of original sin.

On the one hand these characters are criminals who relish the fact they are bad guys. On the other hand, in their quieter moments, they acknowledge they are in need of redemption. But they have no hope. The depths of their hopelessness is revealed when El Diablo says of his lethal fire-starting abilities, “God didn’t give this to me, why would He take it away?” His wife had prayed for him. But he and the rest of the Suicide Squad are so hopeless that they can’t fathom why God—or anyone else for that matter—might want to redeem them out of love.

For these characters any glimmer of hope they ever experience in life vanishes as quickly as it appears. And, because they are so turned in on themselves, they easily fall into the temptation of works righteousness. Waller takes advantage of this mind-set. She dangles the promise of redemption before their eyes and they bite at the faint glimmer of that promise—a promise she ultimately isn’t in a position to fully deliver on.

For a Lutheran viewer, Suicide Squad becomes a sort of analogy of the bogus promise of forgiveness provided through the purchase of indulgences (for time off purgatory) or the more common practice of proscribed penance and works of supererogation (sacrifice above and beyond Christ’s sacrifice). It is a great evil to coerce money, spiritual devotion, and good works out of men and women in exchange for the promise of redemption and forgiveness. Christ Jesus has all ready paid the price for that redemption with His own sinless blood. He has already produced all good works and spiritual devotion sufficient for salvation.

Taking advantage of the squad’s pitiful estate makes Waller as much a villain as the super-villains she has under her thumb. At one point, when Harley Quinn first meets Waller she asks, “Are you the devil?” Waller responds, “All you need to know is you work for me.” For the squad, Waller may as well be the devil. She keeps them trapped in the bondage of their sinful criminal acts and the consequences of those acts.

Does the film glorify evil? Yes and no. With characters like the Joker and Harley Quinn there is a kind of Bonnie and Clyde twisted romanticism; and there is also a bit of “sympathy for the devil” thrown in for characters like Deadshot. Individually, the motley crew who are the Suicide Squad are hyped up to be “cool,” but as the film unfolds this hype is revealed as a thin veneer. In some ways, Suicide Squad is similar to heavy metal music—both have a firm grasp of the wretchedness of the human condition in terms of original sin, and the fallen-ness of the creation. But there is no Gospel offered, no grace, no lasting hope.

In some ways, Suicide Squad is similar to heavy metal music—both have a firm grasp of the wretchedness of the human condition in terms of original sin, and the fallen-ness of the creation. But there is no Gospel offered, no grace, no lasting hope.

The film even pegs “the World” as an antagonistic force blurting out things like, “You don’t owe the World anything … what has the World ever done for you?” which sounds a lot like the words, “What is the world to me with all its vaunted pleasure when You, and You alone, Lord Jesus, are my treasure!” (LSB 730). Such confessions against the World in the mouth of these super-villains are sadly empty when those saying them have no identity in Christ. The only grace viewers will find in the film is the grace they bring with them into the theatre. Any reward the Suicide Squad team members receive for their work on behalf of the government is fleeting and temporal. And perhaps that’s for the best since no one ever really gains pardon for their sins by virtue of their personal hard work. True forgiveness doesn’t come from the government; it comes from God.

Is the movie any good? Its overall delivery and tone is uneven. In many scenes Suicide Squad feels like it’s trying too hard. This may be the result of editing changes. Warner Bros. reportedly became concerned with the sombre tone of director David Ayer’s original cut. While Ayer insists the theatrical is his cut, the company Trailer Park, which produced an initial popular trailer for the film, was brought in to assist with the film’s final edit. In the end, the film is a compromise between Ayer and Warner Bros. who felt comfortable giving it their joint stamp of approval. As might be expected the fingerprints of this compromise can be seen by those who are looking.

Even after working to make the overall tone of the film more upbeat, Suicide Squad is still dark and brooding. Guardians of the Galaxy this is not. It’s violent and unpleasant in moments, and then in other moments goofy and farfetched. This is not a film for young children, and it won’t appeal to people disinterested in comic book movies. If there is anything positive in Suicide Squad, it’s that the film adds some depth to those minor villain characters who are normally nothing more than excuses for heroes like Batman and Superman to show off. They are presented as men and women in need of true redemption. Sadly, the film doesn’t provide any inkling of where that salvation can be found.

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Rev. Ted Giese is associate pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church (Regina, Saskatchewan). He is a contributor to Reformation Rush Hour on KFUO AM Radio, The Canadian Lutheran, and the LCMS Reporter, as well as movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program.  Follow him on Twitter @RevTedGiese.