Superhero films often critique capitalist society, but the front and centre exposition of US imperialism puts James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad in a new league, writes Lucy Nichols
James Gunn’s latest superhero movie includes everything you’d expect from a film set in the DC cinematic universe: violence, dark humour, and a victory for the underdog.
But The Suicide Squad is a far cry from the traditional: it is an entertaining (if slightly long) film that, bizarrely, openly criticises American imperialism in Latin America. Yes, it really does.
The film is no masterpiece, but it does what it says on the tin. In doing so it very cleverly subverts the superhero genre’s overt reverence of the USA’s military exploits in the rest of the world (or universe). It’s even funny, with Idris Elba, Margot Robbie and John Cena in leading roles.
The movie opens with Viola Davis (brilliant as ever) putting together a group of villains whose purpose will be to violently uphold American influence over Corto Maltese, a fictional Hispanic Caribbean Island that has seen a military coup take power from the previous US-backed regime, which was totalitarian and ruled with an iron fist.
The coup has placed a mystery Nazi-built weapon of mass destruction in the hands of the new military dictatorship. The issue here is not the existence of a WMD, but that the new government is vehemently anti-American, and seeks to take down the USA by whatever means necessary.
While not blindingly obvious, I’m working off the assumption that ‘anti-American’ is here an allegory for ‘anti-capitalist - in which case the movie criticises both capitalist and ‘communist’ governments, but this does not take away from its clever analysis and take-down of the American imperialist project.
The goal of the Suicide Squad is to bring this strange WMD into the control of the American government. The WMD in question turns out to be a giant genocidal starfish loosely controlled by a Scottish evil scientist (Peter Capaldi).
As with most superhero movies, The Suicide Squad is completely fantastical. It is so wonderfully ridiculous that it manages to poke fun at other movies for taking heroism too seriously.
John Cena plays Peacemaker, the ironically named villain of the film, who says arguably my favourite line in the film; ‘I cherish peace with all my heart. I don’t care how many men, women and children I kill to get it.’
Cena’s Peacemaker is an all-American villain, clearly poking fun at the likes of Captain America and calling out US’s and the West’s many ‘peacekeeping’ missions in the Global South that have had the opposite effect.
The other antiheroes employed by the US to take down the new government in Corto Maltese include a girl who is able to control the minds of rats, a shark/human hybrid with a warm heart, and a man who vomits killer poker dots and suffers PTSD as a result of his abusive mother.
Believe it or not, these are all genuinely likeable characters who appear to represent an aspect of the lumpenproletariat, rejected by all other parts of society. They are loyal only to themselves and their own morals, and it is thus unsurprising that they eventually turn on their government when they realise it is doing wrong – all but Peacemaker, who is unfaltering in his not-so-peaceful loyalty to the US regime.
I had low expectations returning to the cinema for the first time in 18 months, especially given the objective rubbishness of the last Suicide Squad film. These low expectations stuck around as the first half of the film had me believing that it was another exercise in promoting the US war machine in the form of popular culture (see Captain America, or indeed almost any Marvel film). As the film goes on, the Suicide Squad gradually comes to realise their position as mere pawns in the US war machine, and slowly object to their mission on a moral basis.
Idris Elba plays a blinder alongside David Dastmalchian as they fight their giant starfish nemesis, despite their CIA handler’s orders to let the starfish murder the entirety of Corto Maltese.
While this chaos ensues, Cena’s Peacemaker seeks to destroy evidence of the USA’s involvement in the creation of the star-shaped WMD, and Peter Capaldi manages to give an angry speech against US imperialism before (spoiler alert) being eaten by his giant starfish prisoner.
The Suicide Squad is every bit as entertaining as it sounds, although it perhaps does drag on somewhat towards the end of the film. It also includes an after-credits scene, which means you’ll have to sit around reading the credits for an extra five minutes if you’re interested in one extra tidbit from the movie.
There is nothing particularly radical about the characters, the plot or the mise-en-scene in the Suicide Squad, as fun as it is to watch their stories unfurl. What is radical is that an enormous multi-million-dollar film from an even bigger franchise would be quite so openly critical of US imperialism, especially considering this is a film that will be seen by many millions of people around the world.
Long gone are the days of watching WW2 Captain America single-handedly defeat a Nazi warlord, or of Iron Man – the billionaire owner of an arms company – taking down mystery space aliens in the name of good-old American freedom. In a world where the US imperial project is up against ever-increasing scrutiny for its actions from Palestine to Cuba and Afghanistan to Somalia, the Suicide Squad suggests a new era for the superhero genre.
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