Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” — As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? — Thus they yelled and laughed.
The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”
Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars — and yet they have done it themselves.
— Freidrich Nietzsche
Warning: The following assumes you’ve already seen the movie. If you haven’t seen the move yet, skedaddle for now and come back later.
OK, so let’s talk about this movie Suicide Squad, 26% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (really, Rotten Tomatoes? REALLY?!) and all.
First, audience. The audience isn’t kids — which seems to have pissed off a few reviewers looking for a bubblegum-pop superhero movie in the style of Captain America: Civil War. The audience is readers of the comics who saw heroes when they were younger, with all the dreams these heroes represented, and are now grown up and have seen reality hit them in the face.
The girl who grew up with princess romances of Disney before growing up into a woman who found out that ideals of romance are often unrealistic and have problems within them that can twist them into nightmares (Harley Quinn). The man who wanted to be a hero, and grew older just to find that the very passion that made him “successful” also has destroyed relationships he tried so hard to embrace (Diablo). The man who once wanted to be a hero with ideals that he has had to compromise in the face of harsh realities — realities that he wouldn’t have understood when he was younger, that may have resulted in a divorce, time away from kids who forced him to choose between his career and them (Deadshot). The man who grew up the ugly duckling, and was seen as the ugly duckling for most of his life — until he accepted the title; really a good person at heart, but on the outside the very monster everyone always expected him to be, which eventually forced him to embody that status in his actions as well (Killer Croc).
All these people, looking for the “god” of an ideal, grew up never finding it, and are still, like the madman searched for god, searching anxiously for the ideal.
That’s the first thing that’s necessary to realize about this movie. This movie isn’t just about the characters on the screen, so the complaining about the lack of character development (which I didn’t think was really lacking, to be honest) is missing the point. The movie is about the dreams we had that have died, and about how to be a hero when you image of who a hero is is dead.
That’s why the movie starts with a dead Superman, and the realization that the heroes in the dreams of ourselves that we hold in so high regard also threaten to condemn us. The ideal of Superman makes us all look weak, small, and ineffectual in comparison. It’s not that the dreams are bad, completely — yes, the hero ideal has done a lot of good in the world. But it has trampled those of us who aren’t heroes — us onlookers see our own lives dying away and feel perpetually unable to live up to the dream of our lives that is encased in the ideal of the superhero.
This movie is speaking to those of us who saw whoever our personal Superman was as our hero. And in this world full of consequences, what it’s saying is that this image of the ideal, cookie-cutter hero has to go. If we’re going to keep living with any sense of worth and dignity, the superhero has to go.
And in spite of that reality, we still yearn to be the hero, and that yearning gives us hope to carry on, while also imprisoning us in regret. Like Nietzsche’s madman, we are constantly to fulfill an ideal of a home we’ll never see.
Which is why the film opens with characters in prison — the prisoners are encased in their own failed dreams (literally — Deadshot because he couldn’t disappoint his daughter, Diablo because his rage burned his family away, Killer Croq because the stereotype people made based on his looks became his reality, and Harley Quinn because of her failed attempts to fight for her story-book romance) — and yet each of them holds out hope via the very thing that imprisons them, be it reconnection to a daughter, reuiniting with a dead family, breaking out of a stereotype, fulfilling a storybook romance. The yearning is clear in the beginning of the movie and at the end, when the witch shows each of them what their dreams are.
That dream is just around the corner — a hope of a “rising sun” just around the corner literally and figuratively imprisons them all.
That’s why the first song in Suicide Squad is “The House of the Rising Sun” — trapped where they are and where they want to go, with “one foot on the platform, the other foot on the train”:
Oh mother tell your children
Not to do what I have done
Spend your lives in sin and misery
In the House of the Rising Sun
Well, I got one foot on the platform
The other foot on the train
I’m goin’ back to New Orleans
To wear that ball and chain
Well, there is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one
The other songs are similarly carefully chosen. Harley Quinn’s “You Don’t Own Me” may seem ironic for her character, because she’s in jail. But she represents the attempt to escape (figuratively and literally) from society’s expectations. That’s why she put guards in the hospital. Her rebellion from the jail is mirrored by her rebellion from the psychiatric ward — two kinds of “prisons” that she escapes for the “Joker” — someone who represents a space outside of all the physical and mental efforts by institutions that tried to confine people’s physical and mental selves in institutional expectations. What makes her, her is that she is trying not to be owned, and is in that constant tension — a psychologist who embraces craziness, a prisoner embraces escape, a person desiring to be the stereotypical housewife (as is clear when the witch appears and reveals her desires) who embraces love in what is clearly a…let’s say “less-than-ideal” relationship.
And then “Fortunate Son” for Killer Croc. Killer Croc looked like a monster, having been born with the skin disease Epidermolytic hyperkeratosis. As Amanda Waller (more on her later) notes when introducing him to what seem to be department heads for the CIA, people saw him as a monster, so he became a monster. “Fortunate Son” is about people who are born able to have and fulfill ideals — but Killer Croc, like those he represents in the movie, was born fundamentally disadvantaged, was seen as nothing but a monster, and had to embrace that identity in order to survive (as people weren’t willing to see him as anything else). The relevance to racism here seems obvious. In addition, the song is known as a Vietnam War anthem — marking the difference between those who sent soldiers to the war, and the soldiers who were often demonized and permanently scarred from it.
Now, there’s the archeologist, Dr. June Moon. Her research leads her to, literally, find God. The fact that she shifts from Dr. June Moon to the Enchantress (who states, at one point in the movie, that she used to be worshipped as God), seems to clearly represent the struggle between human knowledge and God.
And in charge of these both, at least in the beginning, is Amanda Waller — the one in charge. This is a representation of order — the one who sets the line. She is in charge of the ideals each individual has — she is able to form them, grant them, and deny them. When asked how she can control people for the operation, she states: “Because getting people to act against their own self-interest is what I do for a living.”
The fact that she is telling the histories of each of the characters in the beginning is no accident. She has a hold of their stories — she is in charge of their stories and can give and deny them as she wishes. The message here is that the power of institutions — the people who can grant and deny your dreams — manipulate you to gain control over your actions constantly. This includes the institution of church, as represented by the witch, who once used to be seen as God, as the heart of the witch is in Amanda Waller’s hands.
Or so it would appear at the beginning. But the movie’s message is that those in charge of what happens to you often don’t have your best interests at heart. It advocates examining them carefully, suspiciously, skeptically — without taking their word for it. Amanda Waller, at one point, shows this clearly when she shoots several men who were on a mission with the Suicide Squad because their security clearances were too low for her to keep them alive and possibly talk. Blind sacrifice for an institution — be it the government or the church — is unhealthy.
Now, back to the witch. The witch eventually gains her independence from Amanda Waller and becomes a supernatural entity on her own. To get people to fight for her, she kisses them — turning them into her minions. And when the Suicide Squad nears her, they see how she does it. As God represented the promise of eternity in paradise that has stolen the lives of billions, she offers them the promise of a fulfilled ideal. All wrongs righted, and the dream of heaven fulfilled. All the have to do is give up their here-and-now lives to her.
The challenge for them is to accept who they are. And they do embrace it fully. Instead of being lulled into subservience by the dream of reuniting with his family, Diablo embraces the reality of who he is to fight her brother. Harley Quinn fights, and Killer Croc embraces who he is to do his part. And Deadshot has to actually defy his daughter and all distractions — a dream of an ideal that he cannot reach — to kill the witch/God.
The only way they can kill the witch/God and take back their lives is to reject the ideals the witch has to offer, embrace who they have become, and become, as Neitzsche put it, gods themselves.
Who then is Dr. June Moon. Human knowledge — but the movie has lost “god,” and June Moon, as a representation of human knowledge, is no longer looking for it.
But the movie can’t have a happy ending here. That would spoil the entire point. That would make them the very heroes that entire film is trying to deconstruct — making them the redeemed heroes that, in the real world, don’t necessarily exist for people with ruined pasts.
We can’t have a happy ending. The witch is dead, the ideal is dead…God is dead.
It’s just us, living our lives.
So they go back to their cells. They saved the world from domination from the witch/God by embracing who they were (or, as Nietzsche would put it, making the choice to “become gods themselves”), but that didn’t mean their lives suddenly got better. We outcasts of society aren’t the godlike heroes we read about in our story books. In our everyday lives, those are dead, and we have to own our own lives in the face of harsh realities. And that’s just life. The battle between what we’re expected to be and what we become. What we want to be and who we are. And we live for those moments when we can join each other and fight to be heroes, while still being the smaller-in-life heroes we are.
So the movie is fantasy, but it’s real life, too. Thus the beginning lyrics in the trailer: “Is this the real life?” (realistic picture of Deadshot), “Is this just fantasy?” (screenshot of more fantastical figure Harley Quinn), “No escape” (shows Killer Croc, who can’t escape from his skin and the stereotypes it traps him in), “from reality” (shows a brooding Diablo extinguishing the fire he wishes he could have put out so it hadn’t destroyed his family, a reality he can’t escape)… and after God/the witch dies, and the government is shown to be human and destructible, there is no inherent ideal; it’s just us without an authority to wave a finger or a God to give us a heaven; from those standpoints, “nothing really matters”…
And yet…we still yearn for hope, grasp for it, try to reach out for that next possibility…because, lest the movie end with the message that we’re all trapped in our cages, the Joker comes in at the end and frees Harley Quinn. We can’t help it. It’s what makes us breath our next breath, even if the chase isn’t something we can’t take seriously and isn’t something we respect. It’s not a moral to feel good about. It’s not the government-controlled order or a God’s ideals, but the embrace of, for lack of a better way of putting it, a joke with a pretty fucked-up “green light” as its punch line, constantly clashing in an unresolving wave against our past hopes and dreams.
As the novel The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald put it:
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
As I told friends…I’m not sure whether I liked the movie. But it definitely wasn’t boring.
Thank you for reading.
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