There comes a time when we all have to eat a little crow.
In 2016, Suicide Squad stumbled out of the DC Comics canon with an overzealous attempt to make a ragtag team of anti-heroes into box office stallions. Armed with a splashy trailer and a soundtrack packed with needle-drops from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and today, David Ayer’s film was a big, surprising box office hit—one that critics brushed off, and the Snyder Cut faithful regarded with muted enthusiasm.
Ahead of its release, critics trashed the movie and dismissed it as an attempt at pulling a Guardians Of The Galaxy. However, as Vulture noted at the time, “it’s a faulty comparison: The Guardians were just minor players, whereas the Squad has a long history of franchise failure.” This one looked like another stillborn DCEU entry for the pile. Suicide Squad’s production was an array of competing interests. One source told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016, “[former Warner Bros. head Kevin Tsujihara] was really pissed about damage to the brand.” Apparently, no one at Warners thought Suicide Squad delivered “on the fun, edgy tone promised in the strong teaser trailer.”
Suicide Squad offered yet another example of DC putting the cart before the horse in hopes of getting the DC cinematic universe moving without properly setting it up. NPR wrote, “Suicide Squad should have been DC’s answer to Guardians Of The Galaxy or Ant-Man — a low-pressure romp through the weirder corners of its superbeing sandbox, unencumbered by brand-maintenance obligations,” The film’s garish edge-lord stylization, franchise focus, and onset antics from method acting’s worst spokesperson, Jared Leto, were at odds with each other, a real Suicide Squad of ideas—and this one never figured out how to beat Enchantress. So how did the bottom-of-the-barrel superhero movie become the best franchise in WB’s utility belt?
Over the next four years, Suicide Squad would build its micro-universe within the larger DC mythos, becoming one of the few post-Snyder properties to expand the cinematic universe in creative ways. The move didn’t separate it from the goings on of the larger world, but the over-stylized aesthetic allowed its characters and filmmakers room to grow. This post-modern approach made for the most coherent and cohesive series of superhero stories, particularly on television, where the episodic nature of comic books is a more natural fit. All it needed was a little perspective.
After turning two idiosyncratic Marvel movies into massive cultural events complete with theme park rides, James Gunn became the target of a right-wing troll campaign that cost him his job at Disney. Disney’s loss was DC’s gain. Gunn managed to make fucking Groot a character popular enough to support a snack at Disneyland, and he would be the guy to figure out getting audiences on board with Rick Flag.
Gunn’s sensibility felt right not because of his work on Guardians but because of Super, his irreverent, sadistic superhero pastiche from 2011, where the director effectively finds a grounded perspective for his superheroes. He places them on the fringe of society and pins them with realistic problems, such as poverty, mental illness, and plain, old-fashioned pessimism. Superheroics are part of their problem, and they aren’t anyone’s solution.
By the time Gunn’s The Suicide Squad made it to HBO Max, expectations for the film were through the roof. Warners sunk another $185 million into more Suicide Squad and had yet to see any returns on investment. But the movie’s mix of gleeful, cynical violence and deep sincerity and love for its characters reflected the other successes in its universe (and Gunn says that “billions” saw it on HBO, so maybe this was the right approach). It had its heart in realism about the frustrations of being forced to do a job that’s deadly with people you don’t trust. And that frustration is all over Peacemaker.
With Peacemaker, Gunn returned to the same perspective he gave to Super, making superheroics a calling for insecure extroverts trying to prove their worth to a society that reviles them. “Sometimes I think I’m insecure in my masculinity, so I’m making up for it by having a dangerous pet,” Peacemaker (John Cena) says. “Like one of those knuckle-dicks in Georgia with a tiger on a leash.” The heavy stakes in Peacemaker and Suicide Squad feel grounded in humanity and strong observations of the superhero world. Peacemaker exists in a world where parental neglect and Batmite sit comfortably side by side. It doesn’t feel like someone forcing their vision on the characters, but rather showing how elastic these characters can be.
Everything about The Suicide Squad corner of the DC universe feels fresh and original in ways superhero movies don’t anymore. It allows itself to have fun with these characters, their lore, and what it means to have Vigilante in the same universe as Man Of Steel. The show has a looseness and freedom that gives way to a natural anarchic energy. Anything can happen, and it would make sense.
Suicide Squad’s first sequel, Birds Of Prey, improved upon the original film by putting Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn front and center. Director Cathy Yan locks the audience into Quinn’s perspective, avoiding the same sexist pitfalls of numerous other incarnations of the character. Instead, Yan allows Quinn to tell her story, marvel at breakfast sandwiches, and wear clothes that make killing a little more comfortable.
Quinn’s perspective drives the film, allowing the mayhem to breathe a little. Like the best superhero movies, Yan allowed audiences to see through the character’s eyes and relate to them on their terms. It’s a breakup movie about finding strength through friends and personal growth. Released in February 2020, the film never really overcame the whole world-ending pandemic that overshadowed the box office, which also claimed the box office returns of The Suicide Squad. However, it did provide fans with a spin-off cartoon series that, over three seasons, has become one of the best shows on TV.
Locked away in DC’s now-defunct streaming service, Harley Quinn quickly became a cult favorite, earning buzz among fans and critics. That success is due to Suicide Squad’s willingness to blow these characters up a little bit (sometimes literally), giving showrunners Justin Halpern and Patrick Schumacker the freedom to play with everything in the DC canon—no matter how stupid. And that playfulness has paid off. Harley Quinn plays with such a deep bench of characters that the show ends up joking and commenting on three generations of DC canon in the same scene.
But it isn’t simply about how many things the show can reference, but how Harley Quinn makes all incarnations of these characters valid pieces of the mythos’ tapestry. In the brilliant “Batman Begins Forever” episode, Harley (Kaley Cuoco) enters Bruce Wayne’s psyche to discover a grim and gritty perspective, complete with the original backgrounds from Batman: The Animated Series. There, Quinn discovers young Bruce is forever trapped in a memory loop, rewatching the death of his parents. Tapping into her psychologist training (though she learned more from watching Fraiser, the episode’s opening moments tease), Quinn walks young Bruce through his repressed memories, examining bits of Batman’s past, including Batman Begins, his Detective Comics debut, and the 1966 TV series. Admittedly, he had a few weird years, but seeing everything he’s done “all smushed together” impresses Quinn.
The result isn’t just another excuse to mock Batman’s goofiness, his savior complex, or his ridiculous belief that breaking someone’s arm is going to stop crime. It’s that these characters can evolve or devolve as much as they need. In the end, Batman still struggles with a relatable, human problem: A fear of being alone, misunderstood, and powerless.
There’s a juxtaposition throughout the show between character psychology and gleeful violence. Characters get away with the carnage while the show layers in more pro-therapy language and themes that Dr. Harleen Quinzel would know and understand. It’s not just an excuse to psychologize these characters but rather tapping into a fundamental truth about the character: She’s a psychologist with homicidal tendencies and would see the world in these terms.
But the heart of the show is the relationship between Harley and Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), which is startlingly mature, not in a prurient way but rather an emotionally intelligent one. The pair have realistic lovers’ spats that just happen to come up when entering Swamp Thing’s The Green or when they spot Harley’s ex, The Joker (Alan Tudyk), at a bar. Their lives and problems are given real dimension, where they must grow as characters to work their way back to stasis, adding weight and perspective to what should be a run-of-the-mill cash-in. It exceeds expectations by delivering on quality, both in terms of its story and its jokes, which, it should be noted, are very funny.
These shows prove that from the remnants of the Snyderverse, good things can happen. These investments are paying off. Though Suicide Squad’s initial incarnation was off-putting to some, in the end, it’s just another art piece for Batman’s gallery, one that’s a small piece in living history that can’t be undone by a misfire that led to one of the most profound moments in The Caped Crusader’s recent past.
If Warner Bros. Discovery is, once again, rebooting the DC universe to create its own version of Marvel, it’s reassuring knowing that Peacemaker and Harley Quinn will return to screens in their current states. Suicide Squad might have started as an example of superhero bloat and craven cash-ins, but it has grown beyond that. By treating their characters and audience respectfully, DC’s made something special: good movies and TV shows, not homework for what comes next.